The Science And Joy Of Learning
February 10,2021

The Science And Joy Of Learning

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Dr. Yohann White

Chief Innovation officer

Dr. Yohann White is a medical doctor who focuses on vaccines and conditions affecting the immune system.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow.

Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Mahatma Gandhi

My “Why”

To help people be the best version of themselves by helping them attain their full potential through lifelong learning, preserving their well-being, and fostering mindfulness and resilience that will enable them to cope with and find new balance with whatever may come their way. I believe this to be my life’s mission, at least as I understand it now. I made it the mission of a business I founded some years ago, with all the challenges attendant with running a business – the life of an entrepreneur. But I love it.

I believe it was Oprah Winfrey who said that the greatest human need is to be seen. To be recognised. To be acknowledged and validated, heard, to not be invisible. An alternative state exploits our innate fears and humanity possibly making us perceive ourselves as being weak, vulnerable and lower on the proverbial food chain. Early in our lives, each of us would have seen someone, an adult or a mentor, who represented something that we desired. Whether it was a professional who was afforded high regard and respect by those around them, or an individual who could influence or determine rules or how things should be, or a charitable person who made others’ eyes and spirits light up. We saw them, and it likely influenced how we would want to be seen. Because as a mere speck on the boundaryless universe and a dot on the infinite arc of time, if we are not seen, then what is the meaning of life, the meaning of our existence? “I was here.” “This will be my legacy.” It would be scary to think that all the joys of our life are fleeting moments, and all the suffering for naught. We are here to learn, and to teach.

Entrepreneurial thinking

From my own experience, my foray into research consulting and entrepreneurship stems from very early beginnings. As far as I can remember, I had always been a curious and experimental kid, doing scientific ‘experiments’ with household chemicals and cosmetics and any plastic or glassware that had even a mere resemblance to labware. I rounded up my peers and played math or science teacher, with some spanking to go with it when persons got out of line. As for entrepreneurship, I did errands for my uncles and aunts and charged them for it, and even teamed up with my grandmother to buy and sell ice cream. In high school, I went with my best friend to explore what turned out to be a methane source and small oil well near a river in St. Ann, Jamaica and convinced some researchers from the University of the West Indies to come with us to collect samples. I am reliving the glee just writing about those moments, none of the drudgery of ‘adulting’ and toxic workplaces.

I was determined to get a global educational experience, immersing myself in cultures different than my own, and just not limiting myself or my worldview. However, it was by no means easy. I remember applying for numerous scholarships, and when I got offers, they were only partial scholarships. My dad was more disappointed than I was in having to explain to me that we did not have the funds to take care of our part of the expenses even with partial but substantive scholarships.

Social determinants of well-being

By the middle of medical school I was doing two research projects that were not particularly relevant to my progression in school. But I discovered pretty early, or just about early enough, that our physical and biological lenses on health and human well-being were not enough to account for the health outcomes and lived realities of the most vulnerable in our society. In one project, I used behavioural theories to explore what determined how well children living with HIV stuck to their medicines and how their life experiences shaped their overall health. In the other project, I looked at how societal stigma affected mental health outcomes among sexual minorities in Jamaica. At that time I did not know I would go on to do a doctor of philosophy degree as well. But I do remember hearing the voice of one of my lecturers and mentors when I was grappling with the decision of whether to enroll in the PhD programme in Japan, where I had intended to spend only a year and half to gain research experience. “If anybody were going to do a PhD, it is you.” And again, even with my eyes on petri dishes and test tubes, I could not help being involved in research projects in the behavioural sciences having to do with social and psychological factors that shape well-being.\

Our physical and biological lenses on health and human well-being were not enough to account for the health outcomes and lived realities of the most vulnerable in our society.

After some time, I had done behavioural sciences research and followed this field so much that I started publishing more in that area, and persons started approaching me for advice on research studies and collaboration. I had the vision to do this on a broader scale, dedicating my time and in a way that was hopefully sustainable and could provide for my economic needs as well. I took on more work and larger projects, and more collaborations, read widely, and read on consulting and entrepreneurship. I realised that I needed better communication skills and public speaking skills to excel, and despite the anxiety, I leaned into the challenge by joining a local Toastmasters Public Speaking Club, and taking on more speaking opportunities over time. We can all be entrepreneurial thinkers in the conventional workplace or wherever we are.

The angry mentor

You may have had the experience of witnessing an angry reaction of a mentor or supervisor on receiving an enquiry from a less experienced or junior person or person outside of their field. For example, earlier referral of the matter could have significantly altered the outcome for what is now an advanced or worse situation. I am not a psychologist, and I am sure different persons have their own thoughts about these things, but there are several aspects to the mentor’s angry response. There is a sincere interest in the situation and the outcome, because an earlier intervention might have helped in avoiding a crisis, saved lives, or improved the quality of someone’s life; a learned master of his or her field becomes an advocate. Another aspect possibly is that there may also be the self-interest of the mentor or expert at play, in that an advanced complicated situation means more work, lower likelihood of success, and potentially impacting their expert image. There may be times when such anger is a defense mechanism in response to perceived threats, even subconsciously, to the turf of that expert in his or her field, or perceived loss of control over the happenings and evolution of that field, who is admitted to it, or who is allowed to determine its rules and customs. The role of spirited advocate comes with the attainment of mastery of a field or one’s environment, or as close as our aspirations may take us. When there is alignment of our sense of self, our aspirations, and motivation, the advocate’s role aligns with our primal survival instincts and deep emotions and our advocacy is in aid of those around us.

The role of spirited advocate comes with the attainment of mastery of a field or one’s environment, or as close as our aspirations may take us.

The way we learn

Learning – the process towards mastery of our environment and mastery of ourselves – is necessary for survival. The how and why we learn – the science or mechanisms and the motivation for learning – are areas of growing interest. There are two techniques that may be readily recognisable as techniques that aid learning, or at least the recall of information. One technique is engaging as many of our different senses as practicable in trying to commit new information to memory. Listening to podcasts or discussions about content that I have read helps reinforce the information. A visit to a worksite provides additional insight that reading reports and virtual talks with staff would not reveal. Additionally, practically attempting to build something engages the physical nerves and muscles that would be involved in repeating these actions, and sure provides better skills than simply reading how to do the procedure. Engaging multiple senses is related to the next technique, which is storytelling. Storytelling facilitates the recall of new information and skills, I would say because it engages the whole person in the experience of learning.

Forming stories and recognising stories by making connections between items helps us to more easily recall any single one of those items. Stories allow us to see ourselves in an experience. In remembering grandma baking Christmas cake during our childhood, we can’t help closing our eyes and visualising floury hands and the smell of vanilla and spices for the mix, or hearing kids playing in the house or excited pets, and the feeling of being with the people we love and feeling safe and happy. It is also why many of us can recall as children one or two figures that made an impression on us; we recall respect, feeling safe, feeling impressed, and the desire to be competent and in control. It may also be why our ambitions and aspirations and dreams have motives anchored within our emotions and experiences. Understanding how best we learn is the next frontier for me and for Para Caribe.

Storytelling facilitates the recall of new information and skills, I would say because it engages the whole person in the experience of learning.

A learning culture at work

So how do we learn? What is our motive for learning? And what is the best way to learn? We learn best by following our thirst for knowledge, for deeper insight, in response to a burning intrinsic curiosity. Arguably, in the purest sense, it is the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself, but also in a drive to be the best version of ourselves, pushing ourselves to realise our true and full potential. Often our intrinsic drive may not always seem aligned with what we are actually doing in our lives currently. Yet, in parallel to what we must do (or think we must do – to pay the bills, meet societal or family expectations, feel secure in our comfort zone), we are occupied in our thoughts and activities in our ‘spare time’ that feed and nurture our curiosity, our natural gifts, our satisfaction, our fulfilment, our passion, our refuge, and our source of inspiration.

We learn best by following our thirst for knowledge, for deeper insight, in response to a burning intrinsic curiosity.

Feeling and conviction are essential to learning

If we reflect on the example of the angry mentor, we are looking at perhaps the most potent human emotion, that of anger. Maybe someone else would say passion. Learning connects our drive, passion and motives to our life’s work, equipping us with the required tools, shaping us into guardians and advocates in and beyond our respective spaces. There is a ranking system I came across some time ago by an educator, Bloom. It ranks as the most basic level simply bringing a piece of information to someone’s attention. In a system that acknowledges the link between cognitive and affective aspects of learning, affective learning graduates up a ladder from a simple awareness that something exists, to engaging that material, eventually seeking out further information and expertise (seeking out books, interviews, experiences and networks) in that area or on that topic, and culminating in the organisation and embracing of that system and body of knowledge into one’s own value system and consolidated in one’s eventual professional and holistic identity. Our motives, beliefs and attitudes towards a body of knowledge or expertise shape our learning and we become the embodiment of what we learn. We are writing our story and bringing it full circle through lifelong learning. Do you know your story?

“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.”

Andrew Carnegie

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