Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isolation of Interest: More thoughts on Learning

 If you ever want to get better at learning, become a teacher—you will see all of the things people do that stop themselves from learning. One thing we do that blocks us from learning is that we listen/read with an agenda. In magic this is called isolation of interest.

Here is a story I have told before, but to make a different point, about a magician who was teaching a class on magic in Las Vegas. While at a craps table, he told the students that he would roll a seven. He passed the dice around to be examined to make sure they were normal dice. They passed inspection.

Then, as he said, the magician rolled a seven—to much amazement and applause. But he topped that by pointing out that the dice he passed around were red and that the dice on the table were green.

By telling the spectators that he was going to roll a seven, he isolated their interest and they never noticed him switch the dice. This kind of mono-focus makes us blind and deaf to all other things. Magicians know this very well.  In cognitive science it is known as selective attention.
If you listen to a teacher with an agenda, you will only listen for things relevant to that agenda and miss, or dismiss, everything else.

I once taught a person who had studied geology. She told me that her professor once gave a test where he laid several rocks in a row on the table and the students had to correctly identify them. No one noticed, but all of the rocks were of the same type.

When the professor revealed this fact he told them, “The eye seldom sees what the mind does not anticipate.”

The students had blinded themselves by looking only for what was different about the rocks; they could not see what was similar about them.

People can be so good at isolation of interest that I guarantee that there is someone who is reading this blog post right now and asking themselves what geology has to do with storytelling. They will fail to see any reason for me telling this story.

Another way people stop themselves from learning is to assume that they understand an idea at first blush. In the West, and in American in particular, we like to get things quickly. We think it makes us smart. This is reinforced by the educational systems. Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book Outliers.

I think this rush to understand things forces us to grasp ideas and concepts at only their most basic levels. We understand things on the surface, but are unaware that there are layers and layers beneath that can takes years to uncover. In Zen practice, they understand the value of deep contemplation—there is no rush to “get it.” 

I have noticed that the people who actually don’t “get it” are often the people who think they get it quickly. Those are the people who never look any deeper. But that is like looking at the surface of the ocean and believing that that’s all there is to it. There’s a whole world underneath that you’ll never see if you don’t take the time to look.

I spoke with a woman not too long ago who was stuck on the ending for a short story she was working on. We talked for a while, and then I asked her to define what a story was.  Or at least, what her definition of a story was. She stammered and could not answer the question.

I gave her my definition, which is very close to what the dictionary will tell you: A story is the telling of a series of events leading to a conclusion.

With that she scoffed, as if to say, Of course. In fact, she said, “Sure, that’s basic.” Sure. It was so basic that when I asked her what a story was she had no answer.

But if she had this definition in her head, she would not have been stuck for an ending because that would have been where she was headed the entire time.

The reason she scoffed is why many people scoff at that kind of information—we have been taught that simple explanations must be flawed because they are not nuanced. But the student is supposed to take this simple explanation and think about it. Make their own discoveries. I have learned that if you want to discover the profound you should contemplate the mundane.

Take light, for instance. Light is all around us and few of us think much about it, but great artists and thinkers have made profound discoveries from the study of light. This includes painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt and scientists like Newton and Einstein

Look, you don’t have to agree with my definition of what a story is, but if you are a storyteller you should start to consider how you might define it in the simplest terms for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the most basic of questions.

And as you study, try to be open to learning anything that comes. Don’t limit yourself by isolating your interest.


Mark L said...

After taking Invisible Ink with you (twice!), it is good to read your blog - useful, inightful, and challenging as ever.

Mark Lundsten

Brian McD said...

Thanks, Mark! Hope all is well with you.

Joon Kim said...

I had my "EUREKA!" moment about film editing very very late in my life. For the longest time, I'd assumed that scenes were always shot with multiple angles and that we were always just seeing a single take of a scene.

The moment I learned what was really going on, I was dumbstruck and appreciated that craft even more than I would have had someone just explained it straight away a long time ago.

imyjimmy said...


From what I've seen in college, agenda based learning is the norm. People read/listen with an agenda all the time. In fact there's an atmosphere here that encourages this.

There are some people who actually love what they're studying.

Then there's people who read the textbook and go to lecture and do homework because they're out to get that good grade to get that job. After the quarter is over they retain little of the information they crammed. But if necessary they can quickly recall that information.

Most people are good at faking interest in something through an entire college experience, even through getting their jobs. As long as there's an agenda, a deadline, or something to be done, most people are pretty good at doing it if money is at stake. And those people will always employ agenda-based learning, because they actually have an agenda.

Nine times out of ten, if you ask someone to learn without an agenda, you're asking too much of them, because people will always have agendas or goals or deadlines or jobs, if only for the sake of having them. And if they keep getting rewarded by society (through money), why would they change?

Brian McD said...

Hey Jimmy,

Well, it all depends on what you want, I guess. There is a generational thing that happened and younger people started getting more interested in money than the craft. There are people who will argue that this is not true, but in my experience it is true. Not all younger people are like this, but many are. I would say most.

When my film White Face was on HBO I spoke at a school and during the Q&A a kid asked me how to get his film on HBO. He didn’t want to be good enough to earn that place on HBO he just wanted the reward. I see this a lot. The truth of the matter was that the only advice I knew how to give him was that you need to make something good enough and HBO would come to him. He was not happy with that answer.

Well, I was not happy with his question. When I was a kid my friends and I had dreams of doing things, but we were happy to do the work to get good at those things. We didn’t want the reward without the work.

So, I guess, “getting better” at what you do is an agenda of sorts and you can listen to a teacher with that agenda and no other. Or you could listen for the clues that tell you how to make money, or get fame or whatever.

It all depends on what you think is important, I guess.

World-class jazz musician Branford Marsalis puts this a little more harshly than I do, but it is the same observation:

Joon Kim said...

I just watched the video on SCIENCE & MAGIC in your post and recalled a similar lesson you taught us a long time ago in regards to mirror neurons (I think it was a NOVA special). That got me wondering on whether or not sleight-of-hand would work on an autistic person (who are believed to lack such functioning mirror neurons). And sure enough:


Brian McD said...

There is a lot to learn from magic.

Thanks for the link, Joon.