Learning How To Learn

The ideas presented herein come from Farnam Street blog.

Lets get started…

With the advent of the internet age, one of life’s biggest problems is learning how to learn. Schools and even universities (for the most part) throw a bunch of information and facts at us, expecting us to ROTE learn them and regurgitate them in an exam. For most of my life this is how I’ve learned. It worked pretty well for me at school. I mastered the art of cramming for tests and I got good grades, but beyond the classroom this method seems to be failing me.

The next biggest problem is learning what to learn. There is an abundance of information out there, taking the form of blogs, websites, wiki entries, books, essays, academic papers and podcasts (the list goes on), that it almost becomes overwhelming. Having completed a bachelors degree, I finally have the freedom to curate my own information diet, so to speak. But where does one begin? What’s actually worth my time? I could read endlessly but not actually absorb anything worth learning. How does one cull the wheat from the chaff? Amazon reviews are a decent place to start when it comes to deciding what books to read next, but its not enough. My daily information diet consists of far more than books, so how does one begin to organize not only their information intake, but the way it is organized in their mind, to get the best bang for their buck?

Too much information, too little time! 

Shane Parish, the author of the Farnam Street blog, argues that we can absorb the most valuable information by studying only the biggest and most important ideas from the biggest disciplines: physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature, history, etc. Instead of attempting the seemingly impossible and foolish task of memorizing facts from all these disciplines, we need only to digest the big ideas and a few colourful examples which help us to apply these ideas to life. This is the process of forming a latticework of mental models: a way of mentally organizing information in a form that is both memorable and applicable to life. With these models in place we are better prepared to analyze a wide variety of situations and make better decisions.

This approach to learning comes from the ideas of Charlie Munger, who said that “developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do.”

  1. We need a latticework of theory on which to hang our facts. Isolated facts are useless without the context required to understand and apply them.
  2. The more models the better. With only a few models we unconsciously manipulate our experience of the world to fit with our preexisting notions of the way the world works. By accumulating a number of models from a variety of disciplines we reduce the change of being afflicted by confirmation bias and other similar quirks of human psychology. All the wisdom in the world is not confined to one discipline.

“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

But we still don’t know where to look for these models. When learning about anything you will start to identify recurring themes hidden sporadically among the millions of random facts. These are the diamonds in the rough, the core principles that govern the field, and these are precisely the mental models that we should try to accumulate. The secret is to acquire as many diverse core principles as possible. It isn’t enough to have one grand unified theory of the world, one great mental model, because you will all too often forget that a good idea has its limits.

“The best antidote to this sort of overreaching”, argues Parish, “is to add more colors to your mental palette; to expand your repertoire of ideas, make them vivid and available, and watch your mind grow.”

At this point thinking takes on a whole new form, in which good ideas begin to compete with each other for superiority. That’s when the real learning happens.


Evolutionary Psychology Offers A Fresh Perspective On Depression


It must be incredibly difficult to imagine the maddening reality of living with a mental illness for someone who has never experienced it first hand. We all feel blue from time to time, but few ever experience the debilitating inability to feel joy, constant fatigue, and mind-numbing impediment of thought accompanied by major depressive disorder. William Styron once described it as being attached to a bed of nails which one carries around wherever they go, and in my experience this is strikingly accurate.

Yet for all its unpleasantness the noonday demon seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Darwin’s legacy was that evolutionary pressures shape not only our physical characteristics but our mental and behavioural processes as well. This being the case, how is it that an illness characterized by a myriad of symptoms so obviously detrimental to evolutionary fitness – decreased cognitive function, a loss of interest in sex, socializing, and exercise, not to mention suicide – has persisted?

Not only has depression not been wiped out through the course of natural selection, it is now – and I believe rightly so – considered an epidemic. The global burden of depression is soaring; the latest estimates by the World Health Organization place the global prevalence of depression at three hundred and fifty million worldwide [1], and in the last forty five years alone the annual rate of suicide has increased by sixty percent [2]. Despite our best efforts in the development of behavioural therapy, pharmacological treatment, and psychological theory the depression epidemic shows no signs of letting up. We are losing the fight against depression.

Continue reading Evolutionary Psychology Offers A Fresh Perspective On Depression

What The Split Brain Reveals About The Nature Of Consciousness

“Conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious. There is nothing we know about more directly than consciousness, but it is far from clear how to reconcile it with everything else we know.”

– David J. Chalmers

WE ARE ALL intimately familiar with that voice in our heads, nagging as we reach for a second helping of chocolate eggs in the wake of Easter, and judging as we have to settle for a looser belt hole a week later. We are all also accustomed to the different masks we wear in various social situations. I would be ruthlessly mocked could my close friends see the way I behave around my girlfriend, snuggled on the couch on a Sunday night, and my parents would be hard pressed to recognize me. But this apparent discontinuity is a perfectly normal aspect of human existence – psychologists have long known that situation exerts a significant influence on personality – and I have never experienced anything which would seem to indicate that there was more than one self calling the inside of my skull home. As a matter of conscious experience, I am just as much me whilst goofing around with my girlfriend as I am typing this essay and sipping green tea. But am I really? As a result of a fascinating avenue of inquiry involving patients who have had the hemispheres of their brain surgically separated, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have begun to argue that there is every reason to believe in the divisibility of consciousness – the existence of a separate centre of consciousness in each of the divided hemispheres – and you and I might not be as different to these patients as we think.

Altered States: The Psychedelic Antidote to Modern Culture, A Review of Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head

“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” – René Descartes

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” – Voltaire

THE UNIQUE THING about psychedelics is that they provide the user with direct access to subjective realms so inconceivable to “normal” waking consciousness. These altered states, emphatically, seem to catalyse a transition towards “abnormal” or “alternative” lifestyles and belief structures. Turns out that turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is decidedly incompatible with modern Western neo-libertarianism, but psychedelics might be just the tool we need to counter the ever growing threat of consumerism in Western society.

So I ask you to suspend your disbelief, at least for the duration of this article, as you imagine that everything you thought you knew about drugs was wrong. Studies in behavioural economics and cognitive science have taught us that our realities are shaped to fit our belief systems and cognitive biases, whilst the mass social experiments conducted by Edward Bernays in the wake of the First World War taught us that “public relations” (the politically correct term for propaganda) could subtly but powerfully mould the collective mind of the population to fit with the ideals of a select few individuals. Do you see the problem? Individuals are slowly but surely losing control over the one thing that can be truly be called theirs – their minds – and this process is so immersive that we need an incredibly powerful tool to undo the processes. Psychedelics are just that tool.

Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head examines how certain substances, held in such high esteem throughout the world’s indigenous cultures, are not only repressed but ridiculed in contemporary Western culture.The use of psychedelics is documented to date back 75,000 years throughout indigenous shamanic cultures, where they are revered as sacred technology, awakening the mind to new levels of awareness. Shamanic use continues today in secluded pockets of the world where visionary plants are worshiped like gods; their use and the knowledge they convey constantly challenged by the encroachment of Western ideals.

Breaking Open the Head is part seeker’s memoir, part psychonaut’s field guide, and part anthropological investigation into the world’s shamanic cultures, and it makes a compelling argument for the role of psychedelic awakening in global change.

Continue reading Altered States: The Psychedelic Antidote to Modern Culture, A Review of Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head