Unconscious learning

I continue reading “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Early in the book the author Jaynes makes the extraordinary remark that “Consciousness is not neccesary for learning.” He backs this up with interesting studies that show people improving in different skill sets but not really knowing why or consciously directing their efforts.

This shouldn’t sound too crazy. As a kid you first get on a bike and travel a wobbly path down the driveway. You do this for several days and you’re less wobbly. You do it every day for a year and you’re even better. Your balance improves, you more smoothly push the pedals etc. But you didn’t really direct yourself to improve, you simply did. You unconsciously made various micro adjustments to your riding technique and it got better and better.

Of course, that previous paragraph isn’t quite right. When you get on the bike you do have some advice, usually from you screaming parents, that you are conscious of. And you may even conscioussly try different ideas as you work to improve (“what of I push down hard with lef while relaxing this one.”) It seems fair to say that you are somewhat conscious of learning but, nonetheless, a large part of it is unconsciouss. I am very unaware of exactly how I perform many of the tasks I perform daily. If someone had asked me a minute ago how many fingers I use to type I would have been in the dark. I probably would have guessed four, but I now notice that it’s mostly two.

In a way, the idea that learning is largely unconscious is encouraging. Basically, we just need to do something over and over and we will get better at it. But, the whole idea of conscious, directed learning is that we can find shortcuts to become better, faster and also not learn bad habits. Years ago, I read a pretty interesting article by jazz guitarist Tuck Andress about picking technique. He went into quite a lot of detail and I have, rather lackadaisically, been trying to apply his advice, or at least be more conscious about how I pick a guitar string. In that case I’m “consciously” trying to learn.

But the whole point with conscious learning is to try and get the skills into your subconscious. If you have to think about how to do a task, you will probably screw it up. (The Far Side once nailed this.)

All of this points to a more disturbing realization: that we don’t consciously control our actions and lives to the degree that we think. And I suspect Jaynes has more to say on that in later chapters.

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