Friday Brainstorm 10 🧠
Peloton for the mind, thoughts on time, and self-directed learning
Happy Friday and welcome back for the tenth issue of Friday Brainstorm!
Here’s an overview of what you can expect:
BCIs and the future of mental fitness 💪
philosophy and neuroscience of time 🕒
the playbook for self-directed learning 📕
Let’s get right into it —
BCI 2022: Peloton for the Mind
I wasn’t quite happy with the last article in the BCI 2022 series. Rather than doing a shallow exploration of 4 futuristic scenarios, I wanted to do a deep dive this week.
I firmly believe that having control over our focus is the single most important skill of the future. In a few years, BCIs will allow us to effectively train our focus:
Imagine this - it’s half an hour before you start work. You put on your BCI-enabled VR headset and launch the Peloton Focus app. It looks like some friends also just logged in, so you send them invites to a live class that’s about to start. The class is a new type of focus exercise released just last week, inspired by that old Flora app.
Here’s the basic idea - everyone in the class is transported to a large clearing in a forest and each person is growing a tree. The speed at which the tree grows is related to the intensity of your focus, and the goal is to have the tallest tree at the end of the class. Whenever your mind wanders or the intensity of your focus wanes, the tree branches off and starts to grow sideways.
As you warm up, the instructor introduces the soundtrack as well as the distractions they have designed for this class. These distractions vary in difficulty based on the level you’re training at, ranging from erratic forest sounds to pesky squirrels clawing at you.
After the class, you can see how you did compared to your friends (and everyone else). The unique shape of the tree you grew is essentially a graph of your focus over time, but you can also access the in-depth report providing the minute details of the session.
Check out the full article for a longer discussion on the future of mental fitness.
Here’s the thing about time 🕒
I’ve touched on why life feels faster with every year in an earlier newsletter, but the concept of time deserves some more attention.
To me, the felt experience of time is just as important as the science behind it. You need neuroscience AND philosophy to fully appreciate time - so I’ll bring in both.
Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is among the highest quality online publications. With 13 years of content to draw from, newer articles always link out to older articles of hers that touch on the same topic. It’s a beautiful maze of thoughts to get lost in.
One way to understand time is through the lens of memory. Many people view memory as a recording device, but it’s really more of a tool to predict the future.
“We tend to think of memory as having primarily to do with the past… And maybe one reason we have it is so that we can have a warm feeling when we reminisce, and so on. But I think the thing that has been neglected is its role in allowing us to predict and simulate the future.” — Daniel Schacter
From a neuroscience perspective, there is actually significant overlap in the activity of the frontal and temporal lobes when thinking in either direction of time. One theory states that the concept of time helped early humans understand the continuity between the past and the future.
Beyond predicting the future, this continuity creates a sense of personal identity.
“The consciousness of time and consciousness of self co-create each other to construct our experience of who we are.”
Compared to sight or hearing, which are mediated by specific sense organs, the sense of time is felt in a more embodied way. Time perception is intimately connected to our experience of selfhood. This is abundantly clear when time perception is impaired in mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and schizophrenia:
With depression, the unpleasant sensation of time passing very slowly is heavily related to “negative self-image, self-blaming, and feelings of worthlessness”.
With addiction, time becomes arrhythmic — flowing quickly under the influence and unbearably slowly during withdrawal. This focus on the present, with a dependency-free future seeming too distant, is the “temporal trap of addition”.
With schizophrenia, the continuity of self (or the integration of past, present, and future) is disrupted. Many patients report time standing still.
For an extended discussion on time and self, check out the full article:
To compliment Popova’s philosophical discussion, the Brain Inspired podcast takes a more academic approach to time (and its applications in AI).
Although our man-made clocks robustly measure time across many different time frames (e.g. minutes, days, years), the brain has scale-specific clocks.
For example, we can tell that a sound is coming from the left because of the few milliseconds of delay before the sound wave reaches the right ear. The responsible circuit in our brain is sensitive on the scale of milliseconds, and it is fundamentally different from the circuit that underlies the circadian clock, which operates on the scale of days.
This is called the multiple clocks principle:
You brain has fundamentally different mechanisms to measure microseconds, seconds, hours, days, and so on.
We actually know very little about the circuits responsible for timing longer than a few milliseconds and shorter than a day. To better understand ourselves, we need to develop a taxonomy of time that details the mechanisms our brain uses at every scale.
For more, check out the rest of the conversation:
Learning how to learn
Scott Young is a well-known blogger in the space of learning, productivity, and habits. Ultralearning is the playbook for the aggressive, self-directed learning - bridging the science of learning with case studies of people who have accomplished incredible learning feats.
Scott argues that you should invest approximately 10% of your total expected learning time into research. It’s a mistake to rush into the process.
“Most people fail to do a thorough investigation of possible learning goals, methods, and resources. Instead they opt for whatever method of learning comes up naturally in their environment.”
Research also involves looking at how the knowledge in the subject is structured and anticipating the major learning bottlenecks ahead of time. This dramatically reduces the chance that you encounter a major roadblock and fall short of your learning goals.
Another unconventional idea of Scott’s is to be ruthless in improving your weakest points. By breaking down a complex skill into individual components, you could design bespoke drills to rapidly improve your weaknesses. He also delves into tactics for designing drills:
Time slicing. Isolate a slice of time of a longer sequence of actions and repeatedly practice just that.
The Copycat. In many creative skills, it’s impossible to practice one aspect without doing the rest. Use other’s work as a starting point, and copy the parts of the skill you don’t want to drill.
Prerequisite chaining. Start with a skill you don’t have all the prerequisites for. When you inevitably do poorly, drill the more foundational topic, and try again.
I also really like what Scott has to say about retrieval and feedback in his book. If you’re curious, check out this great summary of Ultralearning.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email.