Exhausted Learning

Posted on February 27, 2012


I had an interesting experience last night. I was on a flight home from a bachelor party and was completely drained. I couldn’t even muster the effort to read a book. Basically I was in TV zone.

I love moments like this because they allow me to pay attention to what I am able to do when my I don’t have the energy for any higher-level thinking.

There were a few things I was able to do that were more enjoyable than tv:

  1. Read a short article/blog post (interesting that I didn’t have the energy to read my book, but reading blog posts felt fine)
  2. Play a puzzle game on my IPhone

I’m not entirely sure why articles are easier to read than books, but I think it has to do with how much of your working memory you need to load up in order to read a book, as there is much more context that is important in a book vs. an article. That’s my theory at least.

I continue to be amazed by the potential of puzzles, though.

Here I was, late at night, with barely enough energy to watch TV and I had enough energy to try and solve a fairly complex puzzle. I actually never did solve it because it was quite challenging, but I enjoyed working on it despite not having enough energy to read a book.

I think this is very key when it comes to learning. We need to be working on ways to help people learn that they can engage with when they are exhausted. As Kahneman notes, humans are very good at some things, like pattern matching and solving puzzles. In fact they take less mental energy than trying to hold just 7 numbers in your head. Pattern matching is what he describes as a System 1 responsibility while memorization is a System 2 responsibility and we have to use a lot more energy if we engage System 2.

The more we can figure out ways to communicate learning through means that engage System 1 to the level that people want to do them even when they are exhausted, the more effective that learning will be. I think this is a very hard challenge, but I think the payoff could be very significant.

Peanutty! does this right now, but now well enough yet (it’s fun, but there’s just not enough to do on the site yet), and I have an idea of how to do this with foreign languages that I’m going to start playing around with next. I’m not very optimistic that I can find that sweet spot where I would want to use these sites to learn even when I am completely exhausted, but I’m going to try regardless.