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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Active/Passive Learning (2)

I mentioned last time that there was an intrinsic difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ modes of learning and that while most experts have established that the former requires a significantly higher degree of cognitive/muscle memory and hence harder to achieve (but also more effective) than the latter, I pointed out that ‘passive’ is a crucial and fundamental prerequisite for ‘active’ and it is useless to jump into the more effective way of learning before one has already done all the basics extensively and thoroughly. I recently chanced upon a youtube video explaining the immense benefits of sleep and the deep-lying threats of insomnia, which was pretty scary, especially for a night-hound like me (!). Lack and deprivation of sleep are extremely common in today’s fast-moving and technological world, since our eyes and minds are constantly preoccupied by smart devices and cyber-technology which are moving from second to second. It is hence impossible to switch off completely, which makes it very possible to be constantly engaged with one’s work 24/7. The video explains that while we may think that we are increasing our productivity and getting more done by staying awake and working longer hours, our concentration and efficiency go down exponentially which not only severely reduces the quality of our output but may also do irreparable long-term damage to our system. All this is well-known, but the video goes a step further by explaining that sleep replenishes certain neuro-mechanisms which are responsible for memory-formation and logical connection, without which the human brain can only receive external stimuli but not synthesise them, which practically makes us zombies. I particularly like the way it says that we are actually most productive while we are asleep, since this is the time our brains heal from all the exertions during our waking hours and put everything together (and yes, the metaphor here used is that our brain cells get damaged, very much like our muscles when exercising, when we absorb new information and excessive processing of information may actually kill the brain cells permanently and render one a vegetable…!). It goes on to say that lack of sleep is actually carcinogenic, since it weakens a particular type of defence mechanism which is our bodies’ way of resisting cancer-spread. By this definition, I am lucky to be still alive since I should have died a long time ago and many times over…!

This was a fascinating video to watch and it got me thinking about different modes of working. I appreciate what the experts said about new memory formation being restored and optimised while sleeping, since this is how we often feel, namely fully alert and energised after a good night’s sleep and that bitch of a task which completely bogged us down the previous day suddenly feels so much easier and lighter to handle, as we are that much more competent and intelligent after our sleep has restored all our brain cells to their healthy state. Sleep, therefore, seems to be another form of ‘passive’ learning, and here it is most effective after a strenuous session of ‘active’ working in the form of absorbing new information. It is fine going crazy on our tasks at hand and trying to do them all in one-go, but when we feel so exhausted (and yes, ‘active’ learning is much more exhausting than ‘passive’) that we cannot possibly go on anymore, this is the time to stop, rest, and let things sink in, since, as proven by scientists, sleep and rest do seem to have the magic effect of putting things together seemlessly and effortlessly, and the more one tries to cram in by being ‘active’ during the day, the more one absorbs while sleeping ‘passively’ at night. As before, let’s not underestimate the power of ‘passive’ learning, which, in this case, does seem to be somewhat magical. Another paradox of life.

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