Several people have recently asked me why I’m always enrolling in MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) whose subjects have nothing to do with anything else I do. To answer that, I want to take a second and share my ideas. I must start by saying that I have no background or experience to qualify me to say what I’m going to say. So, take this for what it’s worth and nothing more.
I used to be a bodybuilder. One technique we used to break through barriers was to avoid getting into the habit of doing the same exercises over and over. Doing exercises differently than before, challenged our muscle fibers to grow. I think (with no proof mind you) that the brain needs the same thing.
When you do things over and over, your brain increases the strength of the synapses involved. Neuroscientists (which I’m not) call this synaptic plasticity. It is a good thing because it gives us the capability of doing lots of things (like driving) without much thought. It’s also bad because bad habits form the same way that good ones do. I don’t know why, but I feel like, in addition to strengthening oft used synaptic connections, it might be a good thing to continually “exercise” new ion channels. (Like I say, I might not even know what I’m talking about). So here is what I do:
Once every few months, I go on to a website like Coursera.org or EdX.org and pick a class on a subject that I know absolutely nothing about. The only criteria is that I have to have the prerequisites to do it successfully. (For example I won’t take advanced organic chemistry if I don’t have the math skills to do the work). After selecting a class I know nothing about, I try the first few weeks to see if I’m at all interested. If I am, I complete the class. By doing this, I feel like I am continually putting my billions of neurons into configurations they’ve never been in before. I create new networks and build new pathways.
So far, in the past 2 years I have taken “Computational Neuroscience” from UW, “Statistical Analysis of fMRI Data” from Johns Hopkins, “The Brain and Space” from Duke, “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” from Penn, “The role of the Remimbi in the International Monetary System from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and “The Art of Poetry” from Boston U. I’m just finishing another class from Hong Kong called “Classics of Chinese Humanities”.
I have no idea whether my thinking is justified. What I do know is that there can’t be anything wrong with learning new things. Besides, my wife says it strengthens my “Renaissance-ness” which she likes and so do I.
Then again…. maybe I’m on to something.