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. ----- BODY: 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. Averted Vision Brian Marick 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 context. 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. :-) -----