Learning by Heart
THE LEARNERS’ SECRET WEAPON
–Mark Rothko painting
How can you get so good at something that it seems like magic? If you’ve ever watched a tech work on your computer, you’ve seem her zip through dozens of steps in seconds – without even seeming to have to think about it. Well, the fact is, she doesn’t have to think about it, and thinking would actually slow her down. How the hell do people get so damned good at stuff like this?
Contrary to what lots of teachers commonly say, it’s not by working hard at it.
It’s because they fell in love.
If you want to get good at something, fall in love. If you don’t love it to start with, fiddle around till you find a door to it’s heart. Then let your own heart connect with its heart. When you do, you may find yourself spending hours with it, but just like when you’re in love, you will not even notice. And no hard work is involved.
To get to know plum blossoms,
Both one’s own nose
And one’s own heart.
How it works.
Where did my older brother study French when he was in Europe in WWII? In bed, of course. You can learn paleontology that way, too, or linguistics, or . . . you name it. And the heart is the secret ingredient, not logic, not the mind, not sweaty thinking.
We learn with our hearts.
When you fall in love, all the conditions for absorbing the “other” are there. You fall into the pulsing ruby heart of the matter and become one with it. It’s the same with everything you ever truly absorbed into your nervous system. You’ve been doing it all your life. If you buy into this metaphor, you can let yourself fall in love on purpose with anything, anything at all, a school subject, a maple leaf, Jupiter, a fly speck. Take a moment an let that sink in.
If you want to get good at anything, let yourself fall in love with it.
“Get” that principle of learning and you won’t have to worry about getting to know anything ever again. If I’m wrong, sue me. If I’m right, pat yourself on the back – and send me a check.
To Learn Is to Love
Here’s a little love story about how a dog and a human I met, Rosie and Sandra, learned/loved each other so thoroughly that their communication seemed like – as it may well have been – telepathy. It’s a fairly detailed story but too long for one posting, so I’ll give you just some highlights here. There’s a key in this story to a way of learning for anyone, maybe for you. Watch for it.
The Time You Spend
“Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn.” –Dune, Frank Herbert
AP student getting an intense vision of the facts.
In the midst of exploring interspecies communication for a book I was working on, how it is that humans and other creatures – parrots, horses, chimpanzees, dogs – are able to get into each others’ heads — what the mechanism of that is, the biology of it, the physics of it, I got an email from our daughter Kate, who was gathering data for a government study in the Modesto area out in the San Joaquin Valley.
I’ve just met an eleven-year-old boxer named Rosie who can do all sorts of things – square root, spelling, getting the remote for the tv – really wild! Her owner, Sandra Artrip, asked me what my name was. I said ‘Kate.’ She asked Rosie how many letters were in ‘Kate.’ Rosie tapped 4 times and then cocked her head –“Is that right?”
Well, that sounded like an unusual dog indeed, so I emailed Sandra and got this reply:
Rosie’s the smartest animal I have ever had in my life, and I have owned many, many animals. Just a quick view of what Rosie can do: Rosie can add, subtract, multiply and divide. She knows her ABCs by sign language. She knows squares and square roots to 144. She knows how many letters in each of all the primary colors, she knows the states, and about 250 words. She is also a certified service dog. She turns lights off and on, gets five flavors of soda out of the refrigerator. She gets towels, washcloths, paper towels and toilet paper and shuts doors.
Also, she does typical dog tricks like high fives and low fives, and lies down, rolls over, plays dead, speaks, sits pretty, and says the words mom, I love you, go bye bye, no, damn, I’m hungry, playtime. That probably sounds crazy to you, but I can hear the words plain as day.
I have had vets tell me dogs do not have the ability to do what she does, but I know for a fact she can do it, and after my vet saw it, he could not believe what he saw.
As Smart as You Need to Be
A very, very smart dog? It may be that lots of dogs don’t learn what their human companions want them to because they don’t feel like it or are too aloof to learn stupid circus tricks for the amusement of humans. Another boxer I know, Lucy, seems able to pick up any behavior her human wants – if she feels like it. Sandra teaches Rosie with food rewards. Her brother never uses treats with his English bulldog. His bulldog thinks playing dead, doing high fives, rolling over, and performing all sorts of tricks is marvelous fun. He does these things not so much to please his human, it seems, as to participate in the game. Our wire-haired terrier Geordie was the worst student in his obedience class. I figured on being humiliated when it came time for graduation. But when our turn came, Geordie trotted at my side out to the middle of the floor, sat down nice as pie, and received his diploma in front of the whole class with dignity and aplomb. Training – what a colossal bore. It was more fun trying to bite the Doberman.
“More input! More input!”
Whose Poem Is This, Anyway?
Maybe we’re all, humans as well as dogs, as ‘smart’ as we need to be. (And maybe school teachers need to think about this. Who’s business is your education anyway, yours or some “teacher’s”?) The great news is that if we can find out how it works, maybe we can get smart on purpose — whenever we feel like it, of course. That would come in handy, wouldn’t it, when you need to figure out why you can’t get your cell phone to pair with the device in your new car or you have to take some required college course you couldn’t care less about. It ain’t gonna happen unless you yourself want it to.
“It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.”
Here’s the chorus from Kathy Mattea’s “Comes from the Heart” In my college skills classes — and often in other courses, too — I used to play Guy Clark singing that tune.
You got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work
If you have the time, you should stop right now and listen to the whole song; it’s great: http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/clark-guy/come-from-the-heart-32.html
What circumstances might have influenced Rosie’s ‘intelligence’? I arranged to go out to the valley for an interview. There were four assorted dogs in the chain-link fenced front yard when I pulled up, but Rosie, almost twelve by then, was inside, where it was more peaceful. She was a brindle boxer with a gray muzzle, stiff joints and advancing hearing loss who accepted a couple of Trader Joe peanut-butter flavored treats from me. Then we all three sat down on the couch – Rosie in the middle with her paw on Sandra’s lap ‒ and we got straight to the interview.
Time Spent on Your Rose
I knew Rosie had been taken from her mother a little over two weeks after birth. She had been infected with coccidia – a parasite of the intestine that can destroy young animals – and had been about to be put to sleep. Sandra took her home. Most puppies are placed with humans after they’ve been weaned – at about eight weeks – so Sandra had to take over the mother dog’s job of nursing, which involved bottle-feeding Rosie every two hours twenty-four hours a day until she weaned herself about three weeks later. It took seven months of treatment before the coccidia were completely eliminated. During that time Rosie and Sandra were together almost constantly, as they have continued to be ever since. Aha, it’s the time spent on your rose!
It’s the Time You Waste on Your Rose.
To get into each other’s heads – or some prehistoric fossil – we have to waste a lot of time on each other. (If you waste enough time on it, even a bit of old bone will begin to sparkle.)
I asked Sandra if she thought the way Rosie started out in life, the mother role being played by a human rather than a dog, might account for much of her phenomenal responsiveness to Sandra’s teaching. That seemed likely, Sandra said, since she hadn’t done doggie things with the puppy. She hadn’t wrestled with Rosie or held her down when she needed discipline the way her natural mother would have. Rosie had had to pay close attention to cues from the only mother she knew and had developed a unique psychic and physical bonding with a human. Getting into each other’s heads may be no more complicated than that.
Sandra had had lots of dogs and Rosie did far more human things than any of the others. Of them all, only two came close to being as smart as Rosie, and like her, they had been taken from their mothers at a little over two weeks of age and hand fed by Sandra. If they had had round the clock teaching the way that Rosie had had, might they not also have become ‘smarter’?
Unique in all the world
Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince had his own flower, a rose he had tended every day and thought was unique in all the world. But in his travels he discovers there are millions of roses and is saddened to think that his rose is not so special after all. Not so, the fox informs him, “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important.”
The Time Wasted on Rosie
To get Rosie to flip the light switch on or off, Sandra would hold Rosie’s paw over the switch, click it with the paw, say ‘light’ and give her a treat. She did this every twenty minutes or so, two or three times each, but not more than that so that Rosie wouldn’t get bored. The lessons were spaced out with only a few repetitions at a time. Once she caught on to the process, Rosie got faster and faster at learning all the things Sandra had listed in her email. (Recently Sandra had to get a dog-proof refrigerator. Her other dogs had watched Rosie and were getting into the old one any time they felt like it.)
Mark Bittner wasted tons of time on these guys.
What’s striking about Rosie and Sandra getting ‘inside each other’s heads’ is that the process is identical with the way one gets to ‘know’ anything, an ipod, crab apple blossoms, the world inside an atom, a cherry-headed wild parrot, an autistic person, The Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, or a peach pie.
Sandra had had an absorbing interest in animals of any sort – she had even had a petting zoo at one time. Getting to know something starts out, usually, as a playful curiosity and becomes so absorbing that one forgets lunch and dinner. That’s always the key, an involuntary relinquishing of objectivity; you can’t help yourself. The situation opens to you and you fall in. When the wall between the worlds dissolves, the skateboard and the skater become one.
The Wall Between Worlds
The Heart of the Matter
Sandra had taken on the role of surrogate mother – with no strings attached. There had been no barrier between the two mammals – tiny puppy and human – and there was physical contact during the feeding. Information flowed back and forth between the two organisms, altering the wetware in each other’s skulls, absorbing each other’s sensory data. They were quite literally inside each other’s skulls and on each other’s senses (and deeper still, in those pulsating subatomic frequencies sheathing the ‘physical’ world). The puppy’s brain absorbed Sandra’s world and reconfigured itself. The human brain absorbed the world of the creature in her arms. No wonder Rosie turned out to be so smart.
This is always how the curtain between worlds is drawn aside. Richard Feynman walks around inside the atom. David Greybeard, a wild chimpanzee, touches Jane Goodall’s hand on a river bank in an African jungle. Interest, attention, absorption.
Once you fall into each other, you have each other’s ‘number,’ and you can ‘call up’ each other.
Once you fall into each other, you have each other’s ‘number,’ and you can ‘call up’ each other.
In the midst of exploring the atom, say, you get absorbed into it; meanwhile, the atom has got inside your head and heart. It keeps on chatting with you, revealing itself even when you’re out sailing or watching ant trails across the kitchen floor. This is how one can ‘talk’ with a rock.
And then there’s telepathy – which goes to the heart of the matter. In fact, until that breakthrough into telepathic communication – where it is not necessary to translate – the process is not complete. Telepathy between Sandra and Rosie goes on all the time. Rupert Sheldrake’s Dogs That Know When Their Owner’s Are Coming Home is full of anecdotes of telepathy between animals and humans and between and among humans, too. “If I think of going to the refrigerator, Rosie is there waiting for me as if she heard me say it. If I think of leaving the house, she will go to the gate. I’ll wake up from a dead sleep with this feeling that she’s telling me she needs to go out or that her water bowl is empty.”
There’s more to this story, but I’ll save it for another posting.