Part of our required readings/viewing for this week is the video I’ve linked. It’s called ‘Alan Kay on Learning’ and is definitely worth a look. It only goes for 10 minutes but it had enough of an effect on me to be the focal point of this weeks blog post.
In the video Alan Kay shows another video (video-ception!!) taken from Harry Reasoner’s 1975 show. The video is challenging a publication which suggested that anyone can learn to play tennis if they don’t really try to. You’re probably thinking what I was thinking at first – in a nutshell: “…what??”
The concept behind the theory is that if you distract your brain and make it focus on something menial or boring you will stay calm and as such perform better. As the video says, you need to “put the mind somewhere that it can stay calm”.
In the video, the researcher takes a group of people who have never played tennis before and tries to teach them. He then selects the worst athlete – Maude – and focuses on her. Maude is in her 50s and 40 pounds overweight, as they say in the video. She hasn’t even exercised in 20 years. Despite these factors, with just 20 minutes of teaching from the researcher, Maude does surprisingly well and manages to consistently hit the ball.
Speaking as someone who has about equivalent sporting ability as a dead cow, this really intrigued me. It challenges the concept of Embodied Cognition, which “holds that the nature of the human mind is largely determined by the form of the human body” (Wikipedia 2014, Embodied Cognition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_cognition). By focusing on the simple instructions given by the researcher, Maude’s mind is acting beyond the presupposed limitations of her body (as she isn’t athletically built and doesn’t have the muscle tone built up by experienced tennis players).
When I started considering the notion of the video I realised that despite my lack of sporting ability (or inclination), it’s very easy to find examples of it in everyday life. People tell you to take “deep breaths” when you’re nervous about something. Aside from the oxygen to your brain keeping you alive, it’s something for your mind to focus on that isn’t the task at hand. My first day at a new job I’ll be nervous and likely get a bit flustered. When I remind myself to take deep breaths everything is much easier because you calm down.
As Maude says in the video – “when you just stop thinking, the body seems to know what to do”.
The first step in learning to play tennis that the researcher teaches Maude is to watch the ball, and as it approaches to say (out loud) “bounce” (as it bounces) and “hit” (as she hits it). This is focusing Maude’s mind on one simple, repetitive and somewhat boring aspect of the sport. The rhythmic pattern no doubt adds to this. Similarly, when he is teacher her “a dance called the serve” (aka how to serve the ball), he tells her to hum a rhythm which coordinates with the action of serving. This not only distracts Maude but makes the motion more natural to her.
When I run I use the same principle. If I actually focus on the fact that I’m running I get tired quickly and my breath tends to be sporadic. Instead, I count in my head in time with the steps I’m taking: breathe in on “one, two” and out on “three, four”. Distracting my mind from what I’m actually doing kind of puts my body into autopilot, which is exactly what is happening in the video.
Right around here I should probably relate this to media and communication. At first I was quite daunted by the prospect, but when I relaxed and stopped thinking “I need to finish this blog!!” I found some examples.
Class presentations, for instance. Have you ever found that when you’re concentrating so hard on how you present yourself and what you say that you forget what you’re talking about? When I give a class presentation I know the topic inside and out. In a casual conversation I could probably ramble on about the topic for an hour but when I’m in front of the class my brain is too busy thinking “argh, did I use the technical term there?! Will I lose marks for that??” Simply breathing and thinking about the topic rather than the presentation lets it flow a lot better. This could be applied to a lot of communication contexts where there is a high need to impress the person or people you’re communicating with, such as job interviews and meetings.
On that note, I’ve distracted myself from the fact I’m probably going to be late for class that and rambled for probably far too long. Until next week, breathe!
Alan Kay on Learning, Youtube Video (2008): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50L44hEtVos
Wikipedia (2014) Embodied Cognition, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodied_cognition