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Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation

Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation

Louis Agassiz, the famous Swiss biologist, placed a fish specimen on the table in front of his post-graduate student.

“That’s only a sunfish,” the student said.

“I know that,” Agassiz replied.

He continued, “Write a description of it. Find out what you can without damaging the specimen. When I think that you have done the work I will question you.” (1)

The Power Of Observation

The student wrote for an nearly an hour, until he felt confident that he knew nearly all there was to know about this particular fish.

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Much to the student’s frustration, however, Agassiz did not return to see him that day. His teacher did not come the next day either. Nor for the entire week that followed. Eventually, the student realized Agassiz’s game: the teacher wanted him to observe the fish more deeply.

After nearly 100 hours of study, the student began to notice finer details that had escaped his vision previously: how the scales of the fish were shaped and the patterns they made, the placement of the teeth, the shape of each individual tooth, and so on. When his teacher finally returned and the student explained all that he had learned, Agassiz replied, “That’s not right.” And walked out of the room. (2)

Shocked and angry at first, the student eventually recommitted to the task with new vigor. He threw out all of his previous notes. He studied the fish for 10 hours per day for an entire week. When he met with Agassiz a final time, the student had produced work that “astonished.” (3)

louis-agassiz-by-john-adams-whipple
    Louis Agassiz circa 1865. (Photographer: John Adams Whipple.)

    The Art of Comparing Objects

    After his investigation of the sunfish, Agassiz’s student wrote, “I had learned the art of comparing objects.”

    How does this tooth compare to the one next to it? How does this scale compare to the one on the opposite side? How does the symmetry of the bottom half of the fish compare to the top half?

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    The art of comparing objects is a remarkably useful strategy in many areas of life. Take weightlifting, for example.

    For the first five years that I lifted weights, I experienced mediocre results at best. I assumed that it was information that held me back. Like many people, I thought that once I’d found the right workout routine, then I would be set. I was under the assumption that I simply hadn’t reached the next level because I hadn’t come across the right information. What I didn’t realize was my search for the perfect pre-made formula was preventing me from observing my actual results.

    When I started to observe with greater care and focus, I realized that my body tended to respond better to higher volume rather than higher intensity. I noticed that my foundational strength in major movements like the squat and deadlift was lacking. I was able to use these observational discoveries to tailor my training to my needs and, subsequently, make much greater strides because of it. It was through comparing what I was doing with what was actually working for me that I made progress.

    Do The Work For Yourself

    “I never pay attention to anything by ‘experts.’ I calculate everything myself.” — Richard Feynman

    When Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, was working on a new theory of beta decay, he noticed something surprising. For years, experts had been saying that beta decay occurred in a particular way, but when Feynman actually ran the experiments, he kept getting a different result.

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    Eventually, Feynman investigated the original data that all of the experts were basing their theory on and discovered that the study was flawed. For years, nobody had bothered to read or repeat the original study! All of the experts just kept quoting one another and used their mutual opinions as justification for the theory. Then Feynman came along and turned everything upside simply because he did the calculations himself. (4)

    Look, And See For Yourself

    “Take the facts into your own hands; look, and see for yourself!” — Louis Agassiz

    Pick any industry of life and you’ll find that very few people actually do the work.

    Rather than read the original study, most people cite the headline from a secondary source. Rather than spend 100 hours observing every detail of a fish, most biology students would look up the description of the fish online. When most people say, “I read an article on climate change,” what they really mean is, “I read the title of an article on climate change.”

    This is exactly why doing the boring work more consistently is actually a competitive advantage. Ignore the expert advice and pay attention to what gets results for you.

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    Look, and see for yourself.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    FOOTNOTES
    1. This story about Agassiz has been told by two different sources. First, in The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, who was a student of Agassiz. Second, in Ezra Pound’s classic book, The ABC of Reading. Pound’s version is known as the Parable of the Sunfish and deviates slightly from the original sources. I’ve done my best to represent Agassiz accurately here.
    2. From what I can tell, this was fairly standard behavior for Agassiz. He would, reportedly, “lock a student up in a room full of turtle-shells, or lobster-shells, or oyster-shells, without a book or a word to help him, and not let him out till he had discovered all the truths which the objects contained.” (Source: Speech by William James at the reception of the American Society of Naturalists on December 30, 1896.)
    3. The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. Page 99.
    4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman. Page 254-255.

    Featured photo credit: Eric Heupel via flickr.com

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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

    8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

    You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

    Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

    When you train your brain, you will:

    • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
    • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. No problem for you to pick up a new language or new management skill.
    • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. Alzheimer’s will not be affecting you.

    So how to train your brain and improve your cognitive skills?

    1. Work your memory

    Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

    When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

    If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

    The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

    Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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    Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

    What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

    For example, say you just met someone new:

    “Hi, my name is George”

    Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.”

    Got it? Good.

    2. Do something different repeatedly

    By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

    Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

    It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

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    And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

    But how does this apply to your life right now?

    Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

    Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

    Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

    So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

    You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

    That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

    3. Learn something new

    It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

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    For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

    Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

    You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

    4. Follow a brain training program

    The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

    5. Work your body

    You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

    Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

    Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

    Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

    6. Spend time with your loved ones

    If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

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    If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

    I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

    7. Avoid crossword puzzles

    Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

    Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

    Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

    8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

    Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

    When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

    So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

    The bottom line

    Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

    Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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