Monday, 2 February 2009

Incubation, learning with Abba and chunking.

Not only did I sit through Mamma Mia (the Abba film/musical) last night I also endured the documentary about the making of. I consider this paternal duty. 

During the choreography documentary the associate choreographer, Nichola Treherne, kindly announced to the dancers not to worry if they hadn't fully remembered the entire dance sequence as it would be better the next day, "Somehow," she said, "the body learns it overnight!"

I thought this was a great insight and made me think of the 'incubation' period we usually go through when learning new systems or structures or even when we're weighing up a big decision in our mind. this takes me back to my thesis on design development and the creative process. Incubation is often referred to as the period between  setting the objectives and actually getting down to doing the concept generation. Incubation might then be considered, as Debussy defined for music, "the silence between the notes" : That time during periods of creation or learning when we've committed the problem to our mind. It then goes and works on it in the background while we get on and do other things so that when we apply ourselves again to the problem (be it creation or learning) we've already got a bit of a head start (pun intended).

So learning as a process might have useful 'spaces' between practice too: just like those Mamma Mia dancers whose bodies magically remember moves overnight, then we can be encouraged by the fact that complex new forms or sequences might be helped by periods of incubation.

As incubation is helpful to learning new sequences, so too can chunking. (This idea first came to my attention from reading a blog but I can't find the reference for it! If you've seen it let me know and I'll gladly acknowledge.)

Sadly chunking is not a new form of Cadbury's chocolate. Happily it is helpful in our training and maybe even when teaching techniques to others. Chunking consists of breaking down new experiences to be learned into chunks of seven (plus or minus two). It is said that our short term memory has this capacity (7+/-2) and that learning within these confines is beneficial to increasing the power of our learning capacity. For example I would find it quite hard to memorise a number such as 3871095847, but if I break it down into 'chunks' then it suddenly becomes much more 'appealing' to my cranky old brain: 38, 710, 958, 47. The first string is 10 digits so more than our 7+/-2 but the second sequence of four chunks falls within this easy-to-remember range.

The similarity to learning new sequences or forms in the martial arts can easily be seen. Chunking might be a good teaching aid for seemingly bafflingly long hyungs. Often we break down these long forms into shorter chunks for the learner to easily digest. Hopefully not ALL in one go as I think quality is sometimes lost but at least this rule of thumb helps in knowing how much information to give to newbies.

So don't forget: having trouble learning that new form? Don't worry: chunk it up and sleep on it!




Ikigai said...

I think I've also experienced incubation, both in and out of the martial arts. I remember when I used to play tennis in high school - over the summer there were chunks when I didn't get to play. Somehow, when I came back, my body/mind had always adapted a bit better to the game and I seemed to have improved without even picking up the racket.

Of course, without all the constant playing during the year, this improvement wouldn't have happened - but certainly incubation allowed my body to 'settle into' techniques and tactics.


Littlefair said...

Good point Ikigai- mix in a fair bit of sweat with incubation to see real results...!

Michele said...

Useful post...I am working on the Tai Chi long form. Thanks.

Dan Prager said...

In practicing/refining a technique in jiu-jitsu or judo we normally practice with a partner. Advantages: feedback, feel.

Sometimes I find it helpful to then practice the movement with my imaginary friend (I mean partner). Advantages: imagination, can do it at home without a real partner.

Further step: Just visualize without moving. Advantages: more mentally demanding, cures insomnia.

Anyway, after doing one of the "sans partner" exercises a few times it is interesting o return to working with a partner and see what's changed.