According to Tom Vanderbilt, there is life-changing magic in learning new skills. In Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, he proposes learning to surf, sing, draw, juggle, play chess and by doing so, find happiness as a novice.
“Learning skills helps open new worlds,” Vanderbilt writes. He draws on an analogy to babies learning to walk who “can suddenly go more places and do more things”. Granted, the spirit of adventure has been eclipsed by the simple exercise of surviving a grocery store trip, masked, with hand sanitizer at the ready.
As you get older, you develop everyday routines and habits that make your life easier. These habits are formed without your awareness. All you know is that these habits and routines make life simpler and less fussy. They give you the freedom to enjoy the good things in life.
What happens when you learn something new is you start with basic steps. In life, the basic steps are those you have learned over the course of your life. These steps include figuring out how to provide food and water, shelter, earn a living and create good relationships. As time goes on, you become better at these without really thinking about it. Over time you have learned additional skills to take better care of yourself and your relationships.
Vanderbilt suggests taking a beginner’s class. Start slowly and with time, you will became more skilled. Your muscle and mind memory will kick in. After a while, these repetitive movements will begin to feel like you are no longer learning. In your everyday life, you are learning new skills all the time, often subconsciously. At the same time, the neurotransmitters are developing their solid pathways and the movements are becoming automatic.
Musicians, athletes and quiz bowl champions all have one thing in common: training. Learning to play an instrument or a sport requires time and patience. It is all about steadily mastering new skills. The same is true when it comes to learning information like you would by studying for a big test. Teachers, coaches and parents everywhere like to say: Practice makes perfect.
Doing something over and over again doesn’t just make it easier. It actually changes the brain. Recent data have been showing that the brain continues to change over the course of our lives. Cells grow. They form connections with new cells. Some stop talking to others.
Nathan Spreng is a neuroscientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Spreng wanted to know how the brain changes, how it morphs a little bit, as we learn. Nathan Spreng studied the studies.
He discovered that areas that allow people to pay attention became most active as someone began a new task. But those attention areas became less active over time. Meanwhile, areas of the brain linked with daydreaming and mind-wandering became more active as people became more familiar with a task.
“At the beginning, you require a lot of focused attention,” Spreng says. Learning to swing a bat requires a great deal of focus when you first try to hit a ball. But the more you practice, Spreng says, the less you have to think about what you’re doing.
Extensive practice can even allow a person to perform a task while thinking about other things – or about nothing at all. A professional pianist, for example, can play a complex piece of music without thinking about which notes to play next. In fact, stopping to think about the task can actually interfere with a flawless performance. This is what musicians, athletes and others often refer to as being “in the zone.”
The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells, called neurons. These cells “talk” to each other, mostly using chemical messengers. Incoming signals cause a listening neuron to fire or send signals of its own. A cell fires when an electrical signal travels through it. The signal moves away from what is called the cell body, down through a long structure called an axon. When the signal reaches the end of the axon, it triggers the release of those chemical messengers. The chemicals then leap across a tiny gap. This triggers the next cell to fire. And on it goes.
As we learn something new, cells that send and receive information about the task become more and more efficient. It takes less effort for them to signal the next cell about what’s going on. In a sense, the neurons become wired together. As cells in a brain area related to some task became more efficient, they used less energy to chat. This allowed more neurons in the “daydreaming” region of the brain to rev up their activity.
Neurons can signal to several neighbors at once. For example, one neuron might transmit information about the location of a baseball pitch that’s flying toward you. Meanwhile, other neurons alert your muscles to get ready to swing the bat. When those neurons fire at the same time, connections between them strengthen. That improves your ability to connect with the ball.
The brain doesn’t shut down overnight. In fact, sleeping dramatically improves learning. That’s because as we sleep, our brains store memories and new information from the previous day. So a poor night’s sleep can hurt our ability to remember new things.
Specific cells in the hippocampus region are involved in storing memories. Olena Bukalo and Doug Fields, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md., did research on mice that showed when these specific cells fired as the mice slept, the scientists noticed that the cells didn’t fire normally. Instead, electrical signals spontaneously fired near the middle of an axon, then traveled back in the direction of the cell body. In other words, the cells fired in reverse. This actions boosted learning. It did so by making connections between cells stronger. This action wired together the cells.
The reverse signaling made the neuron less sensitive to signals from its neighbors, the experts found. This made it harder for the cell to fire, which gave the neuron a chance to recharge, Bukalo explains. After a good night’s sleep, these cells will be wired more tightly to each other. The neurons relay information faster and more efficiently so those networks reflect an improvement in understanding or physical skill.
Students often try to memorize lots of information the night before a test. Cramming may get them through the test. But the students won’t remember the information for very long, says Hadley Bergstrom, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Rockville, Md.
It’s important to spread out learning over many days. An “aha!” moment – when something suddenly becomes clear – doesn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it is the result of a steady accumulation of information. That’s because adding new information opens up memories associated with the task. Once those memory neurons are active, they can form new connections, explains Bergstrom. They also can form stronger connections within an existing network. Over time, your level of understanding increases until you suddenly “get” it.
Tom Vanderbilt was inspired by his young daughter’s insatiable need to know how to do almost everything, He carved out a year to learn purely for the sake of learning. He tackled five skills, choosing them for their difficulty to master and their lack of marketability – chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling. What he didn’t expect is that the circuitous journey he takes while learning these skills would be even more satisfying than any knowledge he gains.
He writes about his experience singing R.E.M. in an amateur choir, losing games of chess to an eight-year old child, and avoiding scorpions at a surf camp in Costa Rica. Along the way, he explores the fascinating psychology and science behind the benefits of becoming an adult beginner. Weaving comprehensive research and surprising insight gained from his experiences, he shares how his new sense of curiosity opened him up to a profound happiness and a deeper connection to the people around him. Beginners is not a “how to” book as much as a “why to” book. It’s about how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical.
Maybe instead of a New Year’s resolution this year consider:
- Taking up a new hobby
- Learning to cook new recipes
- Learning a language
- Learning how to draw portraits
- Writing a book
- Learning to dance the tango
- Playing a musical instrument
- Learning a new sport
Photo Credit: KTSIMAGE / ISTOCKPHOTO
Sorrel is a leafy green plant, use alternately as an herb and a vegetable. It has a distinctive sour, lemony flavor. It’s from the knotweed family, or Polygonaceae, the same botanical family as buckwheat and rhubarb. It also goes by the name “dock”.
Sorrel makes a good alternative to spinach as the leaves have a more tangy, slightly citrusy taste. A perennial plant, the leaves of sorrel can be harvested over a long period through to midwinter.
The two most commonly grown types are known as French and common sorrel. Compared with common sorrel, the French version is less bitter and grows taller with smaller, more rounded leaves.
Other species of sorrel include:
- sheep sorrel
- arctic dock
- patience dock
- broad-leaved sorrel
- red-veined sorrel
Certain plants and foods share a similar name but are unrelated. For example, wood sorrel is a type of edible weed found throughout North America. In Jamaica, the term sorrel refers to roselle, a type of hibiscus plant.
One cup of raw sorrel contains:
- Calories: 29
- Protein: 2.5 grams
- Fat: 1 gram
- Carbs: 4 grams
- Fiber: 4 grams
- Vitamin C: 71% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Magnesium: 33% of the DV
- Vitamin A: 30% of the DV
- Manganese: 20% of the DV
- Copper: 19% of the DV
- Iron: 18% of the DV
- Potassium: 11% of the DV
- Riboflavin: 10% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 10% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 7% of the DV
Sorrel is especially high in vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin that fights inflammation and plays a key role in immune function. It’s also high in fiber, which can promote regularity, increase feelings of fullness, and help stabilize blood sugar levels. Additionally, it’s loaded with magnesium, a mineral that’s essential for bone and heart health.
Sorrel is a great source of antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that protect your cells from damage by neutralizing harmful free radicals. Antioxidants may help prevent many chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
In particular, studies show that sorrel is rich in the following antioxidants:
- phenolic acids
One test-tube study compared the antioxidant properties of 10 plant extracts and found that red sorrel exhibited the highest antioxidant activity.
Another test-tube study showed that Rumex hastatus, a specific species of sorrel, scavenged harmful free radicals. This indicates that it might be useful in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
For instance, a test-tube study showed that several species of sorrel killed breast, cervical, and skin cancer cells.
Animal research suggests that sorrel may improve several aspects of heart health. In one study in rats, sorrel extract was shown to modify certain pathways involved in platelet aggregation which is the process in which platelets in your blood clump together to decrease blood clot formation.
Other animal studies have also found that sorrel extract could help dilate blood vessels to prevent high blood pressure.
Sorrel is rich in fiber and antioxidants, both of which promote heart health.
How to Buy
- Common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is the one most readily available at markets and nurseries for planting. It is a deep-rooted perennial that will last for years and years if it finds a spot it likes. It has a sharp flavor and somewhat large, arrow-shaped leaves.
- French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) is also cultivated, so you’ll see it at markets sometimes. It has a milder flavor than does common sorrel, with smaller and more rounded leaves.
- Red-veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) has deep red veins running through its leaves. It has a very mild, almost un-sorrel-like flavor with very little of the tartness usually associated with this plant.
- Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella) grows wild in much of the United States. It is about as sour as common sorrel, but with smaller leaves. It is foraged rather than cultivated.
How to Store
If you’re going to use it within a day or two, keep sorrel loosely wrapped in a cotton tea towel in the fridge. For longer storage, rinse it clean, pat it dry, and roll the leaves up in paper towels before putting them in the towel. The paper towels will sop up any excess liquid, keeping the leaves at once dry but in a damp-enough environment.
If you find yourself with more sorrel than you can use, cook the leaves in a bit of vegan butter until they wilt and fall apart. The final result will be like a sorrel puree. Freeze this purée to add to soups or stews.
How to Cook
Sorrel falls straight between herbs and greens. Use it as a leafy herb, like parsley or basil or mint, chopping it up to use in marinades and dressings or stirring it into soups or casseroles for a bit of fresh flavor. Or, use it as a green, ripping the tender leaves into salads and stir-fries.
If you run across a recipe with sorrel in it and you want to find a substitute, you could add some lemon juice or lemon zest to mustard greens, arugula, rhubarb, or spinach.
Gluten-Free Rice Bowl with Sorrel, Kale, Lemon and Radishes
Ordinary Vegan/ Nancy Montuori/ Photo Credit: Ordinary Vegan
- 2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice
- 1 cup sorrel leaves
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 fresh squeezed lemons (approximately ¼ cup lemon juice)
- 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon dried dill (or ½ tablespoon of fresh)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 1 small bunch organic kale, ribs removed and chopped
- Zest of one lemon
- 2 red radishes, sliced thin for garnish
- Lemon wedges for garnish
- hot sauce (optional)
- Cook short-grain rice according to directions. Keep warm.
- Place the sorrel leaves, chopped garlic, fresh squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, dill, salt and pepper in a food processor or blender. Process or blend until smooth. If it is too thick, add more liquid.
- Place the chopped kale in a steamer basket. Bring 3 inches of water to boil in a large pot then carefully place the steamer basket into pot. Cover and cook for approximately 3 minutes or until the kale is just wilted. Season with a little salt and pepper. Keep warm.
- In a medium bowl, toss the rice with the sorrel mixture. Place half the rice mixture in a serving bowl. Top with kale and radishes. Sprinkle with lemon zest. Serve with lemon wedges. This also tastes delicious with a fermented hot sauce.
- Optional accompaniments could include: hemp seeds, nuts or additional vegetables