I just read an interesting article in Wired magazine about memory, learning, and a product called SuperMemo. SuperMemo is a product that uses an algorithm to ensure that you review things you want to remember at the optimal time. This is based on well-documented research around what's called the spacing effect, which says that humans learn something best if they are reminded of it just before they are about to forget it. Therefore, optimal studying follows a chart like this:
The part of the article that really caught my interest was this, however:
"We are used to the idea that normal humans can perform challenging feats of athleticism. We all know someone who has run a marathon or ridden a bike cross-country. But getting significantly smarter — that seems to be different. We associate intelligence with pure talent, and academic learning with educational experiences dating far back in life. To master a difficult language, to become expert in a technical field, to make a scientific contribution in a new area — these seem like rare things. And so they are, but perhaps not for the reason we assume.
The failure of SuperMemo to transform learning uncannily repeats the earlier failures of cognitive psychology to influence teachers and students. Our capacity to learn is amazingly large. But optimal learning demands a kind of rational control over ourselves that does not come easily. Even the basic demand for regularity can be daunting. If you skip a few days, the spacing effect, with its steady march of sealing knowledge in memory, begins to lose its force. Progress limps. When it comes to increasing intelligence, our brain is up to the task and our technology is up to the task. The problem lies in our temperament." (emphasis mine)
You know, if we swapped the words "ability" for "intelligence" and "training" for "learning" we could use this paragraph to explain why more people aren't better runners! I am a firm believer that "the problem lies in our temperament." But I'm also a firm believer that you can change your temperament. The Optimal Training Principles provide just such an avenue, by shifting how you think about such things as ability, talent and training.
This article also brings up an interesting topic for discussion that I don't read much about (and I'm pretty sure that's because there isn't the same kind of research on it). That is whether our current training methods are even close to what would be "optimal".
Extensive research into cognitive psychology hasn't been able to change the way educators and teachers (and to a lesser extent, parents and other authority figures) approach learning. Even after 100 years, educators still don't appropriately take into account the spacing effect in their curricula. Which begs the question about training:
Do we train this way because it's the time-tested proven method for generating peak performance, or just because we've been unwilling to adopt the methods that would lead to those breakthroughs? Have we been ignoring running's equivalent to the "spacing effect"? Or has enough research even been done to determine whether there is an equivalent to "the spacing effect" in training?
And for you runners reading this blog, there's good news. You're probably already smarter! Now here are a couple more interesting "hacks" (here and here) that can not only make you smarter, they can make you faster, too!