Ever since my son was born last September, I’ve been (very slowly) teaching myself how to play the guitar.  Thanks to a busy schedule at work and home, my repertoire so far consists of two Cat Stevens songs that both feature patches of awkward silence because I haven’t learned bar-chords yet.  And, like learning anything new, at times the process has been very frustrating.

One piece I have particularly struggled with is playing the opening chord for Cat Steven’s Moonshadow, which requires you to play a D-chord, but stretch your left pinky and hit the e string on the fifth fret (which outlines the melody of the song).

On Saturday (yesterday) I almost gave up learning the song because I figured I’d never actually be able to play the riff correctly.  It seemed impossible – my fingers just didn’t bend that way.

Then something wonderful happened, I picked up the guitar today (Sunday) and something was different.  My fingers moved in a way they hadn’t just one day prior and I was able to successfully play the riff.

Saturday it seemed impossible.  Sunday it was possible.  The magic of leaning something new – going from impossible to possible – never ceases to amaze me.  It’s truly one of my favorite things in the world.

I’ve had this same experience with understanding new concepts at work and in school.  One day the material seems abstract and intangible, then all the sudden it “clicks” and I can grasp the material in a new way.

What changed in my brain between Saturday and Sunday?  What “clicked”?

With my (limited) knowledge of the brain, I believe what happened was that I created a new set of synapses in the part of my brain that controls my left hand that allowed me to successfully play the riff.  One day I didn’t have the synapses and the task felt impossible.  The next day I had them, and I could play the song.

Learning is so interesting in that way.  Quite often the student (me in this case) doesn’t have an accurate view of their own progress toward learning.  One day something is frustrating, the next it’s not.

Think about it.  How many students, professionals, musicians must there be that give up on the eve of learning something new because, at the time, it feels hopeless and impossible.  What a tragedy!

What if we could use science to solve this problem?  What if it were possible to measure the creation of synapses in the human brain?

Sure – it’s not possible today, but how much longer will that be the case?  5 years?  10 years?

With the speed of scientific discovery, it seems likely that this will be possible in the near future (certainly by the time my son is in college).

It’s interesting to think about how this technology could change education.

Rather than having students listen to dozens of lectures and then perform a written test, what if we were able to track the brain activity of each student after each class to make sure they were creating the right synapses to fully internalize the lessons?  Students that are falling behind could be identified immediately and given remedial lessons.  Students there were excelling could be given extra material to further enhance their skills.

Maybe in the future it won’t be how you perform on a test that matters, but rather it will be how many new synapses you are able to create in your brain.

Interesting to think about.

Learning Something New