The Learning Process

Helping various parts of our mind fulfill their intentions

One of the articles in The Way Of Learning (IC#6)
Originally published in Summer 1984 on page 17
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

HOW DOES ALL THIS information about the brain/mind translate into useful guidelines for learning? To begin with, the richness and complexity of the brain/mind system should alert us to the likelihood that what we simply call "learning" in fact refers to a multitude of processes. The picture is made still more complex by our use of "learning" to describe such different activities as learning to type (which is almost all sense-muscle training); learning about the history of education (which is almost all conceptual); learning the name of the third U.S. President (a small scale task); and learning a language (which is highly complex). As if this weren’t enough, we each bring an individual pattern of skills and propensities to the learning process. Important in this is our own dominant sense mode (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic) and our personality orientation (such as the Jungian and Meyers-Briggs orientations of sensory, feeling, intellectual, and intuitive, or in MacLean’s terms, neocortex outward, prefrontal cortex and limbic, left brain inward, and right brain inward). These individual characteristics determine our "learning style."

Nevertheless, there do seem to be some general patterns and principles. In pulling these together, I’ve been inspired in part by George T. Lock Land’s steps of growth (from Grow Or Die: The Unifying Principle of Transformation (New York: Random House, 1973)), which he sees operating in the growth of organisms as diverse as single cells and societies, as well as in the learning process. These steps are: searching, screening, digestion, synthesizing, use, assimilation of feedback, and regulation. These steps could be applied directly to the learning process, but I’ve found it helpful to translate them into motivation, immersion, integration, use, and refinement. These aren’t strictly steps, since they overlap each other in time, but they are the basic components of healthy whole brain learning. They are familiar elements to those who have studied creativity, but the recent brain research gives them a new depth of meaning. Let’s now explore each in more detail.

Motivation Each level in the brain has its own goals and motivation – the reptile wants order and physical security, the old mammal wants belongingness and sensual pleasure, the neocortex is curious, and the prefrontal cortex wants wholeness and integration. Each level can aid or impede your ability to learn depending on its motivational state.

The reptile has no direct interest in learning. If it is feeling secure, it doesn’t particularly care what the rest of the brain does. If it is alerted or feels threatened, it will generally push low priority tasks, like learning, out of the way while it attends to more pressing issues of survival. In Sheldrake’s terms, we tune in to the morphogenetic fields of survival behaviors, and even though we may not immediately express those behaviors, they fill the subconscious portions of our minds – poised for action – leaving little room for learning-oriented programs. In a stressful "learning" situation, our minds are occupied with, "How do I get out of this?", "How do I keep from being embarrassed?", and "How do I preserve my self- image?" rather than being free to learn. If the stress is not too great and the reptile can be convinced that the neocortex might be able to solve the problem, it will warily go along although it would much rather take some more direct and familiar form of action.

The old mammal is more of a seeker, desiring all sorts of pleasures and delighting in play. It can get into learning with enthusiasm, but if things turn sour, it can react against just as strongly. Most of us are familiar with the way that pain and discomfort lead at least to avoidance, and if strong enough, to active mental blocks. If we are forced to learn something (such as a set of spelling words) and the net feeling associated with the experience is negative, we will later avoid using what we have supposedly learned. Our minds will avoid making meaningful connections between this area of learning and the rest of our life so that this experience won’t "poison" the others. If the learning experience was painful enough, we may block out recall all together, and in the process inhibit both recall and later learning potential over wide areas of experience.

The prefrontal cortex is generally on the lookout for new information to help with its planning and integration, and as for the neocortex, learning is its natural orientation. For both of them, learning is its own reward. They can, however, occasionally interfere with the completeness of the learning process by a fixation on one phase, as for example with an overly distractible curiosity that is not able to keep with one topic long enough to really integrate it.

Putting this all together suggests that learning proceeds best in a low stress setting where the reptile feels safe and the other parts feel a common active interest in the subject of the learning. Such an unstressed but seeking mind brings many powerful internal resources to the learning process – programs that help to interpret, synthesize, make more meaningful, and thus speed the learning (see below). Both these helpful programs and the blockages that impede operate primarily at an unconscious level, so the two essential motivational conditions – a feeling of safety and a sense of interest – have to be genuine. The requirement of genuine interest clearly entails freedom of choice for what is learned and, as we will see, also for how it is learned. The requirement of safety has two major components. Most people are willing to take risks if they feel that as soon as events move beyond their "comfort- zone" that either they or their situation (or both) will quickly readjust to bring them back inside. Thus the feeling of safety involves both self-confidence and trust in your environment.

Learning can still proceed under less favorable conditions, but the interference of emotional blocks and the displacement of mental energy to other tasks progressively cripples its effectiveness. A mind internally at war does not perform well. Even if the learner generally succeeds at the required tasks, the progress is slow and painful compared to the exuberance of learning under the above conditions, and beneath the surface there is a growing backlog of internal blocks and unresolved stress. Worse yet, if the learner starts to regularly fail, a profound "turn off" process sets in as the stress level rises, the comfort zone shrinks, interest turns to avoidance, and learning abilities decline in a hard-to-stop cycle.

Good motivation is thus the key to faster, better integrated, better used, and more easily recalled learning, and the essential conditions for effective motivation are free choice, self-confidence and trust. Our general rule for this part of the learning process is: To avoid blockage and make full use of the built-in learning abilities of the brain, learning needs to be based on the unstressed, self-motivated seeking of the learner.

Immersion Learning is like completing a jigsaw puzzle – you need some pieces in place to realize that others are missing. Fortunately, we are born with some important starting pieces and most of us develop a rich supply of additional pieces (concepts, skills, perceptions, etc.) in our early years. This leaves us with many uncompleted puzzles, and our particular interests motivate us to choose which puzzle (or part of the puzzle) to work on completing. If the completion we want is simple, such as finding the date when the American War of Independence ended, then the problem is easily solved. But if our curiosity has a bigger goal, such as learning to speak Japanese, learning to grow vegetables, learning to program a computer, or understanding the history of education and its relationship to cultural change, then we have a lot more pieces to look for. It might seem logical to proceed in a step-by-step process that focused on one piece at a time and made sure we had thoroughly mastered that step before going on to the next. Later in the learning process we may need to do some of this, but at the beginning this "logical" approach doesn’t work nearly as well as an immersion approach.

By an immersion approach I mean exposure to a wide variety of information and experience related to what you are trying to learn, preferably involving many different senses. For example, if you want to learn vegetable gardening, you would do well to:

  • spend some time with a successful gardener just watching what s/he does and working with him/her (modeling);
  • carefully examine some of the plants you want to grow (and maybe some you’ve never heard of), looking, smelling, feeling, tasting;
  • skim a number of books on gardening, pausing on those subjects that catch your eye, but moving on as soon as your interest wanes;
  • visit a garden store (or a catalog) to see what equipment and supplies are available;
  • spend time digging, weeding, etc.

While you are doing these things, it is important that you not put any pressure on yourself to "perform." If you grow tired, don’t push yourself. If at some stage you would rather just watch than do, that’s OK. Just follow your curiosity, use your own learning style, and don’t worry (at this stage) about completeness.

This immersion approach is more effective because it works with the built-in capacities of our minds instead of ignoring them or fighting against them. First, it is a right-brain approach, designed to engage that part of the brain that is best at quickly forming new patterns based on multiple sense input. Second, when you start into a new subject neither you nor anyone else knows in useful detail just where the boundary of your knowledge is. The immersion approach is like turning over many jigsaw puzzle pieces, scanning each to find "easy fits" and setting the others aside for later work. By being multisensory, it provides maximum opportunity for unexpected associations to emerge – a lot more hooks to grab the new information. Even though immersion will offer you far more information than you can immediately internalize, you won’t be overwhelmed as long as you are free to pick what to attend to (thus the importance of not being under pressure to perform). You will naturally tend to ignore the overly familiar, not even perceive the subtleties, and be drawn to your own cutting edge. Third, all this richness of associations allows you to tune in the morphogenetic fields of the subject you are pursuing. You experience this by starting to get a "feel" for the subject even though you can’t articulate or demonstrate a clear understanding yet. Thus the general rule for this part of the learning process is enter a new subject through the right brain with an unpressured multi-sensory immersion.

Integration Immersion is focused outward, gathering new pieces as rapidly as possible. It is exhilarating at first, but after a while, the "easy fits" are fewer and you don’t yet know what to do with those pieces you put aside. The immersion becomes less exciting and more tiring. You are becoming saturated, and it is time to turn inward for a process of integration. Of course, a certain amount of integration has been going on all along, but for major new learnings, a time usually comes when the emphasis shifts. In George Land’s terms, integration encompasses both digestion and synthesis. It begins as a largely subconscious process, with the mind exploring a great many possible associations between the new pieces you have gained through immersion and the knowledge you had before. It is a time to daydream, to go for a walk, to engaged in relaxing activities that don’t place great immediate demands on your mind and that have nothing to do with what you have been immersed in. Part of the process at this stage is a further attunement to the appropriate morphogenetic fields, and it takes time for the new pieces to sort themselves into their proper places with the helpful influence of these fields.

Positive motivation is essential for this internal integration. Your mind doesn’t want to integrate unsought unpleasant information and will avoid as much processing of such information as it thinks it can get away with.

As the process advances, the focus shifts from right brain to left brain. It is at this point that you begin to understand enough to ask questions, and it is particularly helpful to have a resource person available who can flexibly interpret your initial gropings. It is time to start being systematic. Likewise, discussion can be very helpful as a means of testing and exploring your new understanding. The general rule? Give your subconscious a chance to build connections, then bring your new understanding into awareness through left brain activities.

Use For the self-motivated learner, using the new knowledge or skills comes spontaneously as soon as some initial level of integration is achieved. If this step is rushed (either by over-enthusiasm or especially by a forced pressure for early performance), considerable mislearning and emotional blockage can result. As usual, it is best to let the internal rhythms of the learner be the guide. If what you are learning is more than conceptual so that it requires the development of specific skills – as in skiing or typing – then now is the time to start specific training exercises. You now have enough of an internal map of what you are learning to allow you to usefully focus on some of the details, and in the process extend that map to the whole of your brain/mind system. Let use come in due course and it will spread the learning to the whole brain.

Refinement Use leads to feedback – more information to be integrated and put again to use. The cycle goes around and will do so as long as the motivation continues, indeed this is often the longest stage. In some situations it may be appropriate to track your level of performance and progressively demand more of yourself. The main danger here is getting into ruts. The antidote? Keep the refinement process fresh through right brain activities.

More Considerations

There are a number of qualifications and comments that need to be added to this basic outline. First, it is an ideal pattern, and in actual application it goes through many variations. For example, depending on the subject and your own skills and style, there can be a wide range in how long each phase lasts. You may at times go through integration so quickly and smoothly that you don’t even notice it. Second, there will be many people who are not comfortable with one stage or another. Some people with a high need for order will find the immersion stage too messy, while others may balk at translating their experience into systematic left brain form during the second part of the integration stage. It would be counterproductive to attempt to force any of these stages, and you can to some degree still learn while skipping some part of this process, but the easiest and most effective learning comes when you are comfortable with each stage.

What does this outline tell us about the skills required for effective self-directed learning? It suggests you need to be able:

1) to find (and recognize) resources (people, books, events, etc.) so you can know where to immerse yourself;

2) to relate to those resources through as many parts of your brain (right, left, senses, feelings, etc.) as possible; and

3) to keep your process moving from phase to phase. With these skills, it is possible to learn with remarkable speed and enjoyment.

Another important consideration is the influence of developmental stages on the learning process. For example, the nerve bundle that connects the two halves of the brain, the corpus callosum, isn’t fully formed until around age 7, and the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the emotional centers in the old mammalian brain aren’t fully made until puberty. Children should not be expected to do what they don’t have the "wiring" for. Likewise, since whole brain learning can be so fast, there is no need to force children to formally study adult-motivated subjects before their inner motivation is ready. For example, there are many cases where a child – living in a reading and language rich environment – who was allowed to learn to read at his/her own pace, didn’t learn until age 8 or later, but within less than a year was reading at beyond his/her "grade level." Whole brain learning also encourages strong transfer of learning. This has profound implications for education, shifting "the basics" away from the normal school curriculum to learning how to learn, creativity skills, sharpening the capacity of each of the senses, communication skills, problem solving strategies, etc. Equipped with these tools, filling in the adult-oriented content, at an age when it is meaningful, becomes easy and natural.

In adults, the learning process is partly limited by a lack of learning skills, but it is often at least as limited by what we have already learned – ruts and emotional blocks. If memory is held in morphogenetic fields, it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to erase old learning, but it is possible to build new patterns of behavior.

For me, one of the most instructive and encouraging examples of how this can be done is the therapeutic technique called "reframing" developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the developers of neuro-linguistic programming (see Frogs into Princes, 1979 and ReFraming, 1982, both by Bandler and Grinder, Real People Press, Box F, Moab, Utah 84532, $5.50 each). The technique is quite simple, almost embarrassingly so, yet they (and many others) have used it very successfully for dealing with phobias and other patterns of behavior seemingly beyond the reach of conscious change. The technique is based on the idea that any repeated behavior pattern is maintained by some "part" of the personality, often a subconscious part. It assumes that this part has good intentions and is doing the best it can with its limited repertoire of responses. The solution, then, to changing the behavior is to expand the repertoire to include behaviors that satisfy the original intention but are also acceptable to the conscious mind. Doing this effectively requires communicating directly with the part of the personality that is maintaining the behavior, which normally requires recognizing some type of non- verbal response (such as body sensations) from that part. Here’s how the process goes (although I suggest you at least consult the books if you want to try it):

1) Identify the behavior pattern (X) to be changed.

2) Establish communication with the part responsible for X by establishing the yes/no meaning of the non-verbal signals from that part.

3) Speak directly to that part, distinguishing between the behavior (which is not appreciated), and the intention (which is appreciated).

4) Create three new alternative behaviors to satisfy the intention. This is done at a subconscious level by having the behavior part communicate its intention to the creative part of the personality, and then having it select from the alternatives that the creative part generates. Each time one is selected, it gives the "yes" signal. This may seem very strange to the conscious mind if it believes that no sophisticated processing can go on outside of its awareness, but by now we should not be surprised by the multi-level parallel processing capability of the mind.

5) When the alternatives are selected, ask the behavior part, "Are you willing to take responsibility for generating the new alternatives in the appropriate context?"

6) Finally, and very importantly, make an ecological check. Ask "Is there any other part of me that objects to the new alternatives?" If there is a "yes" response, recycle to step 2, this time including this new part in on the search for acceptable alternatives.

The remarkable thing for me about this technique (and its success) is that it shows how open our minds are to learning and change, even in behaviors that are deeply rooted in the old parts of the brain, if we are willing to follow a decent etiquette towards the various parts of our mind and help these parts find acceptable means of fulfilling their intentions.

This all distills down to the following advice for how to improve your own learning: expand your "how to learn" skills; go for what interests you; start with freeform immersion; allow yourself integration time; move into action when it comes naturally, and do an "end run" around your mental blocks through techniques like reframing.

What does this say about helping others to learn? That is what the next section is all about.