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 cardsÂ . . . 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 –Â 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.