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HealTHis: Knowledge

This article digs deeper into what impact knowledge has on our health. It's the 4th article in the series, and another subject that many might overlook when thinking about their health.

For many, there might appear to be a little too much crossover when we talk about the measurable health of our knowledge and understanding, and that of our cognitive health. The way I understand it, and certainly the way I intend it to be taken from these articles, cognitive health focuses very much on the use of our brains, in particular to solve problems, whereas our knowledge refers to the information we store in our minds, and the subsequent analysis, contemplation and resultant understanding of it. As always, much of what I write is based on empirical evidence, much of it is based on published research, but all of it remains advice and interpretation, not hard fact. This is in fact an area in which I’d suggest hard fact would be a stretch for any person to lay claim to!

We (on the whole) have the same grounding in knowledge, passed on to us via teachers for the majority of our youth, in line with the curriculum of our era. The manner in which this was imparted, the level of enthusiasm with which it was conveyed, and the passion with which it was received will vary widely, but nevertheless, the knowledge we gained meets a basic, near universal level. Concurrent to our mandated education, we all received a level of tuition, maybe not always touted as education, from our parents and other influential individuals in our young lives, such as older siblings. This knowledge is much less universal, much more subjective, and not at all regulated. Whilst we were all taught that 2+2=4, and that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, we were probably taught to build birdhouses, or style a doll’s hair completely differently from one another, if at all. Some children are fortunate enough to be guided to further knowledge frequently outside of school, whilst others only learn to entertain themselves and therefore assume that school is enough. As Mark Twain famously said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Whilst I’d contend that schooling is certainly useful for teaching universal basics, knowledge is available, and should be sought from, many more sources. One study, referenced by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Outliers’ suggests that development of school children is relatively even throughout the school year, whilst during the holidays, those children exposed to museums, books and frequently quizzed by their parents, progress far beyond the reaches of those left to their own devices. When tested upon their return to school for the following academic year, the gap had been created, which then remained as the year progressed. This teaches us, among other things, that the most important lessons in life, and the most knowledge, can be gained outside of the school framework, and often come by way of parental guidance and influence. This is all well and good, if you currently have young children, but might not seem overly applicable otherwise. Whilst it’s widely acknowledged that our ability to learn new information declines with age, I’d suggest that is a poor excuse not to seek new knowledge. We can at any time in our lives choose to improve our understanding of a subject, or indeed begin to learn about a completely new one. Not all will be appealing, but some will pleasantly surprise you.

When considering overall health, and in turn levels of contentment, it’s pretty natural to assume that increased knowledge in those areas with which we deal in daily life, should be prioritised. To that end, I’d recommend starting you quest for further knowledge by expanding your current working knowledge of your job. This may well sound quite dull, but consider that the better you know your job and associated issues, the easier you will find it. This in turn will lower stress, increase job satisfaction, give you a renewed purpose in your daily work and probably result in more free time as a side effect of becoming more efficient. That sounds like a good recipe for career advancement to me! As Walt Disney once said, “Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it, they will want to come back and see you do it again, and they will want to bring others and show them how well you do what you do.”

After that, I’d recommend splitting your learning into two areas; learning that which will improve your daily life, such as childcare, if you have children, dog training, if you have dogs, etc, and areas in which you already have a keen interest, but not as much knowledge as you’d like. This could be a hobby, a sport you enjoy watching, or a pastime.

Next comes the less attractive part; read about things you have no specific interest in. This sounds counterintuitive, but stay with me for a second. Firstly, this will give you a broader general knowledge, which itself will serve you well in day to day life. Secondly, you may actually like some of what you learn! I know this sounds crazy, but the last 3 books I’ve read on topics in which I have no interest, have turned out to be some of the most interesting things I’ve ever read. It turns out that the reason I didn’t have an interest in these subjects before, was simply ignorance. Who’d have known?

All this new knowledge is great, but what to do with it? Well I put a post on social media recently which read “knowledge without accordant action is worse than ignorance”. I stand by that statement, however, not all knowledge requires immediate action. It should be pretty obvious which does, and in that case, act according to what you know. Once you learn something new, this would seem like the obvious path, but all too often, what we learn stands at odds with what we think we already knew. It’s therefore difficult for us to accept this new information, leading to a state of mind referred to as cognitive dissonance. In this instance, I’d suggest trying what you’ve read, or heard, and making up your own mind. Failing that, conduct your own research, assess the source of any information you find, and weigh the evidence to reach your own conclusion. This in itself is a hugely valuable learning experience, invariably leading you to find out things along the way which are valuable in their own right.

So what about knowledge that doesn’t require acting upon? Contemplation and discussion. Take your time to process what you’ve learned, mull it over, consider it in the context of your own life, and apply it to relevant situations. Try to further understand the implications of it, and how the same knowledge might help someone you know. Talk to your friends about what you’ve learned. You’d often be surprised at the answers you’ll receive. Chances are one of your friends will have their own piece of information which might complement yours, to help you better understand, and complete the puzzle. You’ll also find these kinds of discussion are often themselves invaluable sources of information, along with, as you’ll remember from previous articles, a great way to improve your social health. Either way, discussing what you’ve learned will help your understanding and give you at least one other view of how to interpret the information. This can add balance and depth to the subsequent opinions you form.

So how exactly do you fit more learning into an already packed schedule? Here are the five things I’d suggest almost anyone can incorporate straight away:

Listen to an audiobook when you have time but not hands! By this, I mainly mean whilst driving and bathing. This, to me, is dead time, assuming you’re doing either activity alone! So by listening to a book, or a podcast, we lose no time at all, but gain so much. You might find yourself frequently using the ‘back’ button as your mind wanders at the suggestion of something interesting though!

Have a book by your bed. This habit seems to have skipped a generation, but was extremely common in the not too distant past. I’d recommend sticking to real books and not the electronic kind, for no reason other than keeping off electronic screens close to going to sleep. As an aside, I also like to highlight and scribble notes, which I find far easier in a real book!

Engage in online discussions. You’ll remember from the social health blog that I advocate balance with social media, but one of the great upsides is that we can join a group, or groups, of people interested in one or more of the same subjects, and engage in thought provoking discussions. Whether you’re one for starting a debate, or just contributing to the conversation already in place, this can be a great way to expose yourself to knowledge shared by others, and can be done in small snippets of spare time.

Find a knowledge source you enjoy, maybe an online source to do with your work (if you enjoy it) or a hobby, or both, and read a short article or post whilst on your ten minute walks (which you’ll be doing after the biological health article). That way your stolen ten minutes, which we’ve already made time for in our schedule, is serving another purpose, and therefore being much more efficiently spent.

Guide conversations with friends and family to areas of interest. This is certainly not a blanket statement, and it is worth remembering that we learn whilst listening, not whilst talking! Once the conversation has dried up though, a fresh topic can help to reinvigorate it, and increase understanding.

For all of the above suggestions, I'd advocate taking notes, or making a mental note if you trust your memory, of things you’d like to read further on, or contemplate in more detail. These can become the topics of your meditations, which you’ll be incorporating in your daily routine shortly!

Whether you manage to squeeze in all, or just one of these ideas, or if you have suggestions of your own, use the comments to let me know how it goes, and be sure to keep up with the next article!




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