Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Make Yourself Uncomfortable: Learning a New Skill

This blog has now been around for over a year and is getting pretty long.  As a result, some worthwhile posts that new visitors might actually want to read are hard to find because they are buried several layers down.  In order not to tax their patience unduly I’ve decided to create a website, “the no body’s perfect archive,” that will have a rotating featured post from the past stock, a navigation system by topic with access to all posts, and, later on, some new cool features.  I’ve done websites before, though not recently, so I already knew basic HTML but I had assiduously avoided learning CSS.  To add to the pain, my HTML editor was HotMetalPro, now extinct and too obsolete to be of any use. 

I started off with SiteSpinner, an inexpensive and not-too-bad program, but it limited my access to HTML.  So it was on to Dreamweaver.  Since Adobe doesn’t provide a manual for this software (!#@%!!), I ordered Janine Warner’s Dreamweaver for Dummies right along with it.  The book was good except that it didn’t have any exercises to work through and, without knowing CSS, I still had trouble wrapping my brain around DW.  So I’ve spent parts of the past couple of months learning CSS from two good books, one by David Sawyer McFarland, the other by Eric Meyer.  

This has all brought me back to thinking about the experience of learning a new skill.  As I worked on CSS this summer, I was aware of four basic phases.  I started off feeling hopeful and confident (“This won’t be too tough – I can learn it in a couple of weeks!).  Then I hit a wall.  Procedures got more complicated and I couldn’t actually do anything with the new stuff I had learned (“Maybe I should quit.”)  A while later I found that I could actually start doing some CSS on my own, apart from the exercises in the book (“The fog is beginning to break.”).  The final phase, where I am now, is where the whole thing sort of makes sense, I can do a fair amount, but I need a whole lot more practice.  How hard it must be for young children, who have to do this kind of thing all day, every day, little hands struggling to wield a crayon or use a pair of scissors for the first time.  It’s awkward, time-consuming and, for an adult, embarrassing too.  No wonder we avoid situations like this!

But making yourself uncomfortable by learning a new skill provides some benefits (over and above having the skill itself). According to proponents of the new theory of neuroplasticity, activities that force you to focus your attention, that get you out of your comfort zone, are good for the health of the brain.  Michael Merzenich, who founded the brain-game company Posit Science, believes that learning a new language in old age can help the brain’s attentional system stay sharp (Norman Doidge, MD, The Brain that Changes Itself, 86-87).  Other scientists have demonstrated that learning can prolong the life of neurons (Doidge, 252).  If you do physical exercise too, you get an added bonus because exercise can stimulate the growth of new neurons.  So I feel a little better about the weeks of drudgery learning CSS.  I’ll keep you posted about the website.

Update, same day:  Just listened to "Brain Exercise," an episode of the public television show "Life Part 2," which had an excellent discussion about which activities help the brain as we age and the relative strengths and weaknesses of older and younger brains.  It turns out that older people have the edge when it comes to making important decisions and seeing the big picture, though they may miss some details.

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