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The Habit of Applying What We Learn

You're going to learn about a powerful mental habit you might want to develop, but first I have a story...

Thirty years ago I read that most damage to tooth enamel takes place in the first thirty minutes that food is on our teeth. I thought about that and realized that since it wasn't very practical to brush my teeth every time I ate something, it might help to rinse the food off with my drinking water. I got in the habit of always saving a little bit of water to drink after I finish a meal, in order to rinse my teeth. Actually, if I have carrot sticks or another food that tends to clean other stickier foods off teeth, I'll save some of that to eat last, and then use the water. Many years later I finally found a dentist who recommended this practice. Why do I tell this story? I'll get to that in a moment, but first we have a question...

Why do we so often learn something and then do nothing with the knowledge?

Sometimes knowledge isn't immediately useful other than for the pleasure of learning something new about our world. An accountant might love to read about theoretical physics yet have little use for what is learned. Timing is an issue too. Applying lessons about investing might have to wait until there is money to invest.

Then there is the matter of motivation. Learning which foods are best for brain health is one thing, but changing one's eating habits can be difficult. Motivation is a bit of a mystery. Some people make the same bad financial decisions repeatedly, even though they can explain exactly what they should be doing for a better outcome. I will not be addressing motivation here.

Finally, one reason you might not use what you learn often enough is that you aren't in the habit of looking for applications. That gets us back to my tooth-rinsing routine and that powerful mental habit you might want to develop. I had developed a pretty strong habit of looking for ways to apply new knowledge when I learned that foods cause damage to teeth in the first thirty minutes. So I automatically looked for ways to apply my new knowledge in some useful way. It has been said that knowledge is power, but it's perhaps more accurate to say that it can be power. What we learn, if it isn't used, is about as powerful as an encyclopedia locked away in a basement where nobody ever finds it.

Your New Mental Habit

To develop the powerful habit of always looking for ways to use what you learn, you just do it consciously until it becomes automatic. Some people will tell you that it takes three weeks to form a strong habit, but do it as long as is necessary. Specifically, look at anything you learn with this question in mind, "What could be done based on this knowledge?" Write that question on a piece of paper that you carry around, or set aside time to do this as a mental exercise each evening. Continue practicing until the whole process is natural, meaning you find yourself imagining applications for what you see and read and hear before you are even consciously aware you're doing this. This is how you train your mind.

Of course, you generally can't use everything you learn for your own personal purposes, but you can still imagine how others might use some bit of knowledge. For example, when I read about research showing that men were more attracted to photos of women when the women in the photos had their pupils dilated, my first thought was that women could use that knowledge. They could, when they wanted to attract a particular man, cause their pupils to enlarge. How pupils can be consciously controlled is explained on this page: It probably would work for men who want to attract women too, but the study happened to have only male subjects looking at photos of females.

Of course puts so much useful information and knowledge at our fingertips. When I learned that most counties in this country are now putting all of their real estate records online, I thought of several ways this knowledge might be used. People could be located by way of the real estate they owned, since even if they do not live in a given home the address the tax bills are sent to is listed. I considered several other possible applications, and discovered that I could put together a rough estimate of a person's assets and liabilities based on properties owned and mortgage loans recorded. Scarier applications suggested themselves as well, like criminals looking at the actual layout of a home's rooms online before robbing someone.

Here's a bit of practice to get you thinking in terms of how to apply what you learn. Imagine at least three ways someone might use each of the following facts.

Inexpensive brainwave entrainment recordings can alter the dominant frequency of a person's brain's electrical activity, causing him or her to go into a meditative state or fall asleep. (I wrote about that here.)

Studies show that, when estimating the height of something or the number of objects, people tend to estimate lower when they are tricked into leaning to their left. (Reported on here.)

Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald studied cholera outbreaks and discovered that in countries with poorly protected water systems the bacterium killed a higher percentage of infected people, while in countries that had better water systems the disease became less deadly. (Read more on this here.)

In the United States housing with the lowest rental rates is being torn down (for various reasons) twice as fast as housing in general, creating a shortage of affordable places for people with low income to live.

Roulette wheels sometimes have defects in the pockets where the ball lands, so instead of the winning numbers being entirely random, some consistently come up more often than the usual 1-in-38 spins.

Of course the last item suggests a winning strategy for betting on roulette and, twenty ago, while working in a casino, I did see a man win more than $80,000 over many months, by betting on a number that was coming up too frequently. (I wrote about that here.) But in looking at the fact above, did you consider broader applications? Did you consider that there might be a business of checking wheels for casinos, for example? Or did it occur to you that criminals could sabotage roulette wheels at the factory and then go to the casinos where they are shipped in order to take advantage of this? I'm not suggesting looking for criminal ways to apply what you learn, but imagination does need to be exercised. As for myself, being a writer, I thought about using that last idea as the basis of a story.

Look for more than one way that new information and knowledge might be used, and think in many different directions. Ask how different people might use a newly learned fact, for example, or how that fact might be useful in different areas of life, from business to relationships to writing or solving seemingly unrelated problems. Expand your mind a bit and look for all sorts of ways someone might use what you learn. Do this enough and you'll develop a powerful mental habit that can be fun and will even, sometimes, help you toward your own goals.

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