The Art of Learning – Slowing Down Time

By Josh Waitzkin in Learning on March 20th, 2009 / No Comments

As a child I had a fear that I could never be a chess master because I ­wouldn’t be able to fit all the information into my mind. Sometimes after two hours of a chess lesson, my teacher’s words seemed to go in one ear and out the other, and I envisioned a brain filled to the brim. Where could I ever put so much more? And if I did manage to cram everything in there, how would I be able to sort through the stuff?

Of course this type of childhood fear is a little silly – skilled humans internalize large amounts of data – but I was on to something. Once we reach a certain level of expertise at a given discipline and our knowledge is expansive, the critical issue becomes: how is all this stuff navigated and put to use? I believe the answers to this question are the gateway to the most esoteric levels of elite performance.

Thinking back on the chapter Making Smaller Circles, it’s apparent that I was focusing on the subtle, introspective cultivation of external skills. Now let’s turn further inward, and explore what states of heightened perception can be cultivated with proper training. When I broke my hand in that Super-­Heavyweight Finals match, time slowed down in my mind – or my perception became so sharpened, so focused on the essential, that I processed necessary information much more quickly than usual. I ­didn’t feel like I was racing, however. Internally, the experience was profoundly calm with a razor’s edge – the epitome of what I think quality presence should be all about.

Once my hand healed and the Nationals were over, the question on my mind was: how can I make time slow down without breaking a limb? Everyone has heard stories of women lifting cars off their children or of time seeming to slow down during a car accident or a fall down the stairs. Clearly, there is a survival mechanism that allows human beings to channel their physical and mental capacities to an astonishing degree of intensity in life-­or-­death moments. But can we do this at will?

When I started thinking about how I could consistently make my perception of time be different from my opponents’, I realized that I had to delve into the operating mechanism of intuition. I suspect we have all had the experience of being stumped by something, eventually moving on to something else, and then suddenly knowing the answer to the initial problem. Most of us have also had the experience of meeting someone and having a powerfully good or bad feeling about them, without knowing why. I have found that, even if a few times it has taken years to pan out, these guiding instincts have been on the money.

Along the same lines, in my chess days, nearly all of my revelatory moments emerged from the unconscious. My numbers to leave numbers approach to chess study was my way of having a working relationship with the unconscious parts of my mind. I would take in vast amounts of technical information that my brain somehow put together into bursts of insight that felt more like music or wind than mathematical combinations. Increasingly, I had the sense that the key to these leaps was interconnectedness—some part of my being was harmonizing all my relevant knowledge, making it gel into one potent eruption, and suddenly the enigmatic was crystal-­clear. But what was really happening?

The question of intuition is hotly debated among psychologists, philosophers, and artists, and it has been a source of much research and thought in my life. My grandmother, Stella Waitzkin, a boldly creative Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor, used to tell me that intuition was the hand of God. Artists often refer to intuition as a muse. In the introduction, I mentioned that one philosophy professor of mine at Columbia University told me, rather proudly, that the very notion of intuition is incoherent – it ­doesn’t exist.

In my opinion, intuition is our most valuable compass in this world. It is the bridge between the unconscious and the conscious mind, and it is hugely important to keep in touch with what makes it tick. If we get so caught up in narcissistic academic literalism that we dismiss intuition as nonexistent because we ­don’t fully understand it, or if we blithely consider the unconscious to be a piece of machinery that operates mystically in a realm that we have no connection to, then we lose the rich opportunity to have open communication with the wellspring of our creativity.

For much of this book I have described my vision of the road to mastery – you start with the fundamentals, get a solid foundation fueled by understanding the principles of your discipline, then you expand and refine your repertoire, guided by your individual predispositions, while keeping in touch, however abstractly, with what you feel to be the essential core of the art. What results is a network of deeply internalized, interconnected knowledge that expands from a central, personal locus point. The question of intuition relates to how that network is navigated and used as fuel for creative insight. Let’s begin the plunge into this issue with chess serving as a metaphor for all disciplines.

The clearest way to approach this discussion is with the imagery of chunking and carved neural pathways. Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline. The initial studies on this topic were, conveniently, performed on chess players who were considered to be the clearest example of sophisticated unconscious pattern integration.

The Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot (1965) and years later the team of William Simon and Herbert Chase (1973) put chess players of varying skill levels in front of chess positions and then asked them to re-­create those positions on an adjacent empty board. The psychologists taped and studied the eye patterns and timing of the players while they performed the tasks.

The relevant conclusions were that stronger players had better memories when the positions were taken out of the games of other strong players, because they re-­created the positions by taking parts of the board (say five or six pieces) and chunking (merging) them in the mind by their interrelationships. The stronger the player, the more sophisticated was his or her ability to quickly discover connecting logical patterns between the pieces (attack, defense, tension, pawn chains, etc.) and thus they had better chess memories.

On the other hand, when presented with random chess positions, with no logical cohesiveness, the memories of the players seemed to level off. In some cases the weaker players performed more effectively, because they were accustomed to random situations while the stronger players were a bit lost without “logic to the position.” So, in a nutshell, chunking relates to the mind’s ability to take lots of information, find a harmonizing/logically consistent strain, and put it together into one mental file that can be accessed as if it were a single piece of information.
By “carved neural pathways” I am referring to the process of creating chunks and the navigation system between chunks.

I am not making a literal physical description, so much as illustrating the way the brain operates. Let’s say that I spend fifteen years studying chess. During these thousands of hours, my mind is effectively cutting paths through the dense jungle of chess. The jungle analogy is a good one. Imagine how time-­consuming it would be to use a machete to cut your way through thick foliage. A few miles could take days. Once the path is cleared, however, you could move quickly through the clearing. If you were to make a road and ride a bike or other vehicle, the transportation would get faster still.

From THE ART OF LEARNING by Josh Waitzkin.  Copyright © 2007 by [as it appears in Licensee’s edition]. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, an Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

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