The Power of Visual Thinking Part 1: Sketch-notes

I first heard the term “sketch-notes” at a nature journal club meeting where John Muir Laws was describing this type of visual-note taking and it’s power as a learning tool.
Sketch-noting is a synthesis of sketching and note-taking where each form of communication is used for what it is best at. Sometimes an image can be worth a thousand words and other times 10 words are worth a thousand pictures.

As it turns out, there are some people doing some quite amazing work in the field of sketch-noting and there are also books out about the subject.
http://rohdesign.com/sketchnotes/

The work of another great sketch-noter and graphic facilitator, whose work I sampled at the top of this page, can be seen here: http://sketchit.co/

This is one of those meta-topic skills that can be applied to virtually all forms of learning. It is a high-return on investment. I see it as a form of journaling which I have described as the “most powerful learning tool” in an earlier post. It is another way of externalizing your thinking. The techniques have been very refined with sketch-noting to improve the communication of ideas. I plan on studying and gleaning as many useful tips as I can and applying them to my own work. I recommend you do the same! It is fun!

Here is a short video about sketch-noting

Learning From Kids: Part 2: Taking Risks

 

The little feet are a blur of motion as the six year old boy runs down the treacherous, steep, gravel path. “No running down the hill!” calls a camp counselor in vain. The little boy makes it safely to the bottom of the hill, a defiant and exhilarated look on his face. No injuries this time but 1 in 5 kids eat dust when they try running down that same hill. Looking around at the high incidence of scrapes, cuts, bruises, bee stings, and poison oak suggests that kids are either accident prone or have a propensity to take risks. Now, look around at a group of adults: how many of them have cuts, scrapes, bruises and road rash on their knees or hands?

I would argue that the propensity for risk-taking and boundary testing that we see in children is actually a learning strategy. This strategy seems to be highly effective and can be observed in the young of other animals, especially the more intelligent ones such as canines, corvids, and primates. The next step in this logical progression would be to devise ways in which adults can selectively employ risk-taking to accelerate our own learning process, cognitive flexibility, and to break through mental obstacles.

What is the benefit of risk-taking to learning?

What are the dangers of risk-taking?

When was the last time, as an adult, that you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone and were rewarded by the experience? When was the last time that you regretted not taking a risk?
Taking risks and testing boundaries is an essential learning strategy. Without it we would become fossilized in our ways and unable to learn. As adults we have the chance to practice our metacognitive awareness and try to push ourselves to take risks in a strategic way. It might not come as naturally to us now as it did when we were kids but we can still use this powerful and often exhilarating strategy to boost our learning.

Have fun!

Learning From Kids: Part One: Beginner’s Mind

If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki

 

The zen master Shunryu Suzuki deftly summarizes the concept of beginner’s mind in the above quote. The concept is familiar to many who have studied zen and is recognizable in many Eastern philosophies from Taoism to Kung-Fu.

However, in the West the idea that “knowledge itself is power,” a quote from Francis Bacon, has had more influence. This exaltation of the accumulation of bits of knowledge has become the dominant perspective in the modern world. People confuse this finding, memorizing, and reciting of information with learning, understanding, and wisdom. We marvel at computers’ ability to store countless bits of information and we apply a digital memory metaphor to the workings or failures of our own minds. This is a mistake.

The ancient philosophers of the East recognized that the accumulation of knowledge and expertise can lead to the fossilization of the cognitive processes. Humility, flexibility, and openness to observation are often hampered by knowledge. Thus, the concept of beginner’s mind was expressed as an antidote, an ideal, a teaching metaphor.

When a child is learning language for the first time their mind is not cluttered with preconceptions, social anxiety, or prejudices. They are sponges, sucking up learning in the most efficient and flexible way. Adults can emulate this, we can use the metaphor of beginner’s mind to help us refine our expertise and learn more while being careful to avoid the pitfalls of the over-cluttered and fossilized “expert mind” where possibilities are few and learning is stagnant.

Have you ever done really well the first time you tried a sport or art form only to lag and flounder later on? Beginner’s luck? Perhaps, but luck is over-rated; I think this effect is a result of beginner’s mind.

If you really want powerful cognitive abilities focus on learning not knowledge, observe children, enjoy the day to day wonders, practice humility and restrain your inner expert. For more on this idea, see my post on knowledge as an obstacle to learning.

Why am I obsessed with learning? See my post on learning how to learn.

shoshin

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What is Nature Journaling?

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.

E. O. Wilson

Sometimes, after I casually throw the term around, someone will ask me, “What is Nature Journaling? My spell check doesn’t even think that journaling is a correct verb!”

Nature journaling is a process or substrate for externalizing and recording the dynamic interaction between human curiosity and the natural environment. By making sketches, writing notes, and jotting down other information, the journaler engages with the observed surroundings. This process can be highly focused with a planned subject or it can be spontaneous and based on the unpredictable environment.

Nature journaling can be a solitary pursuit or it can be a communally-shared activity. It is a relatively new movement but clubs are being formed around the world, providing a support group, motivation, and sharing for people in the same locality who want to nature journal together. Nature Journal Clubs

A typical nature journaling club expedition might go like this:

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning at the entrance to a California park full of mixed oak woodlands, rolling hills, and blackberry covered creeks. A handful of people are milling about near the entrance with sketchbooks, binoculars, and hiking shoes. More people arrive; some know each other and some are totally new, some are seasoned artists and naturalists, others are just getting started with watercolors. The mixture of skill levels, backgrounds, and experiences benefits the entire group.

After a short round of introductions and maybe a motivational talk, the group heads off down the trail like a pack of curious kids. Occasionally, the group will slow down and someone will point out an osprey flying by or a snakeskin on the trail. Some people will capture a few quick sketches of the bird in flight and jot down some notes about the shed snakeskin. Then, the group will stop for longer, people will do a mini landscape painting or try to capture the details of a wildflower.

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Once everybody has filled a few pages there is usually a chance for everyone to lay out journals on the ground. Now is the chance to see what others have been up to, share ideas, and borrow methods form each other.                                                                           There is always something to learn from others.

After a few hours of journaling, most people have developed an appetite and there will be a break for a potluck lunch. Fun and educational conversations continue during the potluck and sometimes someone will read a poem or a quote or give a technique demonstration. If there is a facilitator or main organizer of the club they might ask for donations to help keep the group going.

After lunch, the group will continue their exploration; observing, sketching, recording. There might be another round of journal sharing before the group returns to the entrance of the park and everyone heads their separate ways.

I believe that nature journaling is the most powerful toolkit for learning about nature. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. The process is also encouragingly cumulative; the more you do it, the more you will notice, the more you learn, and the more beautiful and meaningful your journal pages become.

For many useful videos on nature drawing and journaling, check out John Muir Law’s youtube channel: John Muir Laws
He is one of the main champions of nature journaling and is a storehouse of good information on drawing and natural history. He also has the most comprehensive book on the subject: Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling

 

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Rigidity vs Fluidity

 

Bruce Lee’s philosophy on the rigidity of style and dogma is equally applicable to the visual arts, gardening, land management, and all other realms of human endeavor. Instead of subscribing to one school of thought blindly one should try learning from many masters, weaving together one’s own synthesis. Do not become crystallized. Crystals are beautiful but they are dead, static, inflexible, and unlearning. Be fluid; adapt and incorporate diverse elements into a liquid whole.

Born to Track

So what if you don’t live near a nature preserve with elk, mountain lions, or other big charismatic mammals? Maybe you don’t even have a suburban park nearby with coyotes or raccoons. Never fear, you can still practice tracking.

Paradoxically, tracking is not about animals or footprints in the sand, tracking is a way of seeing the world. It is a way of observing patterns and thinking about cause and effect. It is a system of connecting the dots that is so fundamental to the way our human brain works that it is impossible to separate ourselves from it. All humans are born trackers but it is up to each of us as individuals to either ignore this fact or embrace it.

Sherlock Holmes embraced the fact that he was born to track and he practiced his skills with assiduity. He used deep observation, deductive reasoning, and the testing of hypotheses; the same techniques used by the hunter gatherers that all of us descend from. Today’s forensic scientists and detectives continue in this tradition.

Modern archaeologists embrace the fact that they were born to track. Despite their use of high tech imaging and chemical analyses, archaeologists are asking the same big questions that every tracker asks: who, when, why, and in what order? They look at clues, signs, and remains left behind and piece together stories of what happened in the past.

So, if you are not tracking elk, coyotes, ancient mummies, modern criminals, or Professor Moriarty, then what are you tracking?

A Match Made in Heaven!

IMG_2516Tracking and nature journaling; a match made in heaven!
Come explore coastal lagoons, meadows, and dunes for an awesome day of tracking and journaling in a great location. We will approach tracking in a holistic sense and learn to integrate it into our quiver of naturalist skills.

Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore is a world class location for tracking and bird watching where we are sure to find many goodies to fill our journals. Badgers, otters, bobcat, owls, ravens, falcons, and foxes are a few of the denizens whose tracks and sign we might see.

Meet at the parking lot at the trailhead on Pierce Point Rd, approximately 15 minutes from Point Reyes Station. Wear lots of layers and be prepared for variable weather, sun, and wind. Also be prepared to walk in sand dunes.

Sunday February 28th from 10-4pm

Meet at Abbot’s Lagoon Trailhead on Pierce Point Rd in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, CA.

 

more information: http://www.johnmuirlaws.com/event/nature-journal-tracking-workshop-and-field-trip

Seeing and Not Seeing

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

–Sherlock Holmes

Have you ever revisited somewhere that you have been many times and seen things that you didn’t notice or never paid attention to before?  I know that I have.

Have you ever noticed that after shopping for one type of a shoes or reading about one type of animal all of a sudden you are noticing them everywhere? I know that I have.

It is easy for the conscious mind to come up with faulty explanations for these occurrences, such as, “Wow. Everybody is getting the same shoes as me now.”  But the truth is usually not in the outside environment but in one’s own perception.

When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, I was very observant and I noticed more things in nature and saw more animals than the average kid my age and much more than the average adult. However, I was an untrained naturalist for the most part and when it came to birds I knew few by name. When it came to local birds of prey I knew even fewer by name. The name that I definitely did know was red-tailed hawk. And sure enough, the only raptors that I remember seeing were red-tailed hawks.

Later, when I moved to another part of the state for college, I had the good luck of taking a natural history class where I learned about five different local birds of prey and learned to identify them frequently in the field. My first interpretation was: “Wow, there are so many more raptor species here than in Southern California, there must be some environmental reason.”

In subsequent visits to Southern California however, I started seeing many of the other species of raptors. Apparently, some of what had been “red-tailed hawks” turned out to be red-shouldered hawks, and some were probably even accipiters, while surely many of the other birds had just gone un-named and therefore un-noticed.

The field of cognitive science has learned a lot about perception in the last few decades and much research has been focused on vision. Most people take what they see for granted as an unadulterated, objective view of reality. As it turns out, what we see is vastly mediated by what we know, what we think we know, and what we expect or don’t expect.

If you only know the name of one kind of bird you might not see much else besides that bird. But if you read a whole book about the elusive Cooper’s hawk you will probably start seeing them (and hearing them) all over the place.

The morals of the story are:

  • What you see and what you don’t see is shaped by what you know and don’t know.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about environmental reasons for what you see or don’t see.
  • You can train yourself to see more

 


I will be adding more related articles about observation in small digestible segments.

 

Paralysis by Analysis…(rant)

There is a terrible affliction among humans past and present, it does not kill but it cruelly cripples, and it wastes many lives of those who otherwise have all of their physical needs well met. Many of the greatest minds, the most intelligent people, and the most creative types have been ravaged by this disease. And humanity has been robbed of much great art, great literature, and the greatest of inventions by the actions of this horrible disease.

What do I speak of?

I speak of Paralysis by Analysis!

It is a terrible disorder and it seems to become an epidemic especially among populations that have their basic survival needs met but are overstimulated, over-educated, over-developed, and in general have too much of everything they need. The chief irony here is that those with the most free time, the most opportunity, and the most means to achieve great new things fall into this disease by which they fritter away their time pondering what best to do and how best to do it. So much time do they spend on this analysis that they never quite get around to the execution of their overthought ideas and overwrought works.

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While I am a big fan of “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” there is something to be said for “just doing it.” Unfortunately, the people who spend so much time perfecting their ideas and creating the best designs often lose and are preempted by the people with the bad, half-baked ideas who actually have the cojones to get out there and produce their ideas. Perhaps this is why we are being inundated by piss-poor ideas and terrible designs.

This then is a call to arms. If you are one of those who thinks a lot but diddles away your time trying to decide how exactly to do that thing you really love and that might actually help the world but you are not sure if you have the time or the resources or the will to actually do it…this is for you. There are plenty of people on the planet with bad ideas and the grit and the gumption to produce those bad ideas and push them.

Break free of the self-imposed shackle of analysis paralysis and start producing something! Putting yourself and your ideas out there will create feedback loops that accelerate your learning and improve your product faster than your solitary pondering.

I hate to quote corporations but the most fitting rallying cry is “just do it.”

 


 

“protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” is paraphrased from a Bill Mollison quote.

The ink drawing at the top is by Tiepolo.

 

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Pattern Recognition Saves Lives

On a warm summer afternoon you walk down the rocky trail at your favorite regional park. Despite the beautiful surroundings, your head is full of thoughts about work, family obligations, and financial concerns. Coming to a steep part in the trail, you are about to grab a rock for support when your hand jerks back with a mind of its own.

Your distracted consciousness snaps back to the here and now. And then you see it. Coiled menacingly on the rock, inches from where you were about to put your hand, is a rattlesnake. Looking at it now with all of your attention you realize how camouflaged it is yet how striking the overall pattern is. There is something archetypal about the diamond shape of its pit viper head, the bulge of its jaw and the ridge over its gleaming eye.

Our human ancestors needed to recognize patterns in order to survive. This ability allowed them to discern dangers and take advantage of opportunities. As our proficiency for patterns grew it allowed our species to learn faster, adapt to new conditions, and eventually spread across the face of the planet. While there are fewer hidden predators and poisonous snakes for us to contend with, the modern, more urbanized human still depends greatly on the ability to recognize patterns. And for those of us who are interested in reconnecting with nature, tracking, or hunting, a fluency in the language of patterns is essential.

So what is a pattern? Two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary stand out:

1. An arrangement or relationship of elements, especially one which indicates or implies an    underlying causative process other than chance.

2. A regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations; especially one on which the prediction of successive or future events may be based.

The first definition points to the fact that a pattern is not a superficial event and is not random, it is based on an underlying process. This is crucial when filtering information through awareness and focusing learning. Paying attention to patterns will lead to an understanding of underlying causes while paying attention to noise or superficial elements will not provide the same advantage.

The second definition points to the crux of the matter, namely the ability to predict. Patterns repeat themselves in a meaningful and intelligible way. Understanding the pattern allows the brain to make accurate predictions about future events. The ability to remember previously encountered patterns and make accurate predictions is the basis of intelligence. See my review of Jeff Hawkin’s book “On Intelligence” for more on the brain science behind prediction “On Intelligence“.

In the rattlesnake example above, the brain recognized the pattern in a “bottom up” process, where the more primitive parts made the call while the conscious neocortex was thinking about family problems and finances. Have you ever jumped back from what looked like a snake or a spider before you even realized what you were doing? Have you ever known what someone was going to do before they even did it?

These are a common occurrence that many people refer to as gut reactions or intuition. Much of our interpersonal relationships are actually based on the lower parts of our brain reading minute patterns in other people’s body language, tone of voice, and even smell. These intuitive, sometimes almost magical, predictions are also a central part of sports mythology and any field that requires high performance. Being open to these responses and training our brains through repeat exposure to these patterns we can react more quickly and more accurately whether in sports, business, relationships, or in the wilderness.

It is important to be aware of our bottom up pattern recognition but we can also bring our conscious awareness to the task and achieve great benefits. Paying special attention to patterns when learning new things will make it easier and faster to develop a holistic understanding of the subject matter. For example, When learning a new language, you can get a huge head start if you look for words that share a common ancestry with words from your native tongue. As this understanding of etymological patterns grows, your ability to learn languages and predict the meanings of foreign words will improve. If you start from scratch, with rote memorization of long vocabulary lists you will take much longer.

Some patterns repeat so often in nature that they demand special attention. The branching pattern of a river into smaller and smaller tributaries and streams can tell us much about the basic functioning of our universe. This pattern can be seen in plants, in our veins, in minerals, and even in our families.

By intentionally thinking in terms of patterns we can accelerate our learning, deepen our understanding, and make more accurate predictions in our field.
Whether predicting the presence of a poisonous snake, learning a new language, or tracking a trophy elk the ability to recognize patterns can save your life, and make it much more magical.