How Your Brain Works

Every Wednesday we host dinner at our house.

The guest list varies, but there’s a core group of close friends & neighbors who usually attend. Two of those core group are identical twins named Lynn & Katie.

It’s been fascinating to watch my now two year old daughter develop the ability to tell the two women apart.

From calling them both Katie, to calling them Katie and “more Katie,” to realizing that there were two different people but not knowing which was which, to always knowing which is Lynn and which is Katie.

At no point did we take our daughter aside and tell her, “no darling, this sister is Katie—notice how her hair is just a bit darker and how her face is shaped a little differently and how her vocal inflections are brighter and more assertive.”

No—somewhere over the course of the year between one and two, she made fifty or a hundred guesses as to which sister she was looking at. Based on no other information other than “that’s right, that’s Lynn” or “no honey, that’s Katie,” a toddler was able to discern differences that would befuddle an adult who was meeting them for the first time.

And it’s not just identical twin sisters. Little humans do this all the time as they learn to discern pink from purple, or chairs from tables, or jackets from hoodies.

It’s how your brain still works.

One of my favorite examples is the Zen Nippon School of Chick Sexing.

In the early 80s, the global price of eggs dropped sharply as this Japanese school realized it could train people to discern hens from roosters while they were only a few days old. Up until this time, egg farmers had to wait until the chicks were nearly six weeks old before they could tell them apart—to an untrained person, they look absolutely identical.

And they taught this almost magical skill in an equally bizarre way.

Every day, for two years, ZNSCS students would be accompanied by an instructor as they looked at hundreds and hundreds of chicken butts.

The student looks and ventures a guess: “male?”

“Nope,” says the instructor. “Female.”

The student picks up another. “Female?”

“Correct,” says the instructor.

No other information is given as to why the instructor knows the sex of the chicken.

This is just like the learning process of a toddler. We don’t burden them with additional information. There’s no “No dear. You see, pink is a combination of red and white, while purple is a combination of red and blue…”

And certainly no expert-level gibberish like “the Pantone number for light pink is #FFB6C1…”

All of this is to say what is probably obvious to you by now.

If you want to develop the ability to discern the subtle differences between two similar things, you need to perform a lot of repetitions and get simple, immediate feedback.

There are a couple other relevant points here that I won’t wrap in long-winded stories:

  • priming your mind with the relevant information beforehand leads to better uptake, and
  • the level of involvement is important—active participation beats passive review. What’s more,
  • scaling the level of difficulty to allow for a sense of progress leads to greater motivation and engagement.

Music school relies on things like mutually reinforcing classes, a culture of intense all-day study, and its high price tag to make its learning methods work.

But we’ll use the more elegant methods of priming, testing, immediate feedback, and a well-calibrated grading of the difficulty—combined with an obvious sense of progress.

In short, this course is designed to work the way your brain works.

We’ll talk more about that in our next lesson, How This Course Works.

See you there,