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Things of interest.

June 8, 2015

Knowledge Trees

Learning the way branches branch.

A Redditor questions Elon Musk as to his knowledge and learning:

It seems you have an extremely proficient understanding of aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, all various subdisciplines (avionics, power electronics, structural engineering, propulsion, energy storage, AI) ETC ETC nearly all things technical.

I know you’ve read a lot of books and you hire a lot of smart people and soak up what they know, but you have to acknowledge you seem to have found a way to pack more knowledge into your head than nearly anyone else alive. Do you have any advice on learning? How are you so good at it?

Musk answers:

I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

A ‘neuroscientist enthusiast’ expands:

Context switching is something that’s expensive for everyone. If you want to get anything done, focus on one thing at a time. There’s also a fun little bias involved here. The better one thinks they are at multitasking, the worse they are. (Source) The human potential for learning is huge. It’s obvious looking at how our youngest absorb information around them in their first few years of life, but the potential is still there as long as you draw breath. Anyone can learn anything. If something seems unlearnable, you just don’t know enough about the basics of said subject. Getting old is no excuse, your brain needs workout the same way your body does.

There are genetic differences at play here of course, but they just make the process of connecting the dots faster, not more possible.

Not sure how much neuroscience you’ve read up on, but the metaphor you’re using for learning is near perfect as a natural tree too for how our memory works:

  • Storing new information not related to anything you know takes a lot of energy to store (planting a new tree)
  • Growing leaves is easy once your roots are deep in the ground.
  • The more trees you grow, the stronger the forest is and the easier it is to expand it further. (There may be an upper bound here, don't think there's anyone out there who has learned everything yet)
  • Bonus feature: trying to glue oak leaves on a pine tree won't work. Information that fundamentally conflicts with your understanding of a subject won't stick, the brain will discard it as irrelevant noise. You have to plant a new tree and help it grow stronger than the old one.

Sorry, don’t have a direct source for these. At least 1 and 2 are something that Lila Davachi talked about in the latest Neuroleadership summit. 3 is from an older source I’m unable to retrieve from my memory right now.


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