(This post is part of “What Makes Humans Tick”, a series on Human Kinetics.)

For much of the last century, human behavior scientists have debated whether hard lessons are more profoundly learned by repetition than those of a weak nature. Now, new research indicates that this debate might be obsolete.

The work, published in Science recently, highlights the collective actions that contribute to a pattern of behavior and thus adds weight to some previous work (pdf) suggesting that it is possible to teach people the opposite side of an answer by explaining it to them—within 10 seconds.

The researchers used relatively simple task, breaking it down into multiple discrete points that were repeated so that different people could tackle each of them, over and over. They took the results in their own observational observations and noticed that while more experienced people were able to explain complex problems and come up with more logical solutions than their novice peers, these novice people “learned things before or after the explanations.”

The outcome was that the novice group of students was, on average, able to demonstrate better argumentation and reasoning skills than the more experienced group. When they were asked to explain an argument one step further they were able to find solutions to the problems after the explanation, which led to more “predictable learning.” (This is just one test, but it does provide a fascinating window into what happens when people are made to suffer the same school of thought at the same time. It seems, as the study argues, that a sense of suffering can be as effective as set pieces.)

Another recent study (pdf) from June last year suggested that if given the task to repeat results, no person could correctly estimate the time it would take to complete a task. The issue with this is that, like most of our behavior, predicting a desired outcome is not our strong nature. The trick is in thinking about how and when you want to actually take action on the answer you have to think through.

This is quite different from when it comes to language, in which taking action and communicating what you plan to do is well within the stronger part of our brains. It’s known that, at some stage, human language is influenced by the part of the brain known as the Vena cava, which is known to be a pleasure center. It is this same function that creates surprising benefits when we attempt to teach a complex problem. The more we work with the issue, the more we learn. We tell ourselves of our solution and decide which bits we are going to repeat. Then we break it down, one detail at a time, until we are more confident we know exactly how to reach the answer.

In other words, according to the new work, we can end up “learning things on the fly.” If, at this stage, your “problem” is winning a “Jeopardy” competition, that might seem like progress. But, really, a whole, absorbing book would be a much better way of teaching this sort of thing.