TITLE: Techniques for Indirect Learning
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: April 08, 2005 9:36 AM
DESC: The idea of negative space can be applied to learning, and so can several other techniques that avoid looking to the heart of the topic.
Writing my previous entry on
designing the negative space around software
reminded me of a couple of related techniques for
learning. Like the negative space idea, both draw
on ideas from other disciplines.
once wrote about the technique known as "averted vision"
in astronomy. It turns out that we can only see some
objects if we don't look directly at them. Rather than
looking directly at a faint object in the sky, astronomers
look a little to the side of the object and find that they
can see an otherwise invisible object in their peripheral
vision. This bit of magic follows directly from the
structure of the human eye: while the center of the eye
needs relatively bright light in order to focus on an
object, the outer portions of our eye require less light
to focus on the same object.
Brian reported success in applying this technique to
learning a new topic. Rather attacking the topic head
on, he sometimes goes near it, studying its
periphery and in particular its effects on other topics
and ideas. I think this bit of magic follows directly
from how the human mind works. Without much prompting,
it tries to build a picture of what is happening in
front of it, even when the particular thing isn't
expressed or seen implicitly. Then, once our minds
has constructed a topic in terms of its boundaries
and effects, we can more effectively go into the
heart of the topic. Indeed, our understanding of it
may be stronger for having first situated it in its
As one of my readers pointed out in response to the
negative space piece, this is something that good
writers take advantage of when describing a situation.
Sometimes, you are better off saying less about
something and letting the reader create her own image
of it from what surrounds it. The image will be more
vivid -- and the writing less blunt, more artful.
I have lost my link to Brian's discussion of this. If
anyone has it, please
let me know.
The Unsharp Mask Algorithm
Andy Hunt describes
how to apply the Unsharp Mask algorithm
when learning. Unsharp Mask comes from the world of
image-processing programs such as Photoshop, in which
it is used to make images sharper. It does so by first
blurring the image. You might not think this
could work, but it does. By taking the image out of
focus, the software softens lines that may be the
side effect of noise or other anomalies. When the
program tries to focus the image again, we sometimes
discover details and boundaries that were not obvious
at all before.
Andy says, "I like to try to do something similar when
faced with a sticky problem." He does so by taking
his mind off the problem, doing something completely
unrelated. That allows his mind to blur the edges of
the problem for him, so that when he comes back to it
he has to re-focus. In doing so, he may see something
that he was missing before.
I imagine that we all have this pattern. I also wonder
if there might not be a more direct application of the
pattern to sticky problems. Rather than going off for
a walk or to wash dishes, maybe we could continue working
-- but by stepping back from the problem to a larger
context. From a distance, the edges of our problem begin
to blur. They don't look quite as imposing. After
thinking about the larger context for a while, we can
slowly focus back in on the tough problem. As we return,
we may re-form those edges in a different way, helping
us to see finer details than we did before.
That's all speculation, for now. I now go off in search
for a problem to try it out on. :-)