Appreciating Our Complexity

Recently I tripped while I was running and got quite hurt. I like to trail run on uneven surfaces full of obstacles, but this penchant for danger caught up with me. My foot failed to clear a rock jutting out of the ground. Upon contact, my whole body went flying through the air, and I crashed on a large slab of stone. Unfortunately, my knee took the brunt of the fall, scraping off the skin and stopping my momentum on the rock surface. I also had some deep scratches on my palms that were quite uncomfortable. As I sat on the ground, I contemplated the pain I was feeling and how I would handle the bleeding. It became clear that the run was over though my adrenaline self was still contemplating finishing my intended course.

Eventually, I was able to get up, and someone helped me out with some napkins to help clean up the blood. Eventually, I could hobble back to my apartment to better treat my surface wounds. At that point, I realized that the injury I had sustained was much more substantial than I had at first realized. The range of motion of my knee had reduced to about 5 degrees of bending, and I could barely get around. If I were a smart person, I would have gone to emergency care at that moment, instead, I decided to try a few days of serious limping and discomfort. Luckily Ibuprofen is a miracle drug that made the whole debacle somewhat bearable. After two days of acting in complete denial, my wife said she had enough and made me get it checked out with a medical professional. I was fortunate that I did not do any permanent damage that required surgery, such as a break or a serious tear of the MCL. Also, there was no infection. So I was given the okay to let my body heal this wound on its own. That is not to say that it was a minor injury. It took almost two weeks before I could start bending the knee again. It felt like my knee was reconstructing itself muscle fiber by muscle fiber, ligament by ligament, tendon by tendon, meniscus by meniscus.

It seems like my body is, in fact, a pretty good doctor despite my conscious brain. After it assessed the required repair work, shortly after enduring my fall, it proceeded to shut down my entire knee joint for repairs, immobilizing all the attached large muscle groups. It is incredible how all of this complex coordinated work occurs without any conscious understanding of the process on my part. When my knee started being able to bend some more, the rehabilitation process could begin. Not surprisingly, getting my knee to function properly without pain or stiffness was a slow and challenging project. I relearned how to manage a slow walk, climb steps, descend steps and walk without a limp. Before the injury, I walked, ran, jumped, and frequently engaged in all sorts of knee-enabled locomotion. And I did so without considering the complex mechanics of my knee. As my knee recovered, I could feel that each and every seemingly simple action involves hundreds, maybe thousands of knee motions, some of which were starting to feel more normal as the joint recovered and some of which still needed stretching, strengthening, or just resting.

For example, at the end of a normal step on a flat surface, my ankle on the backwardly angled leg extends and pushes off the ball of the foot slightly to propel my body upward and keep the motion of my frame smooth. That ankle motion activated a part of my knee that was unfortunately quite sore for me even after my knee seemed to be considerably better. As a result, I was still limping as I walked. But noticing these small details was both interesting and rewarding. I hope to hold on to this excitement and attention to detail even after my knee is fully healed.

I share this story because it helped me realize that I previously misunderstood my body and the processes that my mind oversees during the course of quite mundane tasks. These few weeks of recovering from this injury helped clarify what was happening. Walking on any surface, whether it is uneven or flat, is incredibly complex. The normal process of walking that all of us take for granted is a highly specialized procedure that I would now compare to the types of maneuvers a highly trained fighter pilot uses to engage in combat. You might wonder why this comparison. Well, I was listening to a podcast interview of a fighter pilot recently, and he seemed quite jazzed up about himself and his maneuvering abilities. I thought to myself, you should see what my knee is doing when I take a step forward. You might still think my fighter pilot analogy is a stretch but look at a child learning how to walk over months of effort. Consider the years of work engineering groups engaged in to model a simple walking motion in a robot. And consider that my body conducts this quite intense operation through step after step of walking without my conscious brain even thinking about it most of the time. And I often do other things simultaneously, like talking to a friend, thinking about an idea, or considering how I should spend my day.

I think that this idea also has important implications for learning. Similar to the functioning of my knee in the course of everyday walking, we grossly over-simplify the learning process. We imagine that learning something new or mastering a new cognitive task is something straightforward, like following a new set of steps on a math problem or placing a new vocabulary word somewhere in our brain. But I think that the process of doing something seemingly simple like making sense of numbers or speaking a sentence is full of complexity, involving thousands of mental maneuvers that our brain is masterfully executing unconsciously every second. Our conscious mind might be thought of as a conductor trying to orchestrate all these complex phenomena.

So when we try to learn something new, a lot is going on to manage, maneuver, and consider. Now maybe I can’t offer specific strategies to manage this complexity with regard to mathematical habits or expressive language. I don’t have the expertise, nor frankly, the time right now. However, what I learned from my injured knee is that it is worth slowing down and observing our own processes. Listen to what our complex bodies and minds are doing without conscious awareness. There is a richness in this observation that is worthwhile, and there are discoveries to make. I think spending this time will make our lives more interesting, and it might also help us become better learners along the way. As an example, pay close attention to all the muscular actions that make it possible for you to walk. Similarly, consider a simple mental task such as naming all the one-digit odd numbers. What is your brain actually doing as it produces an answer, and what types of complexity are taking place along the way? I give this mathematics example because it is one that I often use in my computer science classes. Coming up with an answer is different than being able to explain a set of steps you can ask a computer to follow to produce the answer. The bottom line is that there is much more going on during seemingly simple tasks than we might realize on a conscious level.



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Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge