At two months old, babies understand the fundamentals of physics.
Which isn’t to say they could tell you the equations underpinning concepts like entropy or explain how mass informs gravity. But at two months they do have a tacit understanding that unsupported objects will fall and that physical objects do not disappear when concealed; which seems obvious to adults, but wouldn’t necessarily be clear to infants. After all, it took us countless generations and the development of complex math to be able to express these concepts intelligibly, as a species.
Why, then, should babies pick up these concepts on a practical level so quickly?
Consider that an understanding of these physical laws and how they shape the world around us is vital for survival. A creature of any age which lacked the understanding that if it stepped of a cliff it would fall probably wouldn’t last long enough to procreate. Such a creature’s genes would be cut off at the stem, and it certainly wouldn’t stick around long enough to evolve and invent and discover things like consciousness and diapers and physics.
I like to keep this in mind—that we latently understand physics without recognizing that we do—any time I’m beginning to learn some new field or trade or skill.
At a certain point in your education about anything, you reach a point where your subconscious brain moves a little faster than your conscious brain. You can feel the correct way to lay out text on a poster, for instance. You have a hunch that the problem with the car is in the valves, though not for any reason to which you can immediately put words; you just feel it.
Intuition, or a gut-feeling about something, can be—and often is—wrong. But people who have more-correct-than-not intuitions are generally folks who have learned to collect data from their environment and process it both effectively and subconsciously. The more data you’ve processed in the past—the more you’ve seen and done, and importantly, the more you’ve corrected for bad data—the better your intuition can become.
This is why a designer who starts laying out elements on a poster will generally be better at understanding, without having to use any rulers or other measuring tools, where graphics and text should go for maximum impact. They’ve done it often enough, and seen enough examples of good design, that they can feel when it’s right; and their feeling in this regard will be more likely to be correct than someone who lacks that same background.
This is why a mechanic who knows nothing about the history of your car may still be able to ascertain a problem with it better than you, and in just a few minutes. They’ve seen hundreds of cars and many more car problems, which allows them to recognize associations and commonalities without having to work through a checklist or assess all possibilities, and to be right about their educated guess more often than not.
Babies may not seem like the most attentive of students, but they spend essentially all day, every day, collecting and processing data about their physical environment. It’s all very new and scary and upsetting to them, of course, and they don’t understand most of the sensations and visuals and sounds and tastes that they’re taking in. But the whole time they’re collecting data and their little brains are storing it away: learning to recognize cause and effect, learning that if something is dropped, it falls, learning that if they push against something, either they, or it, or both, will move.
When I’m learning something new, this is part of what I aim for.
I want to know something so that I can explain it and understand it like an adult, but I also aspire to grok it at a deeper level, like a baby. To be able to activate my analytical mind and pick apart the details of something, but also to be able to generally understand what’s going on and what might happen next, at a glance.
The balance between these two states, I think, is optimal for most fields.
A good stock trader understands their fundamentals and does proper due diligence on the stocks they’re considering buying, but they can also take a quick look at the candlestick chart for a company and broadly understand what’s happening, what will likely happen next, and make use of that vibe in their higher-level computations.
Running on pure instinct isn’t ideal, because our instincts can be informed by bad or incomplete data. The fear trigger you get from a stranger may be the result of sociopathic cues you’re picking up on, but it could also be an internal misfire, setting off internal alarms because they’re new or unfamiliar to you in some way; of a different race or from a different economic class, perhaps. The triggers you’re picking up on could be indications of ‘difference’ not ‘danger.’
At the same time, running on pure high-level analysis can leave you with a lot of useful facts, but less connective tissue between them. You might have mountains of useful figures and formulas, but may be slow to use them, and may feel unable to apply them optimally because you don’t have the proper reflexes in place. Your data could lack useful, practical context.
This is what it means to have textbook knowledge but lack applicational aptitude. You acquire aptitude by seeing, doing, experiencing, trying, failing, and trying again. You acquire data by studying, practicing, and mining past experiences for insight.
Data is more useful in experienced hands, and your intuition is sharpened by exposure to good data.
The educational balance I aspire to is the curiosity and focus of a baby exploring the world, and the purpose and experiential wisdom of an adult.
It’s common for one or the other side of this equation to take lesser priority and diminish in attention paid and effort exerted. But I find that maintaining a balance between the two amplifies the acquisition of both, and the enjoyment of learning as a whole.
This essay was sponsored by my patrons on Patreon.