Kevin Sun

College is a gym for your brain

Learning is like exercise for your brain, but there's (at least) one big difference.

February 15, 2023

In a previous post, I suggested that college is a mandatory marathon. I claimed that students are more or less forced, by peer/parental/economic pressures, to undergo a somewhat uncomfortable experience for an uncertain financial payoff. At some point, they realize that nobody's really watching, so many succumb to the temptation to cheat. Instead of actually going through the motions, they just have to appear to go through the motions.

Now I think that that analogy is overly pessimistic, so in this post, I want to propose an alternative analogy: college is a gym for your brain. Like the marathon analogy (or pretty much any analogy), this one isn't perfect, but I'd say it's more positive.

Let's start with the more obvious similarities: People go to gyms (college) to improve their physical (intellectual) health. Both places have instructors who help provide motivation and structured guidance, as well as staff and administrators who ensure that everything runs smoothly. At a typical gym, there are exercise machines, showers, and other amenities that support people's fitness endeavors. Similarly, at a typical college, there are libraries, computers, and other amenities that support students' learning endeavors. People with very different backgrounds can join the same gym or college. And both places cost money.

Now let's move to some less obvious parts. In my opinion, the most important similarity is the following: If somebody wants to improve their physical health by going to a gym, then they'll need to physically exert themselves. Even if they're surrounded by the fanciest equipment and the most inspiring, knowledgeable trainers, they still need to exercise by moving their own body. Similarly, if somebody wants to foster their intellectual growth, then they'll need to mentally exert themselves.

Exerting oneself, whether physically or mentally, is not supposed to feel easy or comfortable; it requires tenacity and conscientiousness. You won't get stronger by going to the gym if all you do is stare at your phone and effortlessly do one rep every ten minutes. Similarly, you won't actually learn if all you do is browse the Internet while listening to a lecture in the background. Although gyms and colleges are responsible for helping their clients exert themselves productively, the core ingredient of improvement is exertion. And until scientists release a magical fitness pill or a computer chip that can be implanted into our brains, it seems to me that there aren't any shortcuts.

Physical exertion not only has health benefits, but it's often enjoyable for its own sake: it causes the release of endorphins and can generate a "deeply relaxing state of euphoria" known as a "runner's high." [1] I want to claim that similarly, although learning has observable benefits (most notably higher incomes), there are also important effects that are less observable. Why do people go to museums and concerts, or even just stare at the stars? I don't think their primary reason is to attain some future gain, like a longer life expectancy or something. They mainly go because they find that it's a pleasant activity. In fact, for some, seeing the Sistine Chapel or listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is beyond pleasant — it evokes a deep feeling of transcendence. Perhaps pushing one's intellectual boundaries, like exercising and appreciating art and beauty, is at least a pleasant activity as well, if not something greater.

If learning requires exerting oneself, and it generates potentially profound experiences, then it's not so clear why anyone would want to cheat. It'd be like if someone paid someone else to go to the gym for them. Or if they somehow designed a mechanical system that enables them to lift heavier weights, and they wore it under their sleeves. Or if they replaced the metal plates with foam ones, or if they change the labels on the machines that indicate how much weight they're lifting. None of these actions make sense in the context of a gym, and for anyone who genuinely wants to learn something, doing the equivalent actions at a school doesn't make sense either.

Guy Hoffman, an associate professor at Cornell, recently gave a timely example regarding ChatGPT, everyone's favorite topic in education these days. Even though students can use AI tools to substantially improve their writing, or even outright generate an essay, perhaps they'd be a waste of time and energy. [2] As Hoffman points out, the point of school is not for students to solve problems posed by the professors, since professors (generally) already know the answers to those problems. Instead, the point is for students to personally go through the problem-solving experience, in order for them to acquire greater knowledge and abilities. If we consider writing as a special case, we see that the point of a writing assignment is not the written outcome, but rather, the point is to go through the journey:

The process of translating vague ideas into a coherent text helps structure ideas and make connections. The time spent editing and re-editing weeds out important ideas from marginal ones... Letting an AI system do this work for you means giving up all of that. It's like sending a robot to do your WestWorld vacation for you, and just sharing the photos it took on your Instagram feed. Behaving in this way is not at all about cheating, it is about missing the whole point. If you care about having clear ideas and becoming better at what you do, you want to be writing.

Returning to the gym analogy: people who run on treadmills clearly aren't trying to get anywhere — the point is to do the running. Instead of running, they could turn on the treadmill and sit on the floor, drive home, or ask someone else to run for them. But all of these options would prevent them from experiencing the benefits of running. Similarly, the reason that teachers ask students to write is not for content to get produced. Writing itself is worthwhile; after all, why do people keep journals that they never intend to publish? It's because, as Hoffman puts it, "at the end of the day you still have to go to sleep with your own thoughts, ideas, and opinions." To organize and clarify these thoughts, you should probably try writing before you ask ChatGPT.

"College is a gym for your brain" sounds like advice I'd give to my students to encourage them to work hard, and I admit that I have told them this before. But I'm not saying that teachers don't have to do anything. On the contrary, I think a good course should be like a good fitness class: it should provide a friendly learning environment, feedback from an expert, the benefits of peer interactions, and all of the right scaffolding to enhance the learning process. Even though it's possible to learn an entire computer science curriculum by sitting alone on a laptop, or get super fit by running around the block, I suspect that most people (including me) lack the motivation to follow this inefficient and difficult path. Students want to trust that the instructor has their interests in mind, and I think the instructor is responsible for delivering on this trust.

This post has been all about the similarities between colleges and gyms, but I'll end with one giant difference that I believe is critical: while people at the gym don't get graded, students' lives are largely shaped by grades. I think this is unfortunate, and colleges might have something to learn from gyms. My current hunch is that in an ideal world, students wouldn't get graded. Perhaps students, like people at a gym, should have the freedom to choose what they want to do and work at their own pace. Some people might slack off, but others might discover how much they actually enjoy learning without being constantly judged and evaluated.


[1] I'll admit that when someone exercises to release endorphins, they are not technically exercising "for its own sake," but rather, for the feelings caused by the endorphins. But I mean, does anyone do anything purely for its own sake? My point is that there are reasons to exercise beyond the well-known, long-term, bodily outcomes. Similarly, I think there are reasons to learn beyond career-related outcomes, though they might be harder to measure.

[2] One wrinkle in this situation is that there is a spectrum between "Give your prompt to ChatGPT and submit whatever it returns" and "Don't use ChatGPT at all." For example, a student could write an essay themselves, edit it until they're happy with it, then feed it into ChatGPT for a final round of editing. Or they can ask ChatGPT to provide an outline, which they flesh out into paragraphs. I mean, I might have used ChatGPT to edit this blog post a bit...