Behavioral Psychology

Right Way To Learn

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Spinoza believed that reason was no match for the passions, although he wished it was. His solution was to elevate reason to a passion. His search for truth through the use of reason became a passionate striving to which he devoted his life. In the context of learning, there is a lot to be said for remembering that emotions usually take precedence over reason in guiding our actions.

One thing that holds a lot of people back from the glory of lifelong learning is that unwanted, uncomfortable feelings become behaviorally associated with the learning process early on, acting as negative reinforces where the student comes to realize that by quitting, these feelings will go away. Not everyone feels exhilaration while learning. Some people experience a lot of frustration, boredom, anxiety, low self-worth, or other painful emotions, feelings that pretty much everyone actively avoids.

One solution is to decide you don’t care and stop trying, and then to avoid all situations in the future where increasing mastery through the learning process would be necessary. If you can avoid the stimulus then you can avoid performing the behaviors that almost always have negative reinforcements attached to them. It’s impossible to get frustrated if you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

The single criteria for if you should devote your time to learning a certain subject is if you feel passionately drawn to it, if you feel like it just fits, that there is something about it that encourages curiosity and interest in you. If you have this internal striving you will probably never get bored with the subject matter and you will be able to tolerate frustration a lot better because the pleasant sensations of passion and full engagement will be positively reinforcing you at the same time.

How can you know that you feel this way about a subject and are not merely interested? You’ll know because it doesn’t feel like work and you always want more. Rollo May called this internal striving eros. Here is what he had to say about the state in comparison with the states of tension and release that psychoanalysts of his day saw as motivating forces in life.  “Sex can be defined fairly adequately in physiological terms as consisting of the building up of bodily tensions and their release. Eros, in contrast, is the experiencing of the personal intentions and meaning of the act. Whereas sex is a rhythm of stimulus and response, eros is a state of being. The pleasure of sex is described by Freud and others as the reduction of tension; in eros, on the contrary, we wish not to be released from the excitement but rather to hang on to it, to bask in it, and even to increase it. The end toward which sex points is gratification and relaxation, whereas eros is a desiring, longing, a forever reaching out, seeking to expand.” (source)

We all have different potentialities in us, different talents lying dormant and waiting to be developed, and it’s really sad to think about the massive amounts of untapped potential that exist in all the people who gave up on learning before exploring an option that blew their hair back and really got them excited. The sentiment that many teachers have, that students should just want to learn for the pure joy of learning, is really dumb and unhelpful when we consider that for many students there is nothing joyful about the process at all. It’s more like pulling teeth. The solution is to find what captures your passion instead of what other people say you should learn.