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The Learning Mindset (3)

Go Slower, Go Smaller

September 20th, 2022

Michael Landau

"The times are very urgent.

We must slow down."

Bayo Akomolafe

Photo: Dastan Khdir

People who start out with Feldenkrais classes often get disconnected, sometimes bored or restless. Some people hate it and never come back. We do everything so slowly, so small, avoiding effort… And then we rest.

What is this nonsense, they might think. Why waste your time doing hardly anything at all? If we want to improve, shouldn’t we be trying harder, make an effort, sweat and breathe heavily?

Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the method, knew about the Weber-Fechner law. This may have been one of the first discoveries of modern neuroscience. It goes back to the 19th century, and one of its formulations is the following:

"Simple differential sensitivity is inversely proportional to the size of the components of the difference; relative differential sensitivity remains the same regardless of size."

??? Eh, what ???

If you don’t understand it, don’t worry. Neither do I. But I can tell you what it’s about. These scientists found a mathematical formula that describes how the human brain perceives differences. An example would make it much clearer:

In order to perceive a difference in weight, the stimulus must change by at least 1/40. For example:

If I carry a 40 kg box, in order for me to feel a difference you’ll have to add or subtract more than 1 kg.

If I hold a 40-gram piece of paper, I will notice a difference of just above 1 gram. The ratio stays the same. The difference in sensitivity is notorious.

There is a similar regular ratio for any kind of stimulus. Sight, sound, pressure, etc. If I light a candle behind you on a sunny day you are not likely to notice it. If I light a candle behind you in a dark room, the difference would be easily noticeable. Right?

Now it’s clear, isn’t it? It describes a very simple fact that you may even find quite intuitive: when your muscle tonus is low, you are much more sensitive. You perceive very small differences. And the perception of differences is what makes learning possible; small differences in perception bring about small changes in our behaviour, and in how we see ourselves and the world around us.

Feldenkrais knew it, and he developed his method with this law in mind.

Anat Baniel, one of Feldenkrais’s assistants and a great teacher in her own right, describes it like this: For learning to occur, receiving a stimulus isn’t enough. The brain must perceive a difference.

I don’t know if there’s a law that describes the same effect for slowness. But we know it from experience: When we are learning a new skill, our brain isn’t fast enough to absorb details at the speed of a skilled individual. We must slow down to be able to grasp all the details involved. If we get impatient and hurry, we are likely to mess it up, or at best do a lousy job.

Going slow and small optimises the learning process. It takes you out of performance mode, where you want to achieve, to get things done. It allows you to just observe. In the slow-and-small moments you are open to receive new information. You’ve stepped out of the rat race. You signal the universe to send wisdom your way.

Slow and small is a mature way of learning. Children don’t bother to go slowly. But they spend years and years in learning mode, where they play, try new things, absorb the world and make sense of it. They have time to not be terribly efficient in their learning process. They don’t have to make a living or raise a family.

As adults, given that we have so little time invested in learning, we must optimise. We are always in a hurry, so we have no choice: we must slow down and go small.

It makes sense, but we tend to forget it very often. We want to get it quickly, whatever “it” is. So we hurry. We get stressed, our general muscle tonus increases, we go faster than our current ability justifies. As a consequence, we learn more slowly, and not as well. We are likely to reach only mediocre dexterity. Besides, the learning process isn’t as pleasurable as it can and should be.

You want to learn well, reach a higher level of skill, and have fun doing it? Then, don’t try so hard; go small, and slow down.

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Want to hear some more on the learning mindset? I recommend this short TED talk (11 minutes) that beautifully defines the differences between “Performance Zone” and “Learning Zone”.
Eduardo Briceño: How to get better at things you care about

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