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Look. Look. *Look*.
Lessons in learning from a London cabbie.
This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, attention, wonder, and how some women may be able to see 100 times the colours than men can.
Since I last wrote, the author Katherine May, whose utterly sublime memoir Wintering helped a lot of people (myself included) keep mind and body together during the pandemic, gave Everything Is Amazing a ridiculously kind shout-out in her own Substack newsletter:
Gosh. So, yeah. Um. *incoherent British mumblings* Thank you, Katherine. (Gosh.)
Katherine’s next book is called Enchantment: Awakening Wonder In An Anxious Age, and - oh good grief, just the title alone, my poor heart how it thumpeth. Look at that cover, too:
(You can pre-order it here.)
Staying with amazing people launching amazing things, my friend Anna Brones (whom I interviewed back in season 1) just launched a podcast!
It’s about creativity, the neuroscience of inspiration, and how to cultivate your curiosity. I’m already jealous of how good it is. Bah. But please ignore my small-minded envy and go have a listen to episode 1, which is terrific:
> “Do we need newness for creativity?” - The Creative Fuel Podcast <
Okay. That’s two utterly impossible acts to follow. But here goes:
Hey, fancy a ride around London?
Everton Thomas, a 33-year-old bus driver from Woolwich in southeast London, is sitting in a cramped, ugly office decorated with maps of the city.
There are maps on the walls, maps on shelves, and a big paper map spread out on the angled desk opposite him. This map is pointing away from him so he can’t see it, even if he tried. It’s for the benefit of the person at the other side of the room, who has another map open on their iPad.
But if Everton sneaks a look at any of these maps, he goes back to being a bus driver - a job he’s desperate to leave. He’s hoping a better life awaits him and his family if he can keep his eyes fixed straight ahead, and not let his nervousness cloud his brain. He really, really needs to think clearly right now.
In a sense, this is a job interview - but it’s also one of the hardest memory tests in the world.
The examiner says: “Everton, where’s the London Edition Hotel?”
This question, and the following ones like it, requires him to remember specific locations from London’s roughly 100,000 landmarks. He has to know where these places are - and he has to know how to get there from anywhere else.
“OK - how about Battersea Reach?”
“Uh…that’s on…Juniper Drive?”
“Correct. Now tell me the quickest way from London Edition to Battersea Reach.”
Now Everton has to assemble and recite this route from memory, taking into account everything that might affect the journey along the way. A 5.9 mile section of the roughly 25,000 streets that run across London, rattled off the top of his head without hesitation.
(It probably doesn’t help that Channel 4 are there as well, filming a documentary about him, which is how I know that all this happened.)
This kind of problem-solving is what the famous London black cab drivers do in their heads, in the time between you telling them your destination, walking round the back of the cab and settling into your seat. That’s the requirement to get the certification that lets them operate a black cab, and it’s been the requirement since 1865. This test was tough to start with, but a century and a half of road-building later, what it’s evolved into is an incredible feat of memory and spatial judgment under pressure.
The exam is called The Knowledge - and these days, Everton teaches it, in the school he set up after he successfully passed it in 2017. Most students take four or five years of study to get to the required level - or they drop out, or get disqualified (there’s a 70% fail rate). But the ones that succeed will earn anything from £15,000 to £30,000 more per year than any of London’s bus drivers. It’s a powerful incentive.
But - how? How can you learn the names and locations of tens of thousands of landmarks and the 25,000 major & minor roads across London? How can you even do that?
Back in season one of Everything Is Amazing, in a newsletter ironically/hypocritically titled Avoid Reading Clickbait Hogwash With This One Curious Trick, I described two types of curiosity that aid us in learning new things.
The one that we’re painfully overfamiliar with is diverse curiosity - the appeal of the shiny new thing we’ve never seen before. It’s why we keep clicking stuff, including the nonsense behind headlines like, “You’ll never guess what this child actor is doing today!” and “Once you’ve seen what this man can do with a blowtorch you’ll never want to sit down again!”
In other words: it’s the mechanism for so much that’s wretched and awful on the internet. (But it’s also the source of a lot of our creativity. Newness is powerful - as Anna’s podcast explains in detail.)
The one you’re less familiar with is called epistemic curiosity. Instead of scooting sideways across the surface of the world, you drill down, looking for what’s hidden under seemingly simple questions and under the surface of things you already have a rudimentary understanding of.
Journalists use this to investigate their stories. It’s how academics push the boundaries of knowledge. And how police detectives collect clues that lead to a suspect. And how scientists make their discoveries. It’s what everyone does whose job it is to get to the bottom of things, for whatever reason.
On the whole, it looks like we all need a bit less diverse curiosity in our lives, and a bit more of the epistemic kind. It’s better for us in all sorts of ways, including emotional ones, to put quality time aside to dwell on the things we most enjoy, so we can learn to understand and appreciate them at a deeper level.
(I mean - you’d think this is obvious, but look how that has traditionally got labelled “being a nerd” or “geeking out” as if those are bad things. But then nerds took over the world - except the bad ones, perhaps as an act of revenge, found that it was easier to make money from us by getting us hooked on diversive-curiosity-powered distractions with no underlying meaning, and here we are, willingly giving loads of our attention to foolish and pointless things like, say, Piers Morgan. It’s a bit of a mess.)
So when I wrote that newsletter, I’m really glad nobody asked the obvious question, which is “how?” How do you pay attention using your epistemic curiosity so you can improve your understanding of things you actually care about - instead of just helplessly being distracted by things you mostly don’t care about?
Back to Everton Thomas. How did he learn London so deeply?
Here’s an excerpt taken from a document that students of the Knowledge are given in their first year of study. It’s called the Blue Book, and it covers 320 routes across London, a kind of skeleton that everything else gets hung on - or maybe a ‘spatial vocabulary’ that students can use to make up all the other routes they’ll eventually have to learn:
“Each of the 320 runs has a start and finish point.
Firstly, using maps, work out the most direct route between the start and finish points.
When you get to a start point you must first learn the area within a 1/4 mile (400m) radius of that point and make a note of the places of interest/important features you see.
You need to learn the roads that join the places you find to the route. Take time and trouble to do this, it is important.
When travelling along the route take note of any important features you see (Features are not only points of interest, but also include one-way streets, prohibited turns, etc).
At the end of the run you must investigate the area within a ¼ mile (400m) radius of the finish point for places of interest and important features.
Learning the area around the start and finish points of all 320 runs will ensure that you comprehensively cover the area within the six-mile radius of Charing Cross and build up a good working knowledge.
Remember that because of one-way streets, no right turns, etc., the forward and reverse routes may be different. You will need to know both directions.
You will not acquire sufficient knowledge simply by studying a map; you will only gain the necessary knowledge by travelling the routes.
Remember that London is an ever-changing city and ‘Knowledge of London’ candidates must continually maintain and update their knowledge.
While you are learning the runs you will need to regularly test yourself by calling over with your partner and practice answering questions in the manner required for one-to-one interviews with a Knowledge of London Examiner.”
OK, well, there’s a frustrating number of times they use the word “learn” there. But how do you learn?
I guess they’ve left it vague because everyone learns a little differently - but generally, we use the technique we learned at school: rote learning. We force ourselves through the same material again and again - or rather, we’re forced to force ourselves through it - and eventually it’s just burned into our mind whether we like it or not, like a square peg hammered into a round hole.
Unfortunately, rote learning is part of a body of early scholarly thought that viewed the human brain as a fairly simply constructed ultra-rational computer. All our actual computers use rote learning, and the reason is that they have the ability to do the same things billions or trillions of times without getting bored.
But we get bored. And this is a huge problem.
A brute-force form of learning blunts our attention - and when we pay less attention, things stick in our minds even less than before, so repeating the same things works less and less effectively as the cycle continues. We tune out what’s over-familiar. It becomes “boring”.
This is the point at which the very worst teachers start yelling at us that we’re stupid. But we’re not. The way they’re teaching us is stupid, because a rote system is based on diminishing returns.
(The good teachers know this, which is why they make it fun - ie. “different in some way to the last time they talked about this thing” and also “emotionally engaging”.)
When I was at school I was in the choir for the school’s production of Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat. That’s how I know his coat of many colours was:
That’s me reciting from memory, nearly 40 years later.
Firstly, it was fun to learn all those colours - I remember being fascinated by a chart of them we were all given, that really helped (and in fact colour and long-term memory have a really interesting relationship, as I’m going to be writing about in a newsletter in a few weeks).
But also? I was worried I’d forget my lines up on stage. Raw, bubbling terror, that’s what made it stick. Hooray!
In other words: emotions. When you remember something like a human being does, using a squirt of some kind of emotion, it soaks deep into your mind. This is why “make it fun” is great advice for learning anything and for paying proper attention. Equally good might be “make it fairly horrible” - although there, there’s a danger that you might subconsciously suppress the memory for wholly understandable reasons. But I bet you can remember a good amount of reasonably horrible experiences from your life, even if the super-awful ones have been mercifully edited out by now.
But an even better approach might be to make something a mystery.
A mystery is a puzzle that doesn’t have an easy answer. Puzzles are the things that our diversive curiosity can find the answers to in seconds, thanks to Google, often shortcutting the process of us actually thinking about them. But mysteries - they annoy us. They bounce around, haunting us when we’re trying to sleep, making us click those awful, awful clickbait headlines even though we know they’re not worth clicking on, but if there’s the slightest chance, we have to know…
For people making the TV shows we watch, mysteries are extremely daunting concepts. On the one hand, everyone gets obsessed with them:
- Oooh, why does the smoke monster make that clanking noise in Lost?
- Who is the mother in How I Met Your Mother?
- “What the hell is going on?” - everyone watching pretty much every episode of Dark (still my favourite thing I’ve watched on Netflix. What a dazzling piece of storytelling, whew).
We often get emotionally invested in these kinds of mysteries to a delightfully ludicrous degree - which is why it’s so dangerous for those writers. They have to mostly satisfy that expectation, or they’ll get shredded by newly enraged fans. The more we care, the more we think about stuff, and since TV audiences always contain a some really smart people, some fan theories can end up being
so much better than whatever the TV show writers come up with. ( This is why it’s a common thing for those writers to be paying close attention to fan theories on reddit and Twitter and elsewhere.)
Edit: This is actually a foolish thing for me to make sweeping statements about, especially in an unreferenced way - see Kay’s response in the comments. (I should have linked to this, which is specifically about the TV show “Severence”: hat-tip to Jolene for reminding me). Please consider this as me taking these poorly-phrased words back.
There’s a study from a few years back, published in the journal ‘Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes’ (150: 1-13) that looked at the role of curiosity as a driver of creative thinking. It looked at how epistemic (here called specific) curiosity was used to solve questions in a creatively adventurous way.
It found that questions that weren’t easily solved - more towards the ‘mystery’ end of the scale - force us to approach them from many, many different angles, to find the right way in, the key that unlocks it all. And in doing so, not only do we get more creative in our thinking (reaching further for more distant ideas to bring into the mix), we also create a kind of ‘constellation of information’ around that original question. A kind of a map of interconnected knowledge, centering around that original thing, and helping us focus on it and reinforce it.
Does that sound a bit too abstract and vague to care about?
Okay. Think about all your friendships, the people in your life, the ones you went to school with and so on. Think of all the things you know about each of them that constitutes your relationship with them.
A few days ago I went back to England for the first time in nearly three years, to the city of York, to meet a bunch of my friends that I first met when I studied with them at University twenty years ago. One of the things they know about me is that time when I was moving house in York, and instead of hiring a delivery van or cadging a lift off my mates like a normal person, I decided it would be SO GREAT for my fitness levels to move all of it by hand.
This was fine for the five or six trips I made with a fully-laden 50-litre backpack (by “fine” I mean “I survived, more or less”) - but it didn’t work for the ironing board. No way. That thing wasn’t fitting in no rucksack.
I could have just bought a new one, but being broke, I decided to just carry it.
So there was the day when York was treated to the sight of a pale, exhausted-looking man walking its streets while brandishing an ironing-board, much in the way Arnold Schwarzenegger wielded that enormous Vulcan minigun in Terminator 2 - or perhaps more accurately, much in the way he didn’t.
But unlike Arnold, I frequently got tired, which is when I’d put the ironing-board up, so that I could kind of drape myself over it to have a rest. You know, as you do on the average roadside, in the middle of the day, with cars passing you, pedestrians dragging their children away or crossing the street to avoid you, and so forth.
I don’t know what everyone else who saw me that day made of the whole thing. But I do know what my friends thought - because they remind me of it, virtually every time I’ve seen them since. It’s a story of inconsequential foolishness that says a bit too much about me as a person, so of course they all remember it. That’s what friends are for.
All our friendships are made up of thousands, maybe tens of thousands of these kinds of moments. A constellation of stories that connects everyone together, all of them reinforcing, right in the middle, a particular idea about what kind of people we are. The kind of person who’d cross York by ironing-board, for example. That sort of thing.
It’s almost like a map, you could say. My friends know who I am because of all the narrative waypoints that run between us across this map of the relationships in all our lives.
Well, that still sounds a bit pretentious. Here’s a more down to earth version: we remember everything about our friends not because we hammer the exact same pieces of information about them into our minds again and again in the exact same way, ie. rote learning - but because we absorb that same information in lots of different ways.
Say, I know a friend works in the city because:
I’ve met them at their house after they cycled home from work
I’ve met them for lunch outside their workplace
they work with a total idiot I remember from school (and apparently he hasn’t changed a bit, *sigh*)
there was that time when my friend’s workplace was in a national newspaper and she was in one of the photos
…& on & on.
The net result of all these bits of information is: it requires no effort to remember that my friend works in the city, and probably very little effort to remember where. The context makes the content.
This is also what Everton Thomas did, and everyone else who has passed The Knowledge. It’s the relationship of specific roads to the things on and around them that make them stick in their memory. Memorising the landmarks makes it easier to remember the roads, and vice versa. Advanced students of The Knowledge are also encouraged to read into the history of the regions of London they’re trying to memorise - and they’re told, quite emphatically, that they need to personally experience the route from as many angles as possible, building up a three-dimensional image in their minds that they can mentally traverse when working out a route.
So this way of getting a deeper, specific understanding is about finding lots of different but interconnecting things about whatever it is you want to be interested in.
Fine. But what about for non-London-learning feats of memory? What’s a simple, practical method of doing this for everything else?
Here’s one you can try. It’s adapted from the work of Japanese industrial engineer Ohno Taiichi, also called Taiichi Ohno (I think that’s his name Westernised), who is most famous for the work he did on Toyota’s production line system.
In his version, used for problem-solving, you ask “why” five times in a row, and each time you have to try to come up with a better answer than before. The intention is that it forces you to chase down the root cause of whatever the problem is.
There’s an often-cited case study of this in action, involving the Washington monument in D.C. - where Don Messersmith, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, is said to have used 5 Whys to get to the bottom of a particular problem:
Problem: The Washington Monument is deteriorating.
Why? It’s the chemicals being used to clean the monument.
Why? The monument is covered in pigeon crap.
Why? The pigeons are attracted by the huge number of spiders at the monument.
Why? The spiders are there because they’re feasting on all the midges.
Why? Midges are arriving because the Washington monument is the first in the area to be lit at night.
The solution Messersmith landed on: the monument’s staff needed to turn the lights on an hour after sunset.
It’s an elegant and endearing legend often used as a glowing example of cost-saving ingenuity - and like many elegant and endearing legends, it’s also riddled with holes.
First of all, the methodology. The five Whys require each answer to be the correct one, including the very first Why. What happens if the first conclusion is incorrect? What if the problem isn’t that harsh chemicals are the biggest issue here?
Well, what happens is that you end up with an 85% reduction in midges around the monument at sunset - this is what apparently happened when the lights were staggered back an hour - and no change in the rate of deterioration.
In fact, a consultant’s report in 1990 suggested that the sheer volume & force of water being used during cleaning was the main culprit - but even so, many other factors were at play, beyond the effects of those chemicals. This led to a 5 year programme of corrective work at the cost of 25 million dollars. Not as simple or cheap as the legend says, then.
Also - there was the non-trivial further problem that the lights of the Washington Monument were being turned on for the benefit of visitors, some of whom had travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles across the United States to catch the spotlighted monument shining out at sunset - only to find that the bloody thing was still turned off.
The 5 Whys are another instance of applying computer-like behaviour to human beings. It’s treating them as super-rational decision-making machines incapable of making mistakes, rather than the blundering logical fallacy engines we really are - and the method limits your creative thinking, quickly forcing it to stick to one chain of cause and effect. Useful up to a point, but pretty rubbish at helping you think about a problem laterally.
However, how about using an altered form of this to guide your epistemic curiosity, when you want to get a deeper, more ingrained understanding of something?
Instead of saying “Why?” you say: “What?”
What is something about this thing that you find interesting?
Okay, good. Now, what’s something else interesting about it, ideally totally different to the thing you just said?
Now, what’s another thing?
And on you go, building a constellation of knowledge around that thing that reinforces the core of it in your mind.
This is particularly effective when you’re out for a walk and want to stretch your attention-paying skills. What you do is - you find the most boring thing you can see. The thing that you would normally give the least amount of your attention to, a thing you’d sweep your gaze over and move onwards. But today, you stop and take a closer look. What’s something of interest here? Or at least - what’s something that’s not totally uninteresting about it?
Now look closer. Look for something else. What else is at a non-zero level of interestingness here?
Can you do this 5 times without going cross-eyed with the effort? Excellent. So how about aiming for 10?
This is surprisingly hard. You have to fight the urge to say “nothing is interesting about this, what a pathetic waste of time this is.” This is what we naturally do for most of everything we see, and for good reason - if everything was interesting, it’d be too much incoming information and our brains would conk out.
But here, you’re learning to see what you’re actually looking at, which many of us are a bit rubbish at these days.
(When I was an archaeology student working on an excavation, I needed a lot of teaching in this manner - at first, everything just looked like mud to me. Which it was. It’s always mud. But “mud” contains a whole world of things, and it’s amazing what you can see when you learn how to actually look at it.)
So yes, this is an artificial trick. It’s turning paying attention into a bit of a game. It’s also…a bit silly? It’s the kind of thing kids would do, and you’ll feel a bit like one if you do it. But it’s also what kids are good at - much better than adults, I’d say, on the whole - so maybe we need it more than they do.
(And if you’ve ever had the feeling that the kids in your life are having all the best fun, this is a great way to rebalance things!)
But the ultimate aim is do this instinctively, without having to make yourself do it - and this can have all sorts of interesting implications for so-called adult behaviour. Like arguing! You’re talking to someone with opposing views to yours. Okay - what are five things about those obviously wrong views that are, well, still wrong but maybe a bit less wrong? Why are they less wrong? There’s clearly more to learn - so you talk, and grasp the nature of your opposing viewpoints better, and eventually you’re arguing about what you actually disagree about, instead of what you think you’re disagreeing about. Big difference.
(Even better, you could not argue, just discuss things in a non-judgemental way, but that’s a bit idealistic and I’d be amazed if that caught on.)
So there you go. Five things. Or ten, if you’re feeling utterly reckless. To create a network of information that reinforces connections to the things you really want to learn and really want to remember.
This approach is hardly new. I bet any professional educator or psychologist listening to this has their head in their hands, or is already banging out an email to me filled with things I should be referencing. (Feel free! Bang away! I’m all ears.)
But as a way to trigger your specific curiosity that’s so easy to do that even an idiot like me can do it, it definitely fits the bill.
Give it a go. You never know what you’ll see.