Sunday, February 24, 2013

A thought about thinking about history.

I have been reading history for the past seven years. In that time I have perhaps 100 books. If I spent something like an average of 15 hours reading, considering and discussing per book, that might add up to 1,500 hours. That might be as much as an undergraduate history major spends in his/her history courses, but is far less that the 10,000 hours that might lead to expert knowledge. (And of course, I have been reading history, not doing historical research, so my knowledge is of a different order than that of a professional historian.) But I got to thinking about what I have learned.

Dante says: Knowledge doth come of learning well retained, Unfruitful else
Machiavelli in The Prince
I have also heard this quotation made suggesting that knowledge comes of learning committed to memory.

A theme of this blog is that we think with our brains, and that much of the operation of the brain is not available to conscious awareness.  I suppose that in the time of Dante and Machiavelli, well retained learning was conceived to mean rote learning of texts, facts and perhaps stories. I may have read about the sweeping revolutionary movement of 1848 but I certainly don't have recall of the names of the many people that were mentioned in the book. I could tell a much simplified story of what happened. And I know that the events of the year were an important precedent for the Arab Spring, and I have a better ability to find information on 1848 than I had before reading a book on the time.

One of the things we know about the difference between expert physicians and medical students is that the expert diagnostician asks fewer questions to come to the same diagnosis. One assumes that this is the result of having better appreciation of the a priori probabilities of different diagnoses, perhaps having a better intuition of the questions that provide most information to distinguish among the probable diagnoses, and perhaps having better skills at observing signs and symptoms that provide information without questions. I assume that different brain operations are involved in all of these different aspects of "knowledge", and different forms of "memory" are involved in developing each kind of knowledge.

Is there a real distinction in the areas of the brain involved in each kind of processing, the processes themselves, and the ways that the brain is modified as a result of the intake of information between what we call "understanding" and what we call "knowledge"? Do different learning processes result in different parts of the brain getting better at performing different operations?

I suspect that I have learned something from all the reading of history, and I suspect that the Machiavelli quote does not capture the nature of the learning very well.

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