- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Do You Need to Be Smart to Learn Certain Subjects?

How does being smarter change how you learn things?

While definitions of intelligence vary, and the models behind what makes some people smarter than others vary even more, a common view says that intelligence is likely linked closely to having a better generalized working memory [1].

Working memory is essentially the ability to hold multiple ideas in your head at once. Think of it like the workbench of your mind, where different pieces are assembled together into new ideas. For a primer, check out Jakub Jilek and my extensive guide to the science behind working memory [2].

Under this view, those who are smarter have a bigger workbench. Thus patterns are easier to spot because more pieces of the puzzle can be put together at the same time.

How Intelligence Differs from Knowledge

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Psychological research tends to back [3] the idea that intelligence exists, it is at least partly heritable, and there are few ways to improve it in a very general capacity.

At first thought, this can be kind of depressing. Some people might just be smarter than you, and that might keep you from getting good at certain things.

However, the reality isn’t quite so gloomy. For while some people might have inherited slightly better working memories than others, the most powerful way to improve your working memory is to simply learn a lot. Learning creates chunks [4], which allows you to deal with more complicated ideas at the same time.

Playing a lot of chess, for instance, will make you a much better chess player than someone who is really smart, but has never played the game.

The downside of learning, is that the chunks you acquire tend to work in fairly narrow domains. Playing a lot of chess will make you a better chess player. But it’s unlikely to make you a better scientist, programmer or artist.

This is the essential trade-off of learning. Learning is very powerful, but tends to be somewhat narrow. Intelligence is general, but can often be swamped by differences in acquired experience.

Why Are Some Subjects Harder to Learn Than Others?

This theory helps explain why some subjects feel like they require more intelligence than others. If understanding an idea requires considering many different ideas in quick succession, it’s a lot easier to lose the thread if you have lower working memory. Example: mathematical proofs.

In contrast, if a subject requires a large volume of memory, but each fact and idea is largely separate, then it may require a lot of practice without needing a ton of working memory. Example: history or law.

When learning Chinese, for instance, I often felt the volume of words and characters to be overwhelming, even if learning any particular character wasn’t too hard.

Learning physics, in contrast, it can sometimes feel like you either “get it” or you don’t. Either the explanation makes sense to you, or the insight goes over your head and you’re lost.

Is The Problem the Subject, or Just How it is Taught?

While this may seem to put an barrier up to understanding some subjects, if you don’t have enough raw intelligence, I actually think the opposite is true.

Because you can expand your working memory within a subject by creating new chunks, even very complicated ideas are understandable if you’ve mastered the parts.

The perceived difficulty is often the way these subjects are taught. As you go higher into math and physics, weaker students naturally drop out. All else being equal, those who were a bit smarter and found it a bit easier are more likely to stay.

Since better students are more likely to have larger working memory, more chunks from experience, or both, the class average ability will get higher and higher as you go further in these topics. Since classes are usually taught to the average level of ability, this means that explanations get shorter, with more “trivial” steps skipped over. This can lead to you feeling like you can’t keep up.

There are, however, solutions to this. The first is for teachers to slow down the class. Presenting explicitly ideas which would otherwise be implicit, so you don’t accidentally get lost.

The second solution is for the student to manually slow down the class. This can be done either by using techniques like the Feynman Technique [5], which crawl through confusing explanations to prevent working memory overload. You can also pretrain the prerequisite ideas [6], so that there are more chunks, and thus fewer ideas need to be considered simultaneously in order to learn the new subject.

What Does This Mean for You?

Anything you want to learn can be learned. However, some subjects may appear harder because the speed at which they are taught makes it harder for you to follow along without missing key links in the reasoning to arrive at the right insights.

There’s a fix to this problem, however, the trade-off is that it requires more work. If you can’t see everything all at once, it means you need to practice more the pieces so you don’t need to juggle as many ideas simultaneously in your head to reach the same conclusions.

While needing to put in extra work may feel discouraging, I prefer to see the glass as half full—it also means that you can learn anything you want, if you’re willing to work at it. No subject is too abstract, difficult or confusing that it can’t be overcome with patience.