Acquiring common human skills

I used to sometimes pay other people to cut up my meat into small pieces (not as weird as it sounds—our house has a tiny internal token economy). Somehow chewing meat was surprisingly hard for me, and so (unrelatedly?) was cutting it with a knife. I think I attributed these failings to some kind of generalized lack of virtue with respect to dealing with food.

Then one day a few months ago, my boyfriend said something like ‘I don’t understand—why can’t you cut meat? It’s not like there are lots of ways to do it wrong—you just put the knife here, and then go like this’ and I was like ‘Oh!’ and then I could cut the meat. (See picture, and pretend chocolate is meat and plastic knife is metal knife.)

2016-06-10 21.34.25

How to cut meat

2016-06-10 21.33.44

How not to cut meat

Encouraged, we went on to investigate why I couldn’t chew the meat, and learned that I was attempting to chew it with a different set of teeth to the ones he was using. Apparently you are meant to break up meat with your canine teeth. I tried this, and it worked much better than what I was doing (kind of crushing it together with my back teeth).

Relatedly, the two of us often floss our teeth together, and I always take longer than he does. Similarly, I think we both put this down to some vague moral failure on my part. One day we investigated more carefully, and learned that I have twenty five percent more teeth than he does, which explained the time difference pretty well. (After some confusion we figured out that I have the normal number, and he had all of his wisdom teeth removed, plus another four long ago).

I recounted some of these stories to a different friend, and he asked me if I knew how to drink cold water. I said probably not—in fact I have never understood how people drink iced water, which hurts my teeth. He showed me how to purse my lips to avoid the coldest water touching my teeth.

All this was surprising to me. I had assumed that most variation in people’s abilities to do random things was due to small nebulous differences in many characteristics. Maybe Sam can’t throw a ball as well as Lara because his posture is different in a thousand subtle ways, and he tends to move his body less quickly, and his hands are not the same shapes and he has different attitudes and beliefs and habits, about throwing balls and about learning things in general. The aforementioned series of events suggests that more often than I thought, Sam can’t throw a ball as well as Lara because he has his foot too far forward, and if he moves it backwards he’ll be almost as good. Or at least, that this is true of me.

This doesn’t appear to make sense, because of course people do vary in heaps of small and nebulous ways, and lots of those ways should affect how good they are at random tasks. But perhaps if a person is bad enough at something for it to be noticeable, this is usually overwhelmingly caused by one very well defined problem? This is my best guess for now, but I am interested in others.

Another possibility is that this only applies to me—that I am somehow uniquely lacking at basic, easily teachable skills. Which might make sense, since I went to school less than the recommended amount as a child. But I doubt they had a class on meat-eating. Coincidence seems like a plausible explanation too—maybe things like this are rare, and I just came across several in quick succession. I guess I credit coincidence for three of four stories here involving teeth. I don’t have any good guesses that account for that. Possibly stories about teeth remind people of other stories about teeth.

How often do you think being bad at a task is due to some easily explained problem? That might be fixed in minutes? Have you found yourself severely lacking at common human skills? Did you ever get better at them? Were the solutions simple? Do you know how to effectively chew meat? How did you learn that?

6 responses to “Acquiring common human skills

  1. “I recounted some of these stories to a different friend, and he asked me if I knew how to drink cold water. I said probably not—in fact I have never understood how people drink iced water, which hurts my teeth. He showed me how to purse my lips to avoid the coldest water touching my teeth.”

    This is not typical. I drjnk cold water typically, and sometimes very cold water, without ever being conscious of pain.

  2. kithpendragon

    The feeling you describe of «suddenly improving disproportionately (apparently) to the amount of information acquired» sounds like the way I commonly acquire a skill (parallel parking comes to mind). The process in my mind is something like, “Oh, it’s like [similar skill or way I was doing it before], but different in this one small but critical way”. Once I understand the mechanics of it all, usually I experience the same sudden jump in competency that you describe. I tend to think of this as what it feels like to Level Up an ability.
    As for the specific skills you mentioned, it looks to me like there’s a disconnect between «what an activity looks like» and «how it feels to actually do it» that seems to sometimes be difficult for you to notice. I would be surprised to learn that others did not suffer from the same difficulty when {acquiring, improving} skills that involve «using a particular, not-frequently visible body part», «adjusting to the way a thing feels in a non-obvious way», «setting up tension in a particular muscle group», &c. I’ll be sure to watch out for that kind of effect as Infant becomes Child and begins to acquire skills in a more external way.

  3. Well, what might it be? I doubt your incidental-learning faculty is crippled. The answer lies in the content. Why two debilities both concerning consuming meat? Are there others with a meat focus? I’d say you unconsciously need to punish yourself for the sin of consuming flesh.

  4. Until he was about 24, Jeff couldn’t stand still for long without knee pain. I remember him saying that running was more restful and less painful for him than standing still.
    Then he went to a physical therapist and found out that he was standing with his feet tilting outward, so that his knees were pulled. When he started standing with his feet flatter, he could stand for normal periods of time.

  5. Hypothesis (feel free to reject): there’s a general factor of feeling more or less embodied / comfortable with one’s physical body. Having more of it leads to more exploration when a physical task seems more difficult than it seems for others; less of it leads to giving up earlier. You’re pretty far to one end of this factor.

    This would make it analogous to the factor of feeling more or less comfortable with one’s ability to reason abstractly about their model of the world, and would predict that some people are more willing to explore different worldviews a little, while others give up early and just assume it’s impossible to make progress on making further sense of things. You would be higher on that factor than the people you grew up with, which explains your surprise that they don’t explore the consequences and contradictions of their explicit beliefs.


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