Learn by ignoring

January 2, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

About ten years ago, when I first started auditing graduate-level classes in cognitive science, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information I needed to learn (I still do). The topics included such things as connectionism, evolutionary theory, artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience and education theory.  It felt like I was learning less and less about more and more to such an extent that I was eventually going to know nothing about everything.

One of the professors acknowledged the enormous scope and depth of the material.  He commented to me “it’s like trying to take a drink of water out of a fire hydrant.

That phrase stuck with me ever since.  It seems like I run into yet another entirely new overwhelming topic every few weeks.  It helps me to keep in mind that it’s often not supposed to be easy.  That’s why people spend much of their lives getting good at each of the many hundreds of disciplines.  There’s very few people that have command over more than a few of the numerous challenging fields out there.

That feeling of being overwhelmed while studying cognitive science reminded me that I felt the same way in my first year of law school.  If you did what many of the professors told you to do, you would be spending 18 hours every day reading material that would be largely unhelpful.  An alternative strategy that worked for me was to work hard to quickly determine what to ignore.  In law school, the teachers often required us to read long cases (some of these were 30 to 50 pages long) in order to learn a individual legal principles.  The cases were oftentimes superfluous factual illustrations of those simple principals.  Unfortunately, much of the material contained in many of the judicial opinions did not concern the principle being studied.  Rather, judicial opinions often spend a lot of time setting forth a tangentially relevant complex fact situation and, oftentimes, an equally complex and tangentially relevant procedural history.  Many of the times we did this (though, admittedly, not every time), it was for the purpose of learning a single legal principle that could be articulated effectively in less than a minute. 

Once I learned what to ignore, I could skim the parts of the case that didn’t concern the important legal principle. Instead, I could focus my time on the relevant facts and procedure.

In my experience, many disciplines of study are very much like the study of law in this respect.  Most of the time, I approach the learning of new fields through reading.  Authors are not equally gifted, however. There are authors who spend a lot of time getting to the point and there are others who get right to it.  The first point in learning a new field through reading, then, is learning what authors to ignore.

My second strategy is one that I employ once I identify the quality authors.  The trick is to never read a book without studying the table of contents.  It only takes a minute or two to review the table of contents and the payoff is terrific. The table of contents constitutes a frame that highlights the relevant material from each chapter.  When I ignore the table of contents, I often find myself falling adrift while reading a book.  When I don’t first review the table of contents, I find that I’m trying to pay attention to everything, which causes memory overload-I drown in an unrelenting river of facts.

When I do take a few minutes to first study the table of contents, certain aspects of the text “light up.”  Reading a book without studying the table of contents is like driving somewhere without first studying a map.  You’ll eventually get there, but you’ll waste valuable minutes of your life doing so.

Now that I am a practicing attorney, I still find it important to know what to ignore.  I also keep this in mind when I am trying to persuade others. When I am presenting a case to a judge or a jury, I always start out by presenting my argument in the form of a story. Stories are like all other types of models.  They highlight certain aspects of reality at the expense of others.  In other words, they help the listener know what to ignore (and what to notice). 

I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to come up with an effective story to highlight the important parts of one’s arguments.  When we are preparing for oral argument, my co-workers and I often spend many hours honing our story.  To do it right, there is no substitute for spending lots of time at it.  Once you lock into an effective story though (a process involving lots of trial and error, combined with serendipity), the story does much of the work for us. Our audience will be much more attentive to the parts of our argument that we find important.  Equally, our audience (when we’re successful) will ignore the parts of our opponents arguments that are inconsistent with our story.  All of this is yet another way of commenting on the power of the confirmation bias.

So ignore this story at your peril.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Is "Stick to the point" your message here to us posters? As to learning selected information from oceans of data, I never consciously worked out these reasonable principals of ignoring. I would just read it all, and what ideas found a place to stick in my rats-nest multiprocessor mind, stuck. As more and more things connected from more and more fields of interest, they created yet more places for new ideas to connect, in turn. I see it as a sort of polymerization; a long, sticky, n-dimensional chain of understanding that can just keep growing as long as I feed it new ideas.

    One gripe I hold is that each discipline, or field of study, makes up its own jargon to express essentially the same ideas used by all the other fields. Once you can construct a semantic Rosetta stone, most fields of study start to interlock at their roots.

    I've made little effort to focus, so now I'm a blithering generalist with the continuing nagging thought that someday I need to decide what I want to be when I grow up. My hair is graying, so I suspect that I've made peace with the idea that I may never choose a career path. I just keep learning.

  2. Scholar says:

    The best teachers are the ones who teach you how to think. I had a business teacher who spend most of the lecture time telling us stories about his life, talking about the meaning of life, and strategies for happiness. Only as class was just about over he would list a few pages in the textbook to read or discuss the business material. What would seem like recipe for disaster turned out to be the one class that I (and most other students) actually attended every day, (he even had me there a few times when it wasn't my scheduled day). Anyway, he was right, I forgot all the dumb formulas and keynesian economics stuff, but I will never forget his lectures about happiness and life.

    Erich, I'm curious why you were auditing the science classes (taking for no credit). Was it just for kicks or was it required? Fyi, my dad is a lawyer and even argued a case before the Supreme court. Now he is teaching constitutional law. I currently work in the GIS field (geographic information systems), aka "computer maps". Over the years I have become acquainted with many fields of study, especially the sciences (physical), but less so in terms of philosophy and cognitive sciences. My impression of philosophy class was that there often were no right or wrong answers, and grades depended exclusively on what mood the teacher was in. I find plenty of intrigue in (some of) the writings of the great philosophers, but I find it hard to be satisfied with arguments which are far from concrete, and may have different meaning to different people.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Scholar: I audited almost 30 hours of cognitive science classes "for kicks." Washington University has a superb cogsci program (they call it the PNP Program). They offered the opportunity to audit these courses for only $300 per course. This was great bang for the buck. You're right to raise (by implication) that that is a lot of work to not get a degree. The degree would have been nice, but I was working full time, trying to raise my two children (with my wife) and trying to survive in the many ways everyone in big cities tries to survive. I didn't feel that I could make the commitment to do the extra work to get that degree.  Further, I had already jumped through various hoops to get the two degrees that were prerequisite to obtaining a license to practice law.

    Here's one more thing to that went into the mix. I have at least several high-performing intelligent friends, none of whom has any college degree. Perhaps some people in the world would judge them less able due to the lack of a formal degree, but not me. On the other hand, I know hundreds of intellectually unimpressive people who have college degrees.  The thing that is most striking about them is that they have all acted under the assumption that education ends with formal education.  They didn't figure out that if you don't learn to become a self-educator somewhere along the way, it doesn't matter how many degrees you have.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Speaking of learning by ignoring, here's a pet peeve: People who answer their cell phones for literally anybody, even though you are discussing serious business with them in person. "Let me just get that," they say, prior to chatting with a former classmate about where to have dinner next weekend. I'm not criticizing looking at the source of the incoming call. I've got two young children, for example, and I simply must take calls from their school during the day–they might be calling me because of an emergency (they haven't actually ever called me–though this is why I do check my ringing cell phone during important discussions).

    It's gotten to the point where I sometimes remind people that we will ignore all non-emergency calls as a condition for having a conversation. I actually don't know have some people get anything meaningful done during the day, given their inability to ignore their cell phones, which ring every 10 minutes.

  5. Friends, Romans, Countrybumkins, been a long day, trying to cherish every second. Well I don't know where to start, so I guess I will start with the third thing.

    I don't like being put on speaker phone, especially when the person is calling you and kind of assuming that you might not pick up, so they have you on speaker while they wait and see if you are home, then its like…"hello" click Hello "hello" , oh hello, "ya hello, you called me". GRRRR.

    Okay maybe I should've saved that rant for last, cuz I actually found some neat links today (not to say that my other links aren't top notch).

    Well here is the first link to a site which may interest many of the readers here.. .http://mwillett.org/Debate/viewtopic.php?t=3167
    It is a thread about a real life "miracles" (which actually happened), complete with analysis by atheists(realists) who point out some other feasible (yet less sacred) explanations. It contains a first hand account of "god speaking", a near miss accident, and visions (hallucinations).

    Next is a thought provoking link which has concluded that true Atheists *never* become Christians, but true Christians are indeed becoming Atheists quite *frequently*.

    Here.. .http://mwillett.org/atheism/exatheists.htm
    In my humble opinion, knowledge and experience would seem to accompany those who have seen fault in their ways, and have since changed.

    And for my first topic of business, I have officially changed my views on the origin of life. At this point I am leaning toward the "undersea volcanic vent" explanation for the first bits of life to take hold. This is based on a documentary by (I never thought I would say it, but to their credit they seem to be much more scientific minded lately) the Discovery Channel. Here is a link which meets my approval in terms of the "black smoker" deep sea volcanic vent theory of the first bacteria colonies/life on earth.
    These hydrothermal vents were not known about until 1977. In fact, they are host to a different type of life (long, ugly worms with no digestive tract), which did not rely on the sun, but on bacteria, which in turn fed off of the energy of the vents.

  6. Excerpt from here.

    "Prior to the discovery of the hydrothermal vents, most biologists believed that all life depended upon the energy of sunlight. That is, the basis of the food chain was photic energy which powered photosynthesis, obviously in green plants that went down the chain with animals eating plants, and animals eating animals. When the hydrothermal vents were discovered, it was clear very rapidly that they were a very enriched biological environment, very, very remote from the surface sunlight. It was difficult to imagine that energy could basically drift down in high enough quantities to nurture this environment."

    "Other interesting data that came to mind, or that came to be known, were that most of the animals here, the large invertebrates, basically had no digestive system. The large tubeworm, Riftia, has no mouth, no gut, no anus. However, it is a huge animal – they're about a 1.5 M in length and up to 2 cm in diameter and there are many, many of them in these hydrothermal vent sites. So the question was, how are they managing to make a living down there?"

    "(The worms) …were harboring bacteria within their body cavities. Now bacteria, free living bacteria, in this environment and in our own backyard, have been known for years to be able to use chemical energy as a basis of their metabolism. So in the case of the free living bacteria, there are many sulfide oxidizing bacteria which can use chemical sulfide to basically run their metabolic pathways – to produce organic compounds, small nutrient compounds, that form the basis of their nutrition. What is happening in some of the hydrothermal vent animals is that they are harboring these chemical utilizing bacteria, within their body tissues. So for instance the large tubeworm, Riftia, and the clam, Caliptogena, harbored dense aggregations of bacteria, either in what was the residual gut of the tubeworm or in the gill area for the clam. These bacteria then are able to utilize the inorganic chemicals in the environment. They utilize hydrogen sulfide. What they do with the hydrogen sulfide is analogous to what plants do with photic energy. So it is called chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis."

    Well, hopefully these last posts made it through the ringer (sorry Erich, you seem to take plenty of abuse but don't seem to get enough praise). Actually, as you guys/gal may be noticing, DI.org (and Company) has helped me become a calmer, if not better writer.

    This final link explains why we become atheists. Contrary to popular(Christian?) belief, atheists do not "choose" to be atheists. Please follow the link, which explains quite more eloquently than I (ever?) could.

  7. Enigma says:

    I totally agree with the idea of "learning what to ignore" as a way to learn more. As I learned this concept through my school experience as well. But perhaps "ignore" is the wrong word to describe this. Rather, we are learning how to prioritize the information that we receive and process them accordingly.

    I recall, during my undergraduate studies, I always had a hard time following everything that was taught in all my engineering classes. Every class was a trial of information overload and just too much to digest a lot of times. Every little concept and formula seemed just as important as the next. Then, after my 3rd year, I did one year of internship before returning for my 4th and last year of study.

    And my perspective in 4th year was shockingly different and revealing to me. My work experience had opened my eyes, and made me realize what things in my courses were "important" and what things were "simply interesting to know". Suddenly I saw the structure of how everything fit. My classes in 4th year taught things that were definitely harder than my first 3 years. But I actually had a much easier time going through my studies, and it felt like such a breeze.

    Ever since this revelation, I have realized that in learning and researching anything, it is essential to prioritize the information you receive and decide on their purpose before blindly trying to process it all at once. Once this is accomplished, I can take my time, and in a less stressful mindset, go about tackling the fringe information.

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