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How big is your brain?

Stephen Fry: Learning

Stephen Fry (Author and Broadcaster) gives expert video advice on: How big is your brain? and more...

How big is your brain?

Our mind is capable of being absolutely anything. The human mind is the most plastic thing in the universe that I've ever heard of. And the mind can see anything, but you just have to let it. And it takes honesty, and most people are dishonest about themselves. We all are. We all say things like, "Oh, I've got a mental block about that." Or it's very common to hear people say, "Yeah, Shakespeare was ruined for me at school, because, yeah," and I always say to them, "Yeah, god, the Lake District was ruined for me. We did it in geography, so I just found it really ugly, because we did it in geography." I mean, that's how fatuous it is to say that Shakespeare was ruined for you at school. I mean, come on. Shakespeare is like a landscape. It's there. It can't be ruined for you. That's jus mentally lazy. It's mentally lazy, and we think we can't actually be mentally lazy ourselves, so we blame someone else. We all do it. I'm not particularly picking on people who say that, because a lot of people watching will say, "Well, I always say that," you know. Well, yeah, and I always say lots of lazy things too, about having a maths block or this, that, or the other. The thing you have to be honest about is, is actually whether, whether you care enough about things to want to learn.

Can everybody learn something new?

There are lots of rooms in the word 'learning'. There is learning facts, which anybody can do, and you always see taxi drivers in London who have to learn 'the knowledge'. They are very often the kind of people who didn't get very far with education. They might have left school at 15 or 16 and not done A-levels, and probably were told that they were not very academic. And then, by the oddity of the British, or the London taxi service, they had to do a memory test which has no equal anywhere in the world. It's an astonishing feat of learning and memorizing, and they find they can do it. When they first realize what they have to do, some of them freak out, but they are taught learning techniques, and above all, they learn confidence. They realize that this strange piece of grey tissue in their skull is capable of learning absolutely anything. And there is no limit to it. Nothing falls out the other side when you push a piece of knowledge to learn in one ear. It doesn't fall out the other because it's not a packed room with solid walls. They are elastic walls. Exactly the opposite of what Sherlock Holmes said, when he said, I shall do my best to forget whether the sun goes around the moon or the moon goes around the Earth, or whatever it is, because I need to know my facts, and there isn't room for enough. That's nonsense. Sometimes as you age, it's a bit like picking things up off the floor. It's a lot more effort to lean down and actually find that fact on the floor of your mind, it's a little less accessible. The filing system seems to go sometimes, which is a mixture of strange affinities and associations that you can't quite put a name to. But the fact is that's one form of learning, just simply learning facts, knowing that the Battle of Agincourt was in 1415 is a fact. It's not a very interesting one, it doesn't tell you much, but knowing what the 15th century was like, that suddenly is a different sort of learning. That is a connective learning. The facts may well be the bricks which you need to make that edifice of the 15th century live in your mind, if you're interested in the 15th century, but it's not the same sort of learning, and it can't be got in the same way that 'the knowledge' is got for a taxi driver.

What if you are too busy to learn?

If you're busy, you can do a lot more things than if you aren't busy. "If you want something done, ask a busy man," as they say. And so the idea that, "Oh, I haven't got time to learn Russian," or, "I haven't got time to understand Wagner," or, "I haven't got time to know more about Renaissance painting," or, "I haven't got time to get interested in the Greek and Roman civilization," or, "I haven't got time to learn how to do collages," or whatever it is. You know, I mean, all of the millions of things that some of us might want to learn more about. The idea that there isn't time is just wash, I'm afraid. And it's very convenient to say it, and people say, "Well, you haven't seen my life. Frankly, I get home and there's this and there's that," and you say, "well, yeah, but if you want to do it, you'll do it". You will get anything done. But it has to be there. So, will, appetite, curiosity. Those are the things that drive learning, the real learning, the learning that connects things, rather than the learning of facts.

Is our attitude to learning changing?

Our attitude to learning is changing. We're starting to doubt discovered knowledge, and say all that matters is revealed knowledge. Those are the two differences. The rationalism and superstition on the one hand can suggest that you can have a revealed text which tells you what the truth is. It can be a Bible, it can be a Qur'an, it can be a book by Paul Coelho, or however he pronounces himself, it can be any sort of text which apparently contains truth. And it is the revealed truth, and you have to believe it. This attitude to learning is what the Greeks fought against. The Greek idea of life was that anybody who said that they knew what happened after you're dead was either a liar or an idiot. Because there was no book that can tell you what happens after you're dead except one written by a dead person, and dead people don't write. We know that. All you've got to do is go and look at a lot of dead people. They're not writing. They just aren't. There aren't ghosts. There aren't, you know, all this nonsense. Not because the world is more limited, but because the world is less limited.