Learning from history
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Learning from history

History offers valuable lessons on the problems we face now. Dan Collison tells us about naivity as a superpower and how to beat the Minotaur
 
Connect with Dan at @DanCollisonMD
 
Find out more about Superlearning at https://superlearners.traverse.link/.
 
 
 
 
Transcript
Hello, and welcome to another episode in this super learning podcast. Today, I'm joined by Dan Collison. Dan is a retired doctor and the medical professor, his specialty was a skin cancer treatment and reconstruction, and he also writes about the intersection of science, humanities, and tech which are some of his lifelong interests that informed his medical enter teaching career.
So welcome Dan.
Thank you. I've been looking forward to talking with you ever since we were in the ODCC course together.
Yeah. I mean, cause I remember very well in the ODCC course. You were always the one who, whenever a word came up, you would have the whole etymology ready and to know where the word comes from, what it means and what it used to mean. So maybe you could just start off there, like how do you get interested in that kind of stuff? And how do you remember all of those?
Sure I'm part of that bay is based on the fact that I tend to think of culture including language as being, basically a treasure house of knowledge and a shortcut to learning because when you think of it or the way I think of it is that if we bothered to make a word for it, it probably has to do with the fact that it was an important concept or important idea, or it had some utility.
So it's a bit of a Lindy sort of approach that I have that if something has been around for a long time, it's probably because it's useful. So, but also things change over time. So that's why it's fun. You know, when we talk about a word, the way it's used now to see how that use has changed over time, because that can give you a little bit of insight as well.
Yeah. So I definitely agree. Like somebody just had an idea and then there was a word coined for it and the idea kind of continues to live in the word.
Yes and then just like, as in programming languages, there comes a situation where a fork occurs like, so there are certain words that are just so ancient that they have actually generated dozens and scores of words over time as the situations change.
So yeah, it's largely utility in general as an indicator of where the riches are buried. Right.
Do you have an example of such a word that just sparked off loads of different words in there.
So, I tweeted about this yesterday and I was looking at a poem by Robert Frost. He's famous in the US where I live. I live in north of Boston and New Hampshire and Robert Frost actually went to college in the town I live in, or he started college there and I was looking at one of his poems and he used an interesting word, which was the word provide.
Right? And so he repeated the word twice, the last two words of this poem and the first two words. So they were both in the title and they are in the last two words. And with someone as careful as a poet, you know, poems are so condensed that every word counts, that's one of my go-to's as an example of a go-to where someone in culture, in this case, a poet is trying to tell you where the bones are buried. So I looked up the word provide. And it actually comes from two ancient words. Pro means forward, like in front of you. And Videri is a Latin word that means to look at. So basically when you provide something, you're actually thinking about provisioning.
So there you see the word again. So you're having the foresight to set aside resources and that's a provision. The poem itself in typical frost fashion, flip that on its head. And that's another interesting thing about good teachers is sometimes they don't come out and say what they want to say directly. They usually make you dig for the treasure a little bit. So but in this case, the word provision was frost telling us to look at the history of this word, because this poem may not be about what you think it is.
Right. That's so fascinating. And I know you'll note like the etymology of a lot of those words, and I was wondering how do you remember all of those and maybe does the story behind it help you remember them and do you use that in other fields as well.
So I have several approaches to that. There are certain words that are so important to me that I do have them memorized. And, by the way, Dom, Two days ago, I learned about this tier ranking system. Do you use that rubric of S A B, C, D. Do you know about that rubric of ranking, the importance of a topic or an issue, it's from the gaming community.
And I learned that from an OBD Obdall YouTube that I saw three days ago, but anyway, there are certain words that are indispensable to me, such as the word I'm in a medical, I'm a doctor, the word compassion has fascinated me over the years. The difference between compassion and empathy and sympathy there's actually fine distinctions between those words.
So a really important word either for my interest or my field, I have those memorized, but then others, I keep an in a, a running list. I use a note taking software called WorkFlowy, which is a little bit obscure or a little bit long and a little bit old fashioned compared to some known note-taking apps.
But I have a running list of A and B level words that I don't have memorized, but that I refer to enough. That I keep them there. And then of course, the other way is I use the internet instantly to look up these words and I use a resource called Etym online, which is an online etymological dictionary.
And by the way, I also use that when I'm learning a foreign language, I was taking a crash course on Spanish in may and June, and looking up the etymology of important words in Spanish was also very helpful for me to learn.
Yeah. I can imagine that. And I imagine since you have probably a deep knowledge of Latin as well from your medical expertise, like, has that helped you learn Spanish faster as well?
Absolutely. And that's a good segue as to one of the most useful things I did when I started in medical school. And that is that I looked up the etymology of every single new word. So at the beginning it was quite a task because most of the words or a lot of the words were new, but once I learned the root, then it was easier from then on. I'll give you an example. Do you know the word hysteria?
Yeah.
Do you know where that comes from? And if you don't, I'll give you another clue, hysterectomy, so historus is the Greek word for uterus. And I mean this is a great example of how meanings change over over time and how we learn as cultures as well sort of the the emotional state known as hysteria was formerly thought to be related to the uterus being out of kilter. And it's a pejorative now to To think that being emotionally excited, number one is limited to women and number two, to blame it on an organ that's not good for them to think in that way, but that's just an example about how once I learned that the word for uterus like in hysterectomy, then I saw that had also applied to to other words, like history, scope, hysteria, and so forth.
Right, and so this kind of system that you would develop to remember the roots and etymology of words has helped you in your further learning journey or like you had to tell me a bit more about your journey to get to this medical expertise and then the teaching expertise and everything that came after that.
So, I'll segue that into another technique I use for learning, so first there was just the literal use of okay I'm going to word roots of Latin and Greek, which provides a lot of the medical vocabulary, but then over the years, I've taken it up to one other level where I think of culture in general, as anytime you see something being reused by culture, that's a sign that it might be an important concept. And then when I'm teaching people. So just like in teachers and doctors are very similar in that they adjust the treatment or the learning method to either the patient or the student.
Right, so I might appeal to the practical person by saying, Hey, if you learn this one word once, then it's going to be useful in the future or for a person who's more philosophical or process oriented. I say, Hey notice this pattern here, if you look to culture then you can apply that to detecting other patterns of culture or other ways that culture preserves what's important.
And then you think, okay, culture must be a technology for how information, how behaviors are both taught and how they're coordinated. And so basically you first see the instance such as the word hysterectomy. And then you see the pattern, ah, hystero is not just using that word, but several, and then you realize, oh gosh that method of re mixing words and word roots over the years is the same as the way that hip hop uses samples.
And then you start saying cultural patterns used in a variety of culture, whether it's music culture and in my case, the culture of medicine, the culture of science, all of these things tend to borrow from both the past uses, but also from, from adjacent fields.
So you go from the instance to the pattern where you do notice a pattern between two different fields, and then you say, Hey, what if we use this pattern from two non adjacent fields and see if they to see if they apply to a previously unused field.
Right. Okay. So yeah, you take like successful patterns, which you determine based on like repetition and reuse and culture. And then you can try to recombine them almost.
Yes. And so see if there's either similar patterns, it doesn't have to be the same, it can just to use a metaphor, it can just rhyme.
Right. And so like in medicine, especially now, like knowledge and information is increasing at a very fast pace. Like how does those techniques help you to choose like what to keep track of and maybe what not to pursue further.
So that's a really good question because I went to medical school between 35 and 40 years ago. A lot has changed since then. 150 years ago, you could memorize all of Madison and even maybe even 120 years ago. But even since then, Even in the past 35, 40 years, the way we learn medicine, the way we use medical knowledge has, and is undergoing a tremendous change. But at the same time you don't throw away the baby with the bath water, there's part of medicine that won't change.
Hasn't changed. And for instance, the compassion that I was referring to the tailoring of the treatment to the patient that will never change. But the way we access medical knowledge has changed tremendously. One thing I did as a resident in medical training was I wrote papers.
And then you'll like this one Dom, this reminds me of a story. One of the reasons you learn something is to pass credentialing tests. Right? So and that's a big deal in medicine passing credentialing tests. So a friend and I started to build a sort of a master list of a subset of diseases that were genetic diseases of the skin.
And, you know, first it was 10 pages, then 50 pages, then 80 pages. And then we thought, this is getting to be pretty large. And we decided to see if we could get it published. And so we wrote up a book proposal and the publisher said maybe if you can improve it here. And then we thought, okay I noticed one of your recent topics was asked who not how.
Yeah. Right.
So, yeah. So what we did is we decided to recruit the two most senior people in this field of genetic dermatology. And we didn't know any better. We were just kids, so to speak in our fields, but by a miracle they accepted and, we got her contract and we published a 700 page book.
Wow. Oh yeah. That's amazing. And so that reminds me, I don't know who said this, but sometimes like being naive can almost be like a super power.
I absolutely agree. Beginner's mind is a wonderful thing to have. And as you know, Henry Ford, the industrialist, he supposedly only hired young engineers because they weren't experienced enough to know that what he was asking of them was impossible.
They just said, oh, okay. We'll do it. So yeah. My colleague Fred and I were definitely part of that. By the way you know, I know you and Ryan have been collaborating, right? So collaboration is just talk about superpower. That's being able to collaborate is a superpower for learning and I, and my colleague, Fred and I, we not only learn so much from each other.
But we, you know, we enjoy. You know, hundreds and probably thousands of hours that we actually spent literally side by side working on this textbook and Dom I admire what you do because back in that day, back when I was a dermatology resident, I was a self-taught programmer and there used to be a program for the Macintosh called HyperCard and I taught myself a ton of programming in order to build the database to make this textbook And format it in a certain way.
But back in that day, we had 300 and 1200 baud modems. I also had to do it in such a way that I could generate an ASCII file to send to my colleague Fred so that he could upload it into his HyperCard program and he could edit it. So one really neat thing about choosing a big, hairy project is that it invites you, number one to collaborate.
That's how we got those senior coauthors to work with us, but it also number two, it inspires you to get better at other tools.
Yeah. Definitely like having a purpose, it makes you learn so much faster and makes you more determined. And I almost get through that learning dip.
And now I have a name for that. I had skin in the game, you know, once you have skin in the game, boy, it really makes you concentrate and it makes you take on tasks that you otherwise would not.
Yeah, definitely. And maybe in this whole learning journey what would you say has been your biggest learning challenge and how you overcome that?
That is a really good question. And it has to do with, I was not very good at switching roles according to my context. I'll give you an example of that. So basically I was in a field where I had to be extremely careful with number one, my surgical technique. But even more importantly, actually it was my ability to determine whether the cancer was completely removed. And for that skill, I needed to be good at microscopy and pathology, part of my surgical process was looking at all of the edges of the tissue that I removed to make sure that the edges were cancer-free. So once the tissue was removed, I had my technician process 3d edge of the entire specimen.
And then I would look at the edges through a microscope slides obviously to to make sure there was no cancer. So that's a role you know, being in the doctor role requires you to be just sort of really OCD, really obsessive and compulsive and conscientious. And that was great.
That was a great trait to have for that role. But the mistake I did, Dom was, I would apply that to where it is not useful. And I'll give you an example from my recent effort to learn Spanish and to speak Spanish. I was so cautious about speaking Spanish that I would hardly say anything because I wanted it to be perfect.
That was my go-to trait was to just be okay. It has to be in perfect grammar. Perfect word choice. I can't use a baby word. I have to use a more sophisticated word. And when I went to Mexico it was very frustrating because I wasn't using my language and I was traveling with two brothers, my wife and I were traveling.
So there were three brothers and their wives, right. There were the six of us. We were all traveling together. And I saw that my older brother was speaking very broken Spanish with a terrible accent, but having a great time. Yeah, and it made me mad. And so I asked my younger brother, by the way, I have 10 brothers and sisters.
I said how can I get about this? So he says, Hey, just remember, it's about connecting. And then I just had that aha moment. And then I dropped the perfection, trying to be perfect role or trait because I had a different role. I was, I was not here to be a careful doctor.
I was here to be just a regular, just talking. So, and that made a huge difference in my learning of Spanish and my getting better at speaking ever since.
Yeah. Definitely like choosing the right role. And maybe it related to that with what you mentioned is also I think different types of intelligence, right? Like we talked about your medical intelligence, language learning, and then you probably were talking about you also training for marathon and running. So tell me a bit more about those different types of intelligence.
So I've learned that I had a had an intelligence for distance running when I was I don't know, a 12 year old boy or so. I used to have paper routes delivering papers door to door and my neighborhood was very hilly and the roads didn't connect, they're all curvy and loops and circles. So but I was simultaneously and efficiency oriented, and also I won't say lazy. It's related to efficiency.
I just wanted to get it over with so that I could watch cartoons or play. So I ran, bit by bit, I started running the paper route and and I got good at distance running and then I tried out for the track team or the cross country team. And in my class of 200 freshmen I was one of only two boys to win a varsity letter, to be on the varsity team.
And so that was a shock to me that because to that point, I knew myself as a bookworm sort of intellectual person. So it shocked me that I could be good at something physical that I could develop a an intelligence physically. And and I've enjoyed physical things ever since. And I've hired coaches to help me get better at running, et cetera.
And it helped me, I gave running up for 20 years and then when I was in my early middle age 38, 39, I started to get back into it and it literally provide revived my life. And so I was just wondering to tie this in to 1 more learning story. I was in a personal development workshop, there was a cohort of about 30 people.
And we had 30 senior, we had 30 sort of teaching assistants who had previously gone to the training. And the whole thing was led by this guy that who's sort of a guru. He was a guy in his mid seventies. And this is about 18 years ago, Dom, but this was, this was, what we would now call cohort training.
And it had a constraint where it was all done over three and a half days on a weekend. And one of the other constraints that they applied, you've may have heard of this, there's some abusive versions of this, that you may have heard about. Like you know, I hope I'm not saying I hope I'm not insulting anyone, but there are abusive or manipulative versions of personal development training.
But this one was a really good one. Anyway, one of the things that by the way, over the course of that weekend, the structure of the course was meant to apply to various intelligences, the linguistic intelligence, social intelligence, intellectual intelligence the intelligence of just what I call a mammal intelligence, where you're just side-by-side packed in with people and you're eating with them and, you know, you don't even have to use language to benefit from that sort of intelligence. But anyway what would happen was that people would get up in this every, so often the master, he called himself a director. We might call him a facilitator using some of our other language and all of those have, by the way, very interesting. Etymologies anyway, we would all be in a U shaped arc and and folding chairs facing each other. And if you can imagine right at the very top of the hill in this center was the guru, the director, and he sat like that statue of Abraham Lincoln almost.
And he would just be open for your questions. And someone who had to have the courage to get up and explain what their issue was for one gentlemen was one memorable gentlemen. He was about 78. He said that his every afternoon, his wife who had just died a year earlier, would come to him in his thoughts and spirit and it really was disturbing to him.
And I can go into that. That's a really good story. But then I shared my question and guess what? I used words and I used language to describe what my dilemma was, and it was a relationship dilemma. And he made one suggestion and I replied with a yeah, but.
Because I'm used to getting my way through language. Right. Or it wouldn't surprise you that that way. But anyway, then he said, well, Daniel. You are really, he didn't say screwed. He used a more dignified word. He didn't say you're in a pickle, but he said, you're really stuck. And then he said, so notice that's a physical word.
And then he says, now stand up. I want you to lie down here. And this is in front of 60 people. He says, lie down. And then he said, Joe Bell, I want you to come over here, Joe and lie down to the side of Dan now, Roger and Steve lie down on top of Dan and he said, okay. And these were Roger and Steve are big guys.
He leaned down. So, he had this theatrical presence, but then he did something very interesting. He leaned down and he said to me, can you breathe? And he just used to a normal voice. Yeah, I can breathe. Okay. He says, Dan, then he got back into his persona. He said, Dan, I'd like you to get up.
And I made some half sort of half-hearted efforts, then I said, I couldn't get up. Go ahead and get up. And then I said steve, Roger, would you move? And then he said, Steve, Roger don't move. And I've literally Dom, I was there for about another 70 seconds, room was totally quiet. And I was just there trying to think my way out of this.
And then I finally, you've probably jumped to the conclusion. I finally just struggled. The only way that he could reach me was through my body because my linguistic skills and my thinking skills talk my way out of this. And so if it's just a wonderful insight to me that that Hey, if I'm stymied by my linguistic and my verbal and my intellectual facilities, try a different intelligence.
And as a really good teacher, he read me within seconds both through the, I think that was like the second day of the workshop he had seen me. He'd seen my style. And it's just a great example of how a good teacher will reach a student through a variety of intelligences.
And sometimes you'll actually not go through the student's main intelligence, but through one of their auxiliary, I won't even call them minor. I'll just call it an auxiliary intelligence.
Yeah. It's a wonderful learning story, as you said. It's really great. Yeah. So maybe to switch the gears a little bit, maybe looking a bit at the future. Like, what do you think is really needed for us as we face this increasing amount of information, but how to keep benefiting from it and then turn it into actual knowledge.
So you know, one of the things our brains have to do in real time. So this is something that we can learn from the way we deal with other things. And that is to how to discern, how to distinguish, how to filter what's important. One of our recent hacks is to use algorithms to, to search through the needle in the haystack. So in terms of both our algorithms in other words, our technical solutions, but also in terms of our you know, individual efforts, it's how to discern, how to sift through, how to filter the important from the non-important. And one of the things I call that is taste. Some people call it intuition. There are some people who have to discern or distinguish very quickly what's a good path and what's a bad path.
There's different approaches to this. Some people say, oh, you need a better second brain. Well, yeah. Second brain just, it doesn't take very long to overwhelm even the best second brain. So another one is okay, lots available such as with email and so forth, don't get hacked by dopamine hits.
These are all great approaches to facilitating the solutions to what you just asked Dom, which is what do we do with all of this you know, the deluge, the flood of of information. So of course it's going to be some combination of all of those approaches.
So what I would do is, I telegraphed earlier that this is not a new problem. Sometimes we can look to culture for solutions to how to deal with this. For instance by the way, Dom, have you had anyone speak in your series on Plato's Republic?
Oh, no, but I love the book actually. It's so well-written like, I really love it.
And inspired by his teacher, Socrates. He actually invented a new literary form called the dialogue to be able to express his ideas on that. But back to the Republic, one of the main topics of the Republic is how do we learn and how do we educate?
And in Plato's context, which was ancient Athens, people were seen in the context of the Polis, right? P O L I S which is the city state. And you know, There's etymology again. When Aristotle said Aristotle is Plato's student, when Aristotle said man, as a political animal, what he's saying is, man is a social community-based animal.
Guess what we call those. Now we call those cohorts. We call those communities. So we have a lot of people bringing to the fore now, bringing in front of us now the power of of community. And likewise, we are noticing how tough it is when we don't have a communitarian feeling, when we don't know how to handle conflict.
So, the question that Plato was trying to, Plato and Aristotle himself, one of the issues they deal with over and over is, you know, how can we leverage some of the greatest inventions of ancient Greece, where the power of rhetoric, the use of history and number one in my mind, science they really put science a good foundation.
So can you Rhetoric, that's a verbal based communication, but it's basically about communication. Politics they had this new model that they had called democracy. This was a new way of coordinating the activity of people in communities. What else did I mention science, of course, I forgot the third one, but it doesn't matter
learning from history.
Right. And that is if you don't have to reinvent the wheel, don't, you know, history is a type of learning and history allows you to learn the only thing that you can learn or things that are available to you for reuse again, you know, people say, oh, hip hop is easy.
No, bad hip hop is easy, but great hip hop is just like any other cultural method. Great hip hop is hard because what you're trying to do, and this is a great technique, you're taking sound samples and re mixing it and using them in new ways. And that's what learning is so, so many way.
I think this, you say going forward I would say, learn from our learning, learn from culture, right? That's one way. And I've been by the way, one of my favorite of all Greek myths is the myth of Ephesius and the Minotaur and Theseus. There was something terrible going on at the time.
And that is that every year, the mayor of Athens had to send 12 young men. You can just think teenagers, 12 teenage girls, a young women, and 12 teenage young men have made have been six and six to Minos, to be sacrificed to the minotaur. And because of a previous transgression. In other words, if it's a political dispute and the backstory of that is fascinating, but the Minotaur was a monster that was the result of man's and woman's misuse of technology. And he was a monster. Does that sound like anything that's going on today? Technology causes monstrous things happening. Well, usually what happens then is what happens now. If there's something monstrous as a result of technology, we developed a piece of technology to contain the monster. Right. And that's called the labyrinth, right?
Labyrinth was designed by a man that we can call the OG, the original gangster technologist of all time. And that's Daedalus. Okay. But it still didn't take away the problem, which was that the youth are being sacrificed because of the mistakes of their elders, does that sound familiar? Does that sound like climate change, for example? So Theseus was one of these youths and he was actually the son of the mayor of Athens and that's Aegeas and he said, F this dad, you won't settle your dispute with Minos after this.
I'm going to Minos and solve this myself. Right? Yeah. So he goes there and he knows about the Minotaur, but he doesn't know about the labyrinth, guest who tells him about the labyrinth.
Well, it wasn't that the daughter of a king or something.
The daughter of the king who's sacrificing the youths. So this is like a Romeo and Juliet story and so she tells him, okay, You may be able to kill the Minotaur, but the labyrinth is so hard. It's so intricately designed that you'll never get back out. You'll die. Take this thread, take this ball of yarn and as you go forward, roll it out and then follow it back.
So I'm acting like a Socrates here. What does the ball of thread, what does the thread trace through the labyrinth represent? I hope you don't mind me putting you on the spot. Wow.
It's an interesting question for sure. I'm not sure, so it's like the way to the evil technology, but I'm not sure what that would mean.
It showed where he was. It's a trace of his path. It's memory, it's history
that's beautiful.
So one of the things that this myth tells me is that if we want to, it's one thing to kill the monster, it's another to survive killing the monster. It's another yet even better to get out of the labyrinth and join a nice counterpart, right? Yeah. And you know, for Theseus, Hey here, it was great guess who was on the other end? Ariadne. Yeah. So in other words this was a social solution to people.
There was a social problem in that. It was a problem of two parties, Minos and Aegeas, it was solved by the next generation, their children and your enemies daughter may be the key to the solution. So Theseus, his first instinct was to go in there, like Rambo go in there, like Rambo or dirty Harry and John Wayne.
But the actual solution was more nuanced. So anyway, that's just an example to show where culture and history can help us get out of the current pickle. The one other thing I will mention related to that is, well, the first easiest one is that it might be like a game of Frogger where it's not going to be a direct path. We're going to have to hop on some, two logs forward, one log back, that sort of thing. But it just a reminder that be aware of techno utopias because You know Daedalus thought that he was going to have the perfect solution to this problem which was designing the labyrinth.
But the other part of the problem was that there was somebody else who used the labyrinth, namely Minos for his purposes, there's always a Minos here. There's always a minus. And there's always an Aegeas who doesn't have the courage to make the right solution. But there's also always a Theseus, a young person who says F this I'm going to try.
And then there's always an ally. There are always allies and they come in interesting shapes. I mean, Ariadne, the son of your enemy or excuse me, the daughter of your enemy, is she an obvious solution to conquering the Minotaur? Is she a tech genius? Did she have a high-tech solution to getting out of the labyrinth? No, it's a simple, elegant solution. So anyway, I'm really tickled by that story. And I go back to it over and over.
Yeah. It's very beautiful. In fact, it ties it very nicely back to wherever it began.
So, that's a good place to end this. Really great. And one question I always ask is who should I interview next for this series?
Boy, who should you interview next? The easiest answer is I will think about that. There are, of course a lot. I actually have a good answer.
All right. I don't know her personally, but I follow her on Twitter. She's a gamer and she's a designer and she's a really good at Twitter. And you might reach out to her. Let's see her name. I know her Twitter handle, it's chapel tracker and that chapel is her last name.
All right. Yeah, that's so cool.
So I think cause gamers and designers, don't you think they're onto something?
Yeah. Definitely. I'll get in touch with her.
And then I'll send you the name too.
Perfect. Yeah. So then if people want to find out more about you and maybe get in touch, what's the best way for them to do that?
Well, I'm on Twitter. That's the easiest way and my Twitter thread is is sort of a mixed bag. So if you see some weird stuff it's just what was tickling me on that particular day.
Awesome. All right then. Thank you very much for the interview.
It's my pleasure. Great to see you. And I love following what you're doing with learning. I'm learning a lot.
Thanks a lot then.
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