Learning Is Like a Drug—But Better
Cognitive scientist Gary Marcus writes about how learning is like a drug: “[Illicit] drugs elicit dopamine artificially by fooling the brain, while activities like sex and eating elicit dopamine naturally. Listening to music taps into the dopamine system in part because hearing something new is a signal that the brain is learning something, and we have evolved to enjoy acquiring new information. Shortcuts like drugs, however are fleeting. Although narcotics can elicit dopamine fairly directly, over time it takes a bigger and bigger dose to get the same rush, and can lead people to destroy families, risk their health and even lose their lives. Learning new things is a lot safer, and ultimately a lot more satisfying. There is a myth that children (and for that matter adults) don’t really enjoy learning new things, but as every video game maker has realized, the truth is just the opposite. From ‘Space Invaders’ to ‘Halo,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Zelda,’ practically every video game is in part about mastering new skills. As video game designers realized long ago, if you can keep a player poised on the knife’s edge of conquering new challenges, neither too easy and too hard but square in what the cognitive psychologist Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, you can keep gamers engaged for hours. As long as we constantly feel challenged but never overwhelmed, we keep coming back for more and constantly sharpen new skills. The trouble, though, with most video games lies in what they teach, which often stays with the game when the game is complete. A game that makes you good at shooting aliens may have little application in the real world. Learning a more lasting new skill—be it playing guitar or learning to speak a foreign language—can equally harness the brain’s joy of learning new things, but leave you with something of permanent value, in a way that neither drugs nor video games ever could. It leaves you with a sense of fulfillment”: http://bit.ly/IVSakF.
I like Marcus’s emphasis, not only on how the experience of learning feels in the moment, but in what you are left with after the learning experience is over.