In my last article, I talked about the way that human beings learn things.
If you'll remember, I was talking about a fellow who had an approach to learning that was demonstrably hampering his ability to take in some new concepts. More specifically, he was having problems learning a new way of looking at things that he already understood from a different perspective.
As I described the situation in the previous article...
You see, this other fellow seemed to have a strong preference for how he chose to look at things he didn't yet understand. His basic strategy seemed to involve comparing every new thing to everything he had previously learned or understood. He would, it seemed, find the closest equivalent in his experience to the new thing and would then equate them. So, ‘this is like that, therefore this essentially is that’.This situation immediately came to mind when I came across this press release based on recent research conducted by University of Oregon psychologist Benjamin Levy into the function of memory in learning, in this case second languages. Here, he was specifically looking into the phenomena of 'language attrition'. This is where people who are learning a new language tend to (at least temporarily) find their own language suddenly and strangely unwieldy and words in their native tongue harder to recall than usual.
Levy's findings are interesting, I think, because they not only confirm this phenomena but also track it across the learning process and with people of varying levels of fluency. In doing so, Levy uncovers evidence for what might be a natural application of a thought process conducive to learning. Learning to tap into this process may just be the difference between a difficult learning experience or taking in new information like a sponge!
Levy found that the students did indeed temporarily lose their facility with their native language. It seems as though their brains literally put aside what they knew about language, not completely but just temporarily, so that they could take in the new information.
In this way, the brain seems to be using a strategy that is often used in both accelerated learning and in Zen and Taoist approaches to understanding things at a deep level.
Although the value of suppressing previously learned knowledge to learn new concepts may appear counterintuitive, Levy explains that "first-language attrition provides a striking example of how it can be adaptive to (at least temporarily) forget things one has learned."So, rather than using a comparison strategy, holding two different concepts in mind simultaneously in order to contrast and compare, the brain creates a state in which old ideas are hard to maintain and therefore the new ways of thinking about things are given a blank slate on which to be written.
Compare this to the 'no-nothing' or 'empty' state in some meditative practices and martial arts or as taught in NLP modelling and I think you'll see the similarity.
However, those of us who also value the tools of contrast and analysis may be wondering why we should lose such valuable cognitive tools, tools which have an obvious application in the learning process... Levy's research provides us with some useful clues there, as well.
Importantly, subjects who showed the largest asymmetry between English and Spanish fluency suffered more inhibition for native language words, supporting the idea that inhibition plays a functional role in overcoming interference during the early stages of second-language acquisition.In other words, the more the students learned about the new way of thinking about the subject, the more easily they could access their previous knowledge about it
This suggests a two-stage approach to learning.
First, during the initial learning stage, the brain has a preference for learning something as being simply what it essentially is, with minimal contrast and comparison to complicate things.
In the second stage, access to other similar learning returns to its former state so that those tools of thought can come in to play.
And of course, this is not a binary system. It works on a sliding analogue scale. The more you know the new information you're learning about familiar things, the easier it is to remember information from the way you looked at them previously.
So, I hallucinate that some of you might be curious about exactly how to make use of this yourselves...
Here's an experiment you might want to try.
If you know how to meditate, use whatever your standard meditation technique is to allow you to get to a very relaxed place.
If you're not an experienced meditator, I would suggest simply finding a quiet spot, sitting in a comfortable position with good posture and then fixing your gaze on a single spot and breathe slowly, deeply and rhythmically for a few minutes until you notice yourself becoming more and more relaxed.
Once you've reached at a very relaxed state, imagine for a moment that you are a clean slate, an empty sponge, an innocent free of preconceptions. Don't worry about doing it for real, just pretend... Pretend as though you are seeing things you want to learn about as though you might be seeing it for the first time. If what you want to learn about is a subject, like maths or science, make up a representation of that thing for yourself.
Now, allow yourself think about that thing and to notice what it might feel like if you were feeling that sense of wonder that you can remember feeling when you see something new and remarkable.
One thing we've learned from modern neurology is that if people imagine something vividly enough in their minds, it becomes effectively true for them in their brains. So if you play this game of pretend with yourself both earnestly and vividly, it will actually begin to have an effect on the way that you perceive things!
Now, in that state, allow yourself to start learning something about that thing or subject. Approach the things you'd like to take a look at differently and noticed how they look through fresh eyes and with fresh understandings. Notice all the things that you hadn't noticed in so long because you've learned to think about them and only a certain way. Really let yourself enjoy that sense of innocent curiosity.
Don't be afraid of playing the fool, because in a very real sense you are playing the fool on purpose! If it's more important to you to keep your dignity than to learn something new, this probably isn't a great approach for you... On the other hand, learning to encourage behavioural flexibility in yourself will not only help you in this instance but in almost every other instance in your life! If you learn nothing else from this but that, then you will have already learned something immensely valuable!
It's useful to have a sense of your own natural curiosity. When you sense your curiosity being satisfied, then it's probably a good idea to wrap things up. Take a moment to digest your new perceptions and learnings. Review the process and notice what you've taken in. Then you can allow yourself to return to a more normal state of consciousness.
What can be interesting is to do this a few times during the initial stage of learning something new about something you're already familiar with in a different way and then, once you're starting to get the hang of the new way of thinking, take some time to compare what you know now to what you know about the same thing differently from the way that you have learned about it before. I'm willing to bet that you not only know some new things but that some of your new insights may actually provide you with an even greater depth of perception into what you knew previously.
In my experience, every time that we learn something new about something we already knew, it's like adding a new facet to our ability to perceive a gemstone. It's the same stone that we've always looked at but now we simply understand it from more different levels and the more we learn to understand, the more we can also allow ourselves to appreciate each facet and what they can mean.
I'd love to hear some feedback from some of you who might be doing something like this for the first time! Please leave some feedback here or consider e-mailing me directly to let me know what this is like for you!
As for me, I think I'm going to take some time to learn something differently...