We are sentenced to permanent cognitive stretching

If you want to get better at something, should remain in your comfort zone? Or should you, rather, be exposed to ideas or techniques slightly beyond your reach? It should be self-evident that the latter is the correct answer: it is called cognitive stretching. It is an essential part of learning.

Game designers instinctively know about cognitive stretching: most video games are designed to taunt the player with the possibility that they might be so much more. Yes, cognitive stretch is stressful, but it is also stimulating… and fun!

How do you know whether you are getting enough cognitive stretching? There is a simple test: do you know everything about a given problem? What thousands of years of scholarship have shown is that there is almost no end to what we can learn about any given issue. If you have the feeling that you know it all, then it is maybe time to meet new people, to read some new books, to change school or to change job.

What defines our current era, more than anything else, is that it is obviously apparent to anyone that we live in an open world. We are sentenced to permanent cognitive stretching. To think that you know everything about programming, you have to work hard to avoid reading Stack Overflow where thousands of new perplexing questions are asked every day.

I think that there are a few sane ways to deal with cognitive stretching:

  • Perfectionism is the first casualty of cognitive stretching: let go of the idea that you could perfectly master anything.
  • Cognitive stretching is fun, if you let it be: you should never have to feel bored anymore.
  • If you are a coach, a leader, a teacher or a manager: stop trying to give the illusion that you know it all.
  • If you are a student, assume that you know little and will always know little. Take pleasure in what you learn and stop worrying about everything you haven’t learned.

Cognitive stretching is not without controverse however. For example, many dedicated teachers have a somewhat difficult relationship with it. Introducing students to ideas that are likely to remain beyond them for years is often considered a bug. It is as if we were happy to let you make erotic movies, as long these movies ended up showing full frontal nudity. As the volume of porn on the web indicates, keeping nothing mysterious can be profitable. In this sense, these teachers have a point: it does please the crowds to reveal everything. People think they like straight-forward answers. People want to learn everything there is about software programming in 10 days. They want to learn the 7 secrets of the great managers.

But the tension between full knowledge, and partial knowledge, is what keeps us going. I cannot remember a more dangerous intellectual experience than finishing my first course on classical mechanics and concluding that classical mechanics was simple. A few years later, I took another classical mechanics course where I failed the first test. I did end up with a good grade, but only after radically changing my appreciation of Newton’s work. In a very real sense, my first course failed me. It gave me no appreciation for everything I did not know.

Daniel Lemire, "We are sentenced to permanent cognitive stretching," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 8, 2013.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “We are sentenced to permanent cognitive stretching”

  1. Nice post!

    I am personally affected by the opposite problem. I am conscious of not knowing many things, especially in fields adjacent to mine (parallel computing, numerical analysis, statistics, linguistics) and I suffer the fact that my happiness, induced by the learning activity, is demolished by the Internet. For each super-clever thing I arrive to, a random search in StackOverflow, for example, will show me how insignificant it actually was.

    I suffer the fact that in the Internet is very difficult to achieve the full appreciation of your own achievements.

    Am I weird?

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