Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Element of Surprise

Did you know that your brain is more likely to learn when the unexpected happens than when things are predictable?

Recent research at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that the learning centers of your brain go on "stand-by" when you engage in repetitive and familiar actions, such as driving the same route each day, or when mechanically going through your workout. Since the action is familiar, there's no need for the brain to encode new information. However, when the unexpected happens -- a deer jumps out onto the road, or you make a novel movement in a Feldenkrais class -- it seems that your brain and nervous system are wired to encode the new information. When new encoding takes place, we call it learning. You can read a summary of the research in a short article here.

As humans, we have competing needs for security and for novelty. When economic times are tough, and as we age, we want more security and predictability. We learned at a very young age that not all surprises are good ones. However, it may be time to heed the words of futurist Alvin Toffler: The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

When I read the article cited above, I immediately thought of a recent incident. Last Saturday, I attended a dynamic gathering called FreelanceCamp Houston. It was a user-generated conference, meaning that anyone who wanted to make a presentation could do so, by signing up for a time and a room. Organizers and sponsors, notably the Houston Technology Center, Werkadoo, Angelo's Pizza, The CoffeeGroundz, Caroline Collective, and St. Arnold's Brewery, arranged for the location and the amenities: in other words, a minimal structure in which the day could unfold. The participants were the "experts," sharing their knowledge, helping each other, and making connections for the possibility of new business. At the end of the day, we were asked to give feedback to the organizers to use for the next event. Let me summarize what one person said: "You need to have more descriptors in the promotional materials so that people will know exactly what is going to happen. That's important to me if I'm deciding whether to give up a Saturday." On the one hand, that's a perfectly logical request. On the other hand, if you already know what something is going to be about, why engage at all? Isn't the point of learning that you are willing to have, and are seeking, a new experience?

Learning takes place throughout life. You don't have to enroll in a class, or attend a conference to learn, although those are great and convenient possibilities. The best way to learn is simply to be aware of your surroundings, of your sensations, and your self, and to be awake and curious to observe the novel and the non-habitual. This is the essence of aliveness, isn't it?

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Barbara McCool said...

I wish I lived in Houston so I could have gone to the 'let's see what happens' meeting. The person who wanted all the structure doesn't understand synchronicity... so needed in today's uptight, tense world. Thanks, Mary Beth, for all you do to keep us smooth and alive. Barbara

MaryBeth Smith said...

Thanks, Barbara! You would have LOVED the FreeLance Camp. Watch in your area for notices about "BarCamp" (has nothing to do with bars) -- the original user-generated conference.