One of the things I discovered during my sabbatical was the concept of unlearning. Although I have not seen this name put on it specifically the concept is the challenge presented by learning a new task is really about UNLEARNING old patterns rather than learning new ones.

In his book, On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins (inventor of the PalmPilot and Treo) talks extensively about how our brain stores patterns. According to his model these patterns are stored at various levels in the neocortex. The lowest level in the hierarchy stores simple patterns while the higher levels have the capability to see the big picture. An example he gives in the book has to do with reading. When you are first learning to read you start to recognize individual letters. Eventually you can recognize whole words made of these letters (once you learn the word and you no longer need to actually read each letter, you just see the whole word). And once you are truly comfortable with reading you will start to see entire sentences. For example, you may notice that when you are reading a book to a child that you change or leave out certain words. Your brain is recognizing the meaning of the sentence and does not worry too much about each individual word (much less each letter).

These patterns are built up over time in the wiring of the brain. Each time you successfully use (or encounter) a pattern, the wiring for recognizing (or using) that pattern is further cemented in the brain. For the low level patterns that you encounter all the time (letters, words, faces, etc..) you have very strong wiring indeed. Marcus Buckingham in “Now, Discover Your Strengths” talks about how your brains build up these connections (wiring) until about the age of 16 and then we start to rapidly lose about half of those connections over the next few years. Buckingham uses this information to back up his theory that we need to focus on our strengths – the wiring that remains after we lose all that extraneous stuff.

It also follows that the highest levels of the neo-cortex are also the ones that most under conscious control. The lower levels in the hierarchy just happen they are firmly engrained habits that we don’t even notice much of the time. This is a good thing because many complex tasks would be nearly impossible if we were conscious of all underlying unconscious control required. If I consider how to move each of my fingers while I am typing this, I will have a heck of a time finishing another word.

That is the challenge presented when you try to unlearn a way of doing something. You are trying to change those patterns in the brain that you have relied on for many years. Changing the wiring for these patterns that your brain so efficiently ignores is very difficult – Buckingham would say it is not worth pursuing. I agree to a certain extent, but when you do need to learn a new pattern (which may mean unlearning an old one that has been “successful” so far) there is a strategy that I have found effective.

The strategy relies on what I have learned through my Alexander Technique lessons. Alexander Technique is about gaining “conscious control” of the self. But I have experienced it as a process of “unwiring” the habitual patterns developed over time. Alexander Technique undoes deeply ingrained patterns (such as our posture) by bringing conscious attention to it, releasing the old pattern and rebuilding a new one. It is an arduous process and takes dedication to see progress. When it comes to how you “use” yourself I think it is actually worthwhile to do this unlearning. But I also agree with Buckingham that putting in this kind of effort to see marginal improvement in an area where you never will truly excel.

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