Some of our students at NRS were discussing the idea of learning and how we go about implanting physical skills into our brain so we can recall them when needed. The article linked here (which I highly recommend that you check out) is what prompted this discussion in the first place.
This discussion lead me to put together this short blog piece on the process of learning and how we go about it. As is our typical way, I will use examples from our school (in this case fire building) but you can easily apply these ideas to any physical skill you want to learn. This could include driving a car, riding a bike, shooting a basketball, or playing a musical instrument.
Let’s start off by debunking an oft-quoted phrase that could not be any more incorrect. This phrase is “muscle memory”. Muscles do not have brains, therefore they do not have memory. Our actual brain does have memory however. The difficulty lies in putting a physical skill that we do with our hands inside of our cranium in such a way that it is recalled easily. For simplicity sake, lets filter the process of how we learn physical skills down into three methods:
- We learn by watching others do skills. (Visual)
- We learn by listening to other teach/talk about skills (Auditory)
- We learn by doing skills (Kinesthetic)
It may seem obvious, to others it may not, that the person you are learning from in the first two bullet points listed should be professional and qualified. Not only doing the skills but also in communicating them to you. Just because someone is a master fire builder, does not mean that same person has the skill to teach others. It takes equal parts, skill and communication, to be a good teacher of any physical skill. It is why some of the best sports coaches in history may have themselves not been good players of the sport they coach. Those coaches simply figured out how to communicate effectively about the skill. When you get an instructor that is both a good communicator and good at the skills, you should consider yourself fortunate. (If you add in a little shot of wisdom in your instructor, you should consider yourself fortunate and blessed). With that said, I digress. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.
Gabriele Wulf PhD, author of the book Attention and Motor Skill Learning, states that there are stages to learning. Let’s take a look at those and how they apply to our ability to make a fire (again, you apply this to any physical skill you choose).
Table 1.1 Stages of Learning (Taken from book)
|Stages of Learning||Characteristics||Attentional Demands|
|Cognitive (verbal)||Movements are slow, inconsistent, and inefficient||Large parts of the movement are controlled consciously|
|Considerable cognitive activity is required|
|Associative||Movements are more fluid, reliable, and efficient||Some parts of the movement are controlled consciously, some automatically|
|Less cognitive activity is required|
|Autonomous (motor)||Movements are accurate, consistent, and efficient||Movement is largely controlled automatically|
|Little or no cognitive activity is required|
The cognitive stage of learning is where we find the person who is new to the skill of fire building. They may have watched a few youtube videos, read a book or two. Maybe even taken a class but at this early stage the ability to strike a ferro rod properly, light a tinder bundle with a coal (or lighter) is awkward, never achieving regular and consistent results. What is important at this stage to determine if the person can articulate why it is not working? Probably not, again because it is new.
At the associative stage they are now making more fluid and regular strokes on the ferro rod, when they get those first flames on the tinder, they know how to apply the secondary pieces of wood to it and not snuff it out. However they are still working very much out of their head. They have to put a fair amount of thought into it and work through the problems as they arise. At this stage with a fair amount of experience, they can figure things without prompting, sometimes reactively, but oftentimes proactively. An example is they pick up tinder that is damp, and they know not to use it.
At the last stage, movements are autonomous, in essence there is not a lot of cognitive thought. The thought process must occur (remember muscles do not have brains). However at this stage there is not as much processing of information as occurs in the initial stage. When we pick up a piece of tinder, for example, we immediately know it is not acceptable for firebuilding. When we see smoke and not flame, we most likely already know why and do not have to process what we are seeing, hearing, or feeling to know.
What is the solution to us getting better at physical skills then? Quite simply you need to put in the repetitions of that skill. You can watch all the Bear Gryls TV shows you want, attend classes with all the best instructors in the world and you WILL learn something. That “something” lies only in your cognitive thought processes and not in your rote physical skill. Being able to recall it, and use it……is an entirely different piece of the puzzle. You must put in the reps to learn it.
Your next question should be, “How many reps is sufficient to learn the skill?” Great question :). We shall cover that topic in post somewhere down the road.
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