I recall when I was fourteen and purchased my first electric guitar and amplifier secondhand from Guitar Center. Most of my time went into trying (unsuccessfully) to imitate the improvisational solos of Frank Zappa, track by track, album by album … Or when that got too frustrating, I just liked moving the guitar back and forth near the amp to make it scream out for some reason.
I was fascinated by the sound. Why would the amp suddenly turn into a blaring wall of noise, if I just hold the guitar too close to it? What’s happening here?
The Concept of Feedback Loops
The sound from the amp was travelling into the guitar and making the strings vibrate … thus causing more noise from the guitar … thus making more noise come from the amp again!
This is an example of a feedback loop. A feedback loop is formed when one thing affects the other and vice-versa, so that over a period of time they start building on top of one another.
You can also imagine the feedback loop of a plant taking in carbon dioxide and providing oxygen for a human to breathe in and produce more carbon dioxide, or – more abstractly – an architect working closely with a structural engineer to design a house, each giving pointers to the other as the basic plans are laid and ultimately creating a stronger plan than either of them could do alone.
Physically, feedback is an important thing to control for in all aspects of engineering. More recently however it has taken a foothold in the “new” sciences of bioinformatics, cognitive science, control theory, etc., as a central concept – a powerful learning mechanism in its own right.
But how can this be used in everyday life? As it turns out, when you think about it, almost all learning occcurs in a feedback loop – with reality itself.
(Pretty expansive comment, huh?)
A Little More Detail
Philosophers since John Locke have noted that all initial learning in children occurs as they take in the results of their actions with their senses, and adjust their actions to make the effect that they want occur.
For example, if a kindergartener wants to draw the Sun, they’ll walk through everything step-by-step, like:
- Let’s try this crayon on the paper.
- No, that’s blue. The Sun isn’t blue!
- I guess the way the crayon looks matches how what I draw will look.
- Alright, let’s try the yellow crayon.
- Yeah, that’s right! But this sun looks more like an egg than a circle.
- How can I make it a circle? I don’t want to have to go back and draw another Sun!
- What if I just fill in the flatter parts to make it more round? Let’s try that…
Of course a kid isn’t consciously saying all of this to himself, and the actual details vary as much as different people do.
Most kids probably wouldn’t mind the egg-shaped Sun and leave it at that, as “good enough,” either out of boredom or out of not realizing their Sun could be made better. The feedback loop between the child’s ideas and the work of their hands closes, their learning-by-doing finished.
The Experts of Any Field Are the Experts of Feedback Usage
But some rare kids don’t want to stop. Whatever the reason, they find themselves engrossed in the activity. They keep going… and going… and going! (I think of Mozart and Tori Amos, two (very different) musicians who both had to be pulled away from the piano as kids because they would rather play than sleep.)Coincidentally, these child prodigies may go on to become true experts in whatever it is they have been doing. But, as has been noted before, for everyone in any field, it takes roughly 10 years of sustained, deliberate practice to reach a level of competitiveness on par with that of the world’s best.
Even the Beatles were putting out their first album 10 years before Sgt. Pepper, and Bill Gates spent his school years obsessively hacking on the computer provided. To ape a famous quote: Experience trumps essence.
The best part of all of this is that, the mind can direct its own actions. In that sense, then, the mind is both guitar and guitarist, with only the amp being held constant. The guitarist controls the whole feedback loop. At the same time, the guitar is inside the feedback loop, and will change itself accordingly. It’s a pretty trippy idea.
I bet you can guess my next point: What is the key feature of deliberate practice?Our post next week: Bridging the gap between deliberate practice, feedback loops, and the development of expertise.