If you could study anything, what would it be?
December 14, 2011 8:25 PM   Subscribe

If you could study anything, what would it be? I have some free time and a desire to get my neurons firing.

I'm looking for recommendations for things that are worth studying in-depth. I have a handful of topics queued up (mostly work related) but I'm curious about areas where in-depth knowledge of something actually improves your quality of life.

For example knowing about diet & exercise may help you make healthier decisions. Or perhaps knowing a foreign language with a common root may help you fudge understanding of many languages (e.g. Spanish & Italian). A basic knowledge of statistics can have a wide ranging impact on your understanding of the world from the stock market to drug side effects to political elections. That sort of stuff.

I'm primarily looking for book learning, but I'm not opposed to experiential topics as well (e.g. singing). Feel free to cite great sources to learn these topics as well - simply saying "economics" isn't as helpful as pointing out a specific text or lecture series. (also: I'm way more likely to consumer a lecture series than a book, but I welcome both.)
posted by MesoFilter to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
What a wonderful question, and what an impossible one to answer.

Any of the things you propose and a million more are worthy of study. If you're truly unencumbered, the world is your oyster.

Given the preferences you list, I'd be inclined to study a hard science that isn't subject to endless speculation. By that I mean: Water boils at 212 everywhere*, but Lincoln's intentions after Appomattox are subject to endless speculation.

* at the same elevation
posted by LonnieK at 8:35 PM on December 14, 2011

>> what an impossible one to answer.
Which of course I tried to do.
Oh, well, that's the meta in metafilter.
posted by LonnieK at 8:37 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Architecture! Because it's all around you and you use it everyday.
posted by Wantok at 8:38 PM on December 14, 2011

It would be cool to never again need to hire a plumber or electrician.

But personally, I'd probably read fiction. I never get/make time to do that. I daydream about how it would enhance my perspective if I had read all "the classics."
posted by red clover at 8:40 PM on December 14, 2011

When I was ~10 years old, I read a (presumably kid sized) book on Mythology and really dug it. Now 40 years later it seems its examples are everywhere in the world around me, and would love to understand it more fully.
posted by timsteil at 8:41 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm curious about areas where in-depth knowledge of something actually improves your quality of life.

Cooking? Learning how to cook has very much improved my quality of life and is a skill I'll use as long as I'm alive. It's nice to cook good things for myself and others. It's fun to learn how to cook foods from other countries, learning how the flavors in Thai foods are created, how to substitute ingredients in baked recipes to tailor things to your liking, etc. It's generally cheaper than getting good takeout from a restaurant, and easier to keep track of what ingredients you're actually consuming. It is a fun creative outlet. It is a very useful skill if you don't already have it.
posted by wondermouse at 8:53 PM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Learn an instrument. Music is awesome.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:19 PM on December 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Basic anatomy and kinesiology. Knowing how to responsibly pilot and maintain a human body tends to spare one quite a bit of unnecessary toil and suffering in the long run.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:47 PM on December 14, 2011

I'd say study astronomy. There's plenty of engaging writing about it for a general audience, and it (at least for me) has a sense of grand importance somehow. I'll leave it to the better educated to suggest reading material, I wouldn't know where to start.
posted by lookoutbelow at 10:33 PM on December 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ever since I started learning some electronics, I have been less scared about fiddling around with broken equipment to try and get it working again (bike lights, phones, remote controls, etc).

But the thing I have learned in the past that improved my life beyond recognition was computer programming. Your computer goes from being a slightly mysterious thing you can learn to use to being your slave that bends to your every will. And you can understand so many processes and systems in the world in general so much better with a coding-type mindset.
posted by lollusc at 10:34 PM on December 14, 2011

Understanding probability might improve your assessment of the realistic vs unrealistic risks of everyday life. This goes along with statistics, which I see you already mentioned but which was definitely my first thought. I think statistical literacy is a crucial modern skill that most people lack.

Game theory is the study of decision-making when decision-making depends on the decisions of other people, which seems potentially useful. On a similar note, I'd love to find out what people learn when they study negotiation.

The parts of psychology about things like cognitive biases could help you recognize and correct such biases in your own worldview. Same goes for formal logic, to learn to recognize logical fallacies in your reasoning. Or what about a moral philosophy class with an emphasis on social issues, to help you formulate well-thought-out positions on hot-button political issues?

Street-Fighting Mathematics just sounds awesome.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:16 PM on December 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The geology of where you live would be an interesting thing to study up on, and I think it's fantastic to have a general understanding of the processes that are responsible for what you can see out the window (hopefully you can see something besides buildings).
posted by murkywaters at 12:13 AM on December 15, 2011

Oh, I like the architecture idea. But what if you did something intellectual or abstract combined with something more concrete. Like say:

ancient philosophy & modern computer science

mythology & astronomy

Romanticism & the psychology of love

German opera & the German language

Russian novels & Russian history

I've never consciously paired like this, but when it has happened I've found my learning of both sides richer and more engaged.

Good luck! I'm jealous.
posted by vecchio at 1:39 AM on December 15, 2011

Seconding Geology - even if all you can see is buildings you'll understand what they're made of. From my office desk I can see three buildings across the road and I can see in the stone the imprint of biological and physical processes from millions of years ago. I'm in the absolute centre of busy London but I can interpret the materials around me and contemplate deep, slow time. Even the aggregate in the road surface sends me reeling into the processes that drew up those minerals from the mantle and crystallised them into granite. A broad understanding of how the earth's materials came about, and the extraction and applications thereof can also give you a really good context for understanding many other areas, eg engineering, politics, history, chemistry, physics.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:48 AM on December 15, 2011

Music, specifically composing music. Great amount of things to learn from music theory, orchestration, arrangement, to even the sound engineer side of things, recording, mixing, and of course, learning to play an instrument. Or instruments. Let's not forget music genres as well, from western to electronic to world.

A good amount to consume :)
posted by TrinsicWS at 4:29 AM on December 15, 2011

I'm looking for recommendations for things that are worth studying in-depth [...] where in-depth knowledge of something actually improves your quality of life.

Amplify your current skill set so that you can help people who need help. The world is full of people who need help and the world is full of people who would like to help but don't quite know how other than to donate a little of their own cash.

Depending on your inclinations and abilities, you could go at this from various angles: medicine, engineering, management, education, child care, construction, transportation, political science, women's studies, statistics, fund raising, accounting, language, travel, etc.

For example, Brooklyn College has a certificate program in non-profit fiscal management and NYU's Center for Global Affairs offers a certificate in global philanthropy.

If the end result was that you could continue to enjoy applying your personal skills and energy, but now do so to help a lot of people who needed help rather than to help a lot of rich guys get richer, you would come out far ahead.
posted by pracowity at 4:47 AM on December 15, 2011

I would either learn guitar, piano, or study quantum physics. The first two are the easiest instruments to sing along with and will enhance your life to no end. The third will make you see life differently for the rest of yours. It will make you think, wonder, and know. It will help you see things different spiritually even, perhaps. But then again, so might guitar :)
posted by jitterbug perfume at 8:03 AM on December 15, 2011

Oh the subjects I would study.... this is a great question. Lots of good suggestions above, and really like veccio's idea of pairing things. One thing I wish I had time to learn would be Morse code, and incorporate a message into a knitting project. Two disparate topics, made more interesting when combined. Also, don't discount practical things, like cooking, crafts, building things, etc. that may not seem "in-depth" but could have wide-ranging applications for your life.

(And you do know about MIT's free online courses, right? More than just your typical science and math courses - even offer a course in furniture making. Tons of potential topics and ideas there.)
posted by southpaw at 10:42 AM on December 15, 2011

Check out this free online Computer Science 101 class, starting in Feb 2012.

Or, you know, ANY of the tons of other free classes listed at the bottom of the page. Game theory, model thinking, anatomy...
posted by pluot at 6:43 PM on December 15, 2011

nthing MIT OpenCourseWare; in fact, I just read in this article that MITx will be allowing people to gain certification for their learning of the courses offered. Gaining the credentials won't be free, but they claim that it will be affordable.

As for learning about something to improve the quality of your life, what could be better than positive psychology for that purpose? It's basically the science of what makes people happy. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, and Stumbling On Happiness by Dan Gilbert are a few books that I've enjoyed on the subject.

You can also find quite a few fascinating TED Talks on happiness.
posted by Ryogen at 2:49 PM on December 21, 2011

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