Don’t Study; Imagine

Creativity is a critical ingredient to learning
JULY 2018
Dustin
H.
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

When I was quite young I asked my mother if I could take apart a VCR – a relic of the old times when movies came from video rental stores on cassettes you had to rewind. Like any good mother, she told me that I was under no circumstances allowed to disassemble what she paid for. Like any ornery son, I waited until she went to work and did it anyway.

Back then I had no idea what any part of the VCR did, so I made up stories about how the components interacted. This thingamabob? It collects static electricity and disperses it throughout the container. That whatchamacallit? It determines the film rating by scanning for innuendo or foul language.

Freshly disassembled, the VCR parts laid before me. It was at that moment I realized I hadn’t taken notes. Sure, there’s something therapeutic about taking a complete system and reducing it down to its constituent parts. What they don’t tell you about is the panicked anxiety afterwards when you have to put it back together. Dreading the ire of my mother, I gave it the old middle school try and attempted to reassemble the VCR. It seemed to work, but I wasn’t exactly running an exhaustive set of unit tests.

Some years later, in high school, I encountered a problem while studying Calculus. Namely, I was bad at it. The various identities of sine and cosine seemed like the arcane writings of an old wizard who was becoming senile. And I? The assistant who regretted not taking that cushy knight’s page job with full benefits and a contribution-matched retirement plan.

The idea of magic and made up stories lingered during my Calculus studies. I began to entertain myself by drawing equations as glyphs in an old leather journal. There was a method and purpose to these glyphs, crafted by the ancient sages Liebniz and Newton. I’d shuffle them around to make new ones, being careful not to break the rules so carefully delineated by the elders.

I drew crude maps of the Land of Polynomia. I charted the rocky terrain of the Trigonometric Mountains and determined the most perilous slopes. I was a battle master, plotting out routes for my troops to fight back Sauron’s army.

Studying was not just facts and proofs to memorize; it was adventuring to find the secrets of the old world. It was more glyphs to add to my repertoire and more lands to chart.

I mention all of this because my New Year’s resolution is to re-learn multivariable calculus and linear algebra. As a hobby, I’ve been trying to utilize various machine learning algorithms creatively. Generative adversarial networks for automated world map creation, deep neural networks trained on poetry for text generation, etc. I’d like to go back and re-learn the foundational math upon which most machine learning algorithms are built.

Thus, since January, for a few hours every other night, I’ve been taking MIT OpenCourseWare classes. Unfortunately, it had been quite some time since my high school days and I’d forgotten the magic touch. Instead, I watched lectures and took notes, completed the homework, took exams, etc. It had all been very, shall we say, uninspired. My guiding lights were consistency, determination, and the stubbornness of not being bested by something I don’t understand.

Somehow, over the years, throughout college and my PhD, I had forgotten a critical ingredient to learning: creativity.

That creative spark would’ve been lost, and this post gone unwritten, had serendipity not graced me. Earlier this year I watched a video of a man portraying a wizard in a tabletop role-playing game. Partway through the video, I noticed he was keeping notes of the group’s adventures in an old leather-bound journal. A journal just like the one I wrote Calculus glyphs in during high school.

For the first time in almost seven years I recalled the lore that imbued my studies with life. That creative spark rekindled.

I didn’t just take apart a VCR; I gave the parts a story. I didn’t just learn Calculus; I imagined a world. What I’m re-learning now isn’t just a Jacobian matrix; it’s a siege weapon for Lord Backpropagation.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but I’ve always had weak eyes. Note to self (commit to memory): science and math are not a series of facts to memorize. Rather, they are a blueprint for your imagination.