Understanding the Psychological Desire to Learn

There was a time in my life when I was possessed by an inner urge to study. An urge that demanded full attention and isolated me from most of what other people my age were doing. It all began in a daydream…

Shere was a time in my life when I was possessed by an inner urge to study. An urge that demanded full attention and isolated me from most of what other people my age were doing. It all began in a daydream…

A humid tropical climate with a distinguished colonial ambience; big leaf palms and wooden ceiling fans; either Kenya or Tanzania, and a relaxing summer’s mood was home to me for the majority of my personal time as a child.
Awaiting the advent of the internet, we had recently acquired an old set of Collier’s Encyclopedia from a relative, and I turned the direction of incessant questioning from the patient but unhelpful elders around me to my intriguing new set of 24 friends.

The Psychological Yearning to Learn

I spent 2 years writing projects on Africa, becoming ever more familiar with the continent’s diversity of exotic cultural traditions and magnificent wildlife. I compiled price lists of premium camping equipment and chose carefully the 4×4 vehicles that would take me on future adventures around the Serengeti. I became ingrained with a world that was distinctly different than my home surroundings in England, and strangely more familiar and appealing. I was 7 when this interest began to grow and the daydream would be much a part of who I was to become.

It would be explained to me in years to come that an African spiritual guide was responsible for my peeked interest in Africa at this early age. Jacobie, I was told, was waiting until I became of an age to be educated in his people and traditions. While this information was decidedly fitting and had me questioning the spiritual significance of an invisible someone looming over me for some time, it was an anthropological interest that remained close by.

I had, by the age of 14, decided that my purpose on earth was to learn, and if this was incorrect, it wouldn’t be a looked back on as a great waste of time and seemed a wholesome distraction until I figured otherwise.

This yearning to learn visited me again. Once the chaos of my early teens subsided and gave me time to sit and consult the sky again with the rattlings of my monkey mind.  Astrophysics invited me in, sat me down and explained to me the foundations of the universe. I still to this day feel as though I was subconsciously pushed toward this discipline, as if the ghost of a Greek philosopher was nudging me toward understanding. Now I believe there are natural, progressive steps to a self-inquiring mind that appear universal, even without the clear celestial exhibition that presented the ancients, it seems this is where we all began.

One of the greatest distractions for me was the academic institution responsible for fulfilling these learning yearnings. I felt a huge miscommunication with schooling and left with the thought that for a large part of my life, I had been cheated by a dichotomy. I was supposed to be there to learn, but it was having the opposite influence. Self-study was entirely different. If several days passed without literary absorbtion, I was irritated until I found somewhere to hide and pass time quietly with something new.

Noam Chomsky recently struck a chord when he stated that Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own because that is what you’re going to do during your life, not just absorb materials given to you by the outside, and repeat it. This statement appears, in retrospect, extremely obvious.

A friend at the time passed me a copy of The Quantum Self which switched my interest towards Consciousness and Quantum Physics. The book blends quantum physics, psychotherapy and spirituality and while this isn’t a solid science book, it was the first time I had followed someone else’s philosophical narrative through theoretical ideas with self and nature and I felt a familiar connection.

At 19 I set off to Nepal for an opportunity to step back in time and understand a world with different rules. My comparison is that of reading a beautifully submersive narrative while every sense is being subjected to infinite streams of information. These colorful countries and experiences were so providing that I was taken back to my childhood daydream and have continued to explore our beautifully diverse planet ever since.

The switching between themes always appeared to come at the right time. When subjects began to repeat themselves, there was a new topic waiting to be understood. Thanks to Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley, I would begin a gentle introduction to biology and genetics. Oliver Sacks showed me the bizarre world of clinical neurology and Edward O. Wilson was there for Sociobiology, which went on to become the foundations of Evolutionary Psychology. I found this subject fascinating. This I thought, is what we should have been learning in school. A chance to understand ourselves, our behaviour, to be happy with our emotions and not live in fear of them. Unfortunately, this discipline has little impact on our day to day understanding of people and behaviour and  from what I could see, nobody around me seemed to care anyway.

Where at the same time I felt an intrinsic push to acquire new knowledge, I noticed that others avoided it. If Aristotle’s claim in the Metaphysics that all humans by nature desire to know was correct, then what was different in our society that demoted learning to be at best an extra-curriculative priority?

There are a few ideas here. One is that some people possibly satisfy that desire through oversimplification and look for a dogmatic acceptance to the norm and another that some people believe what they know is all there is to know and have no doubt to question unknown in their current worldview.

What was important to me was to understand the intrinsic inner urges. What is responsible for nudging us toward an area of interest? This is where Evolutionary Psychology came back into focus.

At the end of his classic treatise in 1859, On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin envisioned that in the distant future, the field of psychology would be based on a new foundation—that of evolutionary theory. A century and a half later, it’s clear that his vision proved prescient.

In his American Psychologist article, Dr David M. Buss stated that.

Evolutionary psychology is not a distinct branch of psychology, but rather a theoretical lens that is currently informing all branches of psychology. It is based on a series of logically consistent and well-confirmed premises: (1) that evolutionary processes have sculpted not merely the body, but also the brain, the psychological mechanisms it houses, and the behavior it produces; (2) many of those mechanisms are best conceptualized as psychological adaptations designed to solve problems that historically contributed to survival and reproduction, broadly conceived; (3) psychological adaptations, along with byproducts of those adaptations, are activated in modern environments that differ in some important ways from ancestral environments; (4) critically, the notion that psychological mechanisms have adaptive functions is a necessary, not an optional, ingredient for a comprehensive psychological science.

Evolutionary Psychology allows people to be different, sometimes too much so for comfort. Edward O. Wilson was applauded for his work with The Insect Societies and his following publication Sociobiology: The New Synthesis presenting the ideas of Evolutionary Psychology with animals as the subject was highly respected. Applying the same idea to human behaviour however, was out of touch with the current social view-point and his ideas were dismissed as offensive. This reminds me somewhat of Galileo’s discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter. The experts of the day refused to look through his spyglass because in their worldview, there could be no moons around Jupiter. This discovery, 400 years ago marked the beginning of the scientific revolution, although clearly, some things have not changed.

Based on the premise given by David M. Buss, our immediate environment may change our social strategy and produce varying behaviour in otherwise equal subjects. Early childhood sensations could be responsible for the observed diversity in the alternating approach of  seeking new knowledge or that of defending current understanding. This can be further understood in the example of reciprocal altruism, which again is accepted in animal psychology, but awkwardly avoided when it comes to discussing human behaviours.

150 years following the publication of “On the Origin of Species”, the field of psychology is slowly travelling back to its beginning as a life science, integrating the same principles biologists use to understand non-human life forms to understand human behavior and cognition.

Last year I attended a social gathering with a handful of students at The Max-Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarland, Germany and found myself in conversation with 2 students. One of whom grew up in Islamabad and the other from Prague.  Throughout the course of a few hours conversation, it turned out that our life-long personal progression of interest appeared almost mirrored. We held many of the same ideas and had formed many of the same conclusions in a multitude of disciplines. When we look at the possible variables in people’s circumstances, influences and outcomes, I hold strong that there is some common device which offers and possibly controls our natural progression of learning.

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Notes
Buss, D. M. (2009). The great struggles of life: Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary psychology. American Psychologist, 64, 140-148

Buss, D. M. (ed.). (2005). The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Burke D (2014) Why isn’t everyone an evolutionary psychologist? Front. Psychol. 5:910. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00910

Gigerenzer, G. (1991). From tools to theories: A heuristic of discovery in cognitive psychology. Psychological Review, 98, 254-267

The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology – Robert Wright

The Quantum Self  – Danah Zohar

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins

The Insect Societies – Edward O. Wilson

Sociobiology: The New Synthesis – Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature – Edward O. Wilson

Galileo’s Dream – Kim Stanley Robinson

Metaphysics Aristotle

The Purpose of Education – Noam Chomsky

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