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Wednesday, May 4, 2005

The portable, hand-held learning laboratory

[Audio Version]

Poor researchers like me can't generally afford to put together sophisticated research projects. One of the interesting things about researching intelligence, though, is that we have at least one human research subject that's available for experiments 24 hours a day.

If you'd like to learn more about the nature of learning in the human brain, there's a simple but interesting experiment you can run. Like most people, I'm right handed. For about a year, now, I've been trying to teach myself to brush my teeth with my left hand. I've gotten pretty good at it, but I'm still in awe at how bad my fine control skills with my left hand are compared to my right.

Now, I'm sure people who understand handedness better than I will say my left hand will probably never be as dexterous as my right hand. And, sure enough, I don't work out my left hand as often as my right, so it'll probably never be as strong, which affects dexterity. Still, setting aside these confounding factors, it's been a very useful sort of experiment for me.

In the beginning, I was incredibly clumsy, mostly just locking up my left hand and letting the arm do much of the work. Within a few days, I was starting to crudely parrot my right hand's motions. I'd give the toothbrush to my right hand and have it slowly go through its motions so I could study what it was doing and then take it back to duplicate the motions with my left. Within a month or so, I think I was able to perform most of the basic motions without doing much thinking about it. By now, I've gotten to the point where I actually find myself, toothbrush in my left hand, asking which one is actually my right hand, simply because my left hand has gotten almost as good as my right at doing most everything for the half of my mouth that I assign to it. So now it seems the main difference between my two hands, when it comes to brushing my teeth, is a simple one of strength. My left hand gets fairly tired when I try to do my whole mouth with it, whereas my right is fine with it all.

I'd encourage anyone interested in the nature of learning to consider trying this same experiment. It provides the rare opportunity to be in the head of both the teacher and the student. Training a new skill for the first time is a very conscious effort, and such efforts are very accessible to introspection. Besides, this gives one a chance to run a long term experiment that takes almost no extra time out of one's day. So, happy experimenting.

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