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Knowledge vs experience

I have done the entire list of exercises for learning Spanish on Duolingo, and yet I'm terrible at understanding and speaking Spanish. I'm orders of magnitude better at understanding and speaking Hindi, which I last spent any effort actively learning almost twenty years ago.

There are many such areas where I've acquired knowledge by reading or consuming information and by understanding the theory, and even performed well when tested on that knowledge - through school and beyond. And yet, when it comes to the actual practice, I don't always stand up to scrutiny as well as I should in some of these areas.

And there are equally many such areas where I've had little to no formal training but can still hold my own and thrive simply because I've kept on showing up and have put in the practice and gained first hand experience.

We have all heard about the 10,000 hour rule - where we ought to put in a tangible amount of deliberate practice in order to acquire and get good at any skill.

Since I've been reading a lot about the workings of the brain in the past several weeks, I was intrigued by the underlying mechanisms of the brain that results in such behaviour. And I put forward this hypothesis.

The way brains store information is not in the form of a dictionary. Otherwise, it wouldn't matter how we acquire the knowledge (second-hand information or first-hand experience), the brain would still store them some place similar for retrieval.

Instead, the brain remembers things in the form of what patterns of neural firings occurred. When I'm reading about how to play football and when I'm actually playing football, the patterns of neural firings are completely different. The former is quite indistinguishable whether I'm reading about how to play football or how to build a rocket. Sure, the information is different and can be retrieved as such, but the nuances of how the rest of my body behaves is not stored at all. Whereas, when I'm actually playing football, the challenges I face can't be glossed over and need to be immediately addressed and the memory of how my heart-rate increased, and how my muscles contracted and powered up, how my body was positioned to receive a ball or to make a pass are a lot harder to encode in the brain through mere reading alone.

While this is a more straightforward example, the nuance holds in more subtle cases as well, which leads to experience trumping knowledge a lot of the time.

However, knowledge comes in handy for specific corrections that the brain can store in the patterns of neural firings. If I angled my body in a certain way and attempted a free-kick and the ball ended up going well over the goal post, that memory is stored holistically by the brain and if I read about how to correct that to get the shot on target, the brain can modify this existing experiential memory which can then be retrieved the next time I'm taking a free kick, allowing me to do a better job of hitting the target.

Any time you are learning something, always try it out in real life. Even a single experience will create places in the brain where the knowledge you then acquire has place to go. It is like creating holes for the nails to go in, or like laying the foundation to build walls upon. 

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