Walking Creates A Thirst For Dry Knowledge

A few weeks ago I got a treadmill for my Beijing apartment. Two days ago I was walking on it (I try to walk 1 hr/day) while watching Leverage to make the activity more palatable. But Leverage bored me. It was too simple. So I took out some Chinese flashcards (character on one side, English and pinyin on the other) and started studying them. I was astonished how pleasant it was. An hour of walking and studying went by . . . uh, in a flash. In my entire life I have never had such a pleasant hour studying. The next day it happened again! The experience appears infinitely repeatable. I’ve previously mentioned the man who memorized Paradise Lost while walking on a treadmill.

I’ve noticed before that treadmill walking (by itself boring) and Chinese-character learning (by itself boring) become pleasant when combined. So why was I astonished? Because the increase in enjoyment was larger. The whole activity was really pleasant, like drinking water when thirsty. When an hour was up, I could have kept going. I wanted to do it again. When I noticed it earlier, I was using Anki to learn Chinese characters. Now I am using flashcards in blocks of ten (study 10 until learned, get a new set of 10, study them until learned . . . ). The flashcards provide much more sense of accomplishment and completion, which I thinks makes the activity more pleasant.

My progress with Chinese characters has been so slow that during the latest attempt (putting them on my wall) I didn’t even try to learn both the pinyin and the meaning at the same time; I had retreated to just trying to learn the meaning. That was hard enough. I have had about 100 character cards on the walls of my apartment for a month but I’ve only learned the meaning of about half of them. No pinyin at all. In contrast, in two one-hour treadmill sessions I’ve gotten through 60 cards  . . . including pinyin. For me, learning pinyin is much harder than learning meaning.

It’s like drinking water when you’re thirsty versus when you’re not thirsty. The walking turns a kind of switch that makes it pleasant to learn dry knowledge, just as lack of water creates thirst. Not only did studying dry materials become much more pleasant I suspect I also became more efficient — more retentive. I was surprised how fast I managed to reach a criterion of zero mistakes.

I had previously studied flashcards while walking around Tsinghua. This did not produce an oh-my-god experience. I can think of three reasons why the effect is now much stronger: 1. Ordinary walking is distracting. You have to watch where you’re going, there are other people, cars, trees, and so on. Distraction reduces learning. If the distractions are boring — and they usually are –  the experience becomes less pleasant. 2. Ordinary walking provides more information than treadmill walking (which provides no information at all — you’re staring at a wall). The non-flashcard info reduces desire to learn what’s on the flashcards. 3. On these Tsinghua walks I had about 100 flashcards which I cycled through. Using sets of 10, as I said, provides more sense of accomplishment. I’ve also had about 20 Chinese-speaking lessons while walking around. The walking made the lessons more pleasant, yes, but it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as the treadmill/flashcard combination. And because lessons with a tutor are intrinsically more enjoyable than studying flashcards, the increase in enjoyment was less dramatic.

As I said earlier I think there’s an evolutionary reason for this effect: The thirst for knowledge (= novelty) created by walking pushed us to explore and learn about our surroundings. One interesting feature of my discovery about treadmill and flashcards is that it may take better advantage of this mechanism than did ordinary Stone-Age life — better in the sense that more pleasure/minute can be derived. In the Stone Age, novelty, new dry knowledge, was hard to come by. You could only walk so fast. After a while, it was hard to walk far enough away to be in a new place. Whereas I can easily switch from flashcards I’ve learned to new ones. An example of a supranormal stimulus.

12 Replies to “Walking Creates A Thirst For Dry Knowledge”

  1. How fast do you go while doing the flash cards? Have you ever tried the Rosetta Stone software? I find it much more useful than simple flash cards since it involves more of the senses and is well done. It would be hard to pull off with a laptop, but treadmill + rosetta stone would be interesting. A well executed ipad app would probably work better.

  2. I walk about 2.5 miles per hour. I haven’t tried Rosetta Stone. Because the whole thing has become enjoyable there’s no need (yet) for things that make it more pleasant, such as picture and sound.

    Flashcards allow a really clear sense of accomplishment plus later testing and recording (I can mark on the flashcard itself how well I did). I thought Anki would be an improvement over flashcards but now I think the ease of use of flashcards compensates for the several advantages of Anki. An ipad app with continuous high-quality feedback would be good. I haven’t come across a language-learning program with good feedback. Anki has terrible feedback.

  3. I suspect that there’s a strong natural-selection benefit to being aware of your surroundings, to quickly taking in new territory – threats? food sources? – and to detecting changes in familiar territory. Since walking is what would have exposed early humans to their surroundings, we can predict that walking would have, over time, evolved to engage the brain’s capacity to observe, store, recall, and compare.

    To continue this line of thinking, when walking outside, this capacity would be put to its intended use. We wouldn’t notice it because, operating as evolved, it would feel completely normal. But when walking on a treadmill, this capacity would be engaged but unused and, we might predict, foster a sense of boredom.

    This hypothesis explains why flash cards – something to observe, store, recall, and compare – would seem so fulfilling on the treadmill: this engaged but previously unused capacity is finally given an outlet.

    One interesting experiment would be to control for exercise effects by comparing walking to, say, low-intensity bicycling for flash-card memorization. Since bicycling is something we would not expect to have been part of human evolution, we would expect it to be less effective than treadmill-walking for this purpose.

  4. I think there’s something about the rhythm of movement that helps to cut out distraction and set the right frame of mind for learning. I’ve found reading on an exercise bike is fantastic, but never tried it with language learning (I memorised most of the Japanese katakana, but it was so boring!).

    Will definitely try this one

  5. This is a great motivational read for me. I’m moving to Beijing in 4 months and I’ve been trying to stick with a program whether it be Rosetta Stone, Live Mocha or the many Mandarin books I have, but it gets old for me really quickly. This is something I can do while on the bike at the gym to help the time go by and hopefully help me pick up my Chinese a bit faster. Thank you!

  6. Oh, I forgot to ask, where are you getting your characters on the flashcards from? I have a few good sources online but I’m always looking for new ones.

  7. I don’t know if it is true or not, but I heard once that Mao Zedong taught his soldiers to read by pinning characters to the back of each soldier. Each soldier know the meaning for their word and tell it to the soldier behind them. While marching each soldier would be reading the symbol in front of them over and over. Rote learning at it’s finest.

  8. This reminds me of the rocking motion you see Jewish and Islamic students adopting whilst reciting/memorising scripture – always appeared to me to be a adaptive response to the unnaturally static mental and physical intellectual experience. If you want to go down that route, of course, there’s also a possible link to the kind of rocking / repetitive movements you see in traumatised children / animals kept in cages. Walking sounds like a much less maladative response to me! I’m gonna give it a try.

  9. Interesting. Personally I would relate it to walking meditation. Our long running forefathers would need to get and remain focussed when running. So the pacemaker rhythms used during walking probably calm some distracting brain centres.

  10. I noticed a similar thing. Before exams I now always wander through the woods (many paths, not many people, so distractions are not too numerous). I started off with flashcards and quickly discovered the “few at a time”-rule. By now I use the Mental Case iPhone App (no affiliation). It does a similar thing and repeats only a few cards until you get them right, although it switches them out one by one.

    I think it has to do with giving the moving parts of my body something to do while my brain can concentrate on information. I get really restless after a few minutes of dry learning while sitting, but a three-hour walk per day does wonders to my marks and is still pleasant.

    I can’t compare it to a treadmill though, as I don’t have one and don’t want to learn in a gym.

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