Monday, March 7, 2011

The Power of Uncertainty

Conditional vs. Absolute Learning: The Power of Uncertainty
I recommend this whole webpage by Richard Powers - some very useful information about social dancing and life ; )
Here are four long excerpts from the article linked above:

New research shows that when we're presented with any facts as absolute truths, even math and science, we tend to use them thoughtlessly, often making bad, inappropriate or limited decisions. But when we're presented with the same information in a conditional way ("Maybe it's so, but maybe it's also this other way."), we process the information, and we use the information, in smarter, more effective, and more creative ways.

Someone may reasonably argue, "Sure I can be flexible later, after I learn the basics of a dance. But in that first learning, I want to do it the one correct way, with all of the precise details."

And this is where Langer and others most strongly disagree. Optionality in that first exposure is especially important.

This is Ellen J. Langer of the Harvard University Department of Psychology. She specializes in the science and psychology of learning. Here are some paraphrased excerpts from her work (quoted with her permission).

Whenever we attempt to learn something, we rely on ways of learning that typically work to our detriment and virtually prevent the very goals we are trying to accomplish. The mind-sets we hold regarding learning more often than not encourage mindlessness, although learning requires mindful engagement with the material in question.

Mindfulness, as we use the term, is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context. When we are in a state of mindlessness, we act like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present. Instead of actively drawing new distinctions, noticing new things, as we do when we are mindful, when we are mindless we are stuck in a single, fixed perspective, and we are often oblivious to alternative ways of knowing. When we are mindless, our behavior is rule and routine governed.

Experimental research, conducted over 25 years, reveals that the costs of mindlessness, and the benefits of mindfulness, are vast and often profound. Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in accidents; an increase in memory, creativity, a decrease in stress; and an increase in health and longevity, to name a few of the benefits. And as will become clear, there is power in uncertainty, yet most of us mistakenly seek certainty.

I've always presented social dance as, "This can work, but another way can also work," because that's the essential truth. The lesson I give my students in their very first week is, "If it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way." It's only recently that I've come across Langer's research that shows that conditional teaching also helps people learn better, use information more effectively, and creatively, with fewer mistakes, and enjoy it more. opposed to what they want...

Langer points out that many people don't like not knowing with certainty. All of their school-learning has trained them to expect certainty, and to be told what the facts mean. So people are often affronted if they don't get the pre-digested form they expect.

It's not hard to retrain ourselves to welcome chance intrusions into our expectations. It also makes us more creative, and much happier.

And beyond dancing, wanting life to go exactly as you wish it, and wanting people to behave just as you want them to, is violating a basic tenet of life. If you have that response, you will find yourself fighting losing battles all of your life. People are going to be the way they are. Do you want to spend your life fighting that? Or you can find ways to appreciate and enjoy the great varieties that people present to you.


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