Fact 1: For the last few weeks, I’ve been studying Chinese using a flashcard program called Anki. It’s an excellent program but boring. I’ve never liked studying — maybe no one does. Fact 2: I’ve had a treadmill for a very long time. Walking on a treadmill is boring so I always combine it with something pleasant — like watching American Idol. That makes it bearable. I don’t think listening to music would be enough.
Two days ago I discovered something that stunned me: Using Anki WHILE walking on my treadmill was enjoyable. I easily did it for an hour and the next day (yesterday) did it for an hour again. The time goes by quickly. Two boring activities, done together, became pleasant. Anki alone I can do maybe ten minutes. Treadmill alone I can do only a few minutes before I want to stop. In both cases I’d have to be pushed to do it at all. Yet the combination I want to do; 60 minutes feels like a good length of time.
I’ve noticed several related things: 1. I could easily study flashcards while walking. This was less mysterious because I coded walking as pleasant. 2. I can’ t bear to watch TV sitting down. Walking on a treadmill makes it bearable. This didn’t puzzle me because I coded TV watching as pleasant and sitting as unpleasant (although I sit by choice while doing many other things). 3. I have Pimsler Chinese lessons (audio). I can painlessly listen to them while walking. While stationary (sitting or standing), it’s hard to listen to them. 4. When writing (during which I sit), it’s very effective to work for 40 minutes and then walk on my treadmill watching something enjoyable for 20 minutes. I can repeat that cycle many times. 5. Allen Neuringer found he was better at memorization while moving than while stationary. 6. There’s some sort of movement/thinking connection — we move our arms when we talk, we may like to walk while we talk, maybe walking makes it easier to think, and so on.
You could say that walking causes a “thirst” for learning or learning causes a “thirst” for walking. Except that the “thirst” is so hidden I discovered it only by accident. Whereas actual thirst is obvious. The usual idea is that what’s pleasant shows what’s good for us — e.g., water is pleasant when we are thirsty. Yet if walking is good for us — a common idea — why isn’t it pleasant all by itself? And if Anki is good for us, why isn’t it pleasant all by itself? The Anki/treadmill symmetry is odd because lots of people think we need exercise to be healthy but I’ve never heard someone say we need to study to be healthy.
The evolutionary reason for this might be to push people to walk in new places (which provide something to learn) rather than old places (which don’t). To push them to explore. David Owen noticed it was much more fun for both him and his small daughter to walk in the city than in the country. He was surprised. When I drive somewhere, and am not listening to a book or something, I prefer a new route over a familiar one. If I am listening to a book I prefer the familiar route because it makes it easier to understand the book.
Maybe the practical lesson is that we enjoy learning dry stuff when walking but not when stationary. Pity the 99.9% of students who study stationary. Ideally you’d listen to a lecture while walking somewhere, perhaps around a track. Now and then I’ve interviewed people while walking; it worked much better than the usual interview format (seated). The old reason was I disliked sitting. Now I have a better reason.