The True Human: Learning

Learning, a process of obtaining skill or knowledge was formerly considered as a conscious action. But, with further studies, it was found to be an unconscious action preliminarily which then terminates in a conscious one. This has been proved by various scientists and psychologists like Arthur Reber, Gehrin, and Willoughby among others.

If for example, we analyze the learning of a new language, we will conclude that it starts as an unconscious activity at first and ends as a conscious. This can be better supported in children. A scientist once wrote that language is a normal part of every human – humans have an innate ability to understand languages. As a matter of fact, we now know that we tend to understand each other not by words alone. In fact, spoken word is known to pass just 20% of our information across. The remaining 80% is calculated from facial expression and body language, (more reasons to be careful while discussing with the visually impaired, they imagine or make up the facial language and body from your intonation and other things. They even dream with images like every other human).

There are several methods of learning. There is learning by observation, habituation, sensitization, classical conditioning and so on. However, they all converge to the subconscious before conscious expression. Psychologists call this stage, the preconscious phase, and it is known as implicit learning. Arthur Reber proved this in an experiment in 1967. A set of letter strings (TSXS, TSSX, VPS) was generated through a hidden rule. And some persons were asked to watch and judge which letter fits in the rule or which one does not. At first, there was no clear understanding or judgment, but soon subjects were able to judge whether new letter strings fits the strings or not. They could do this despite being unable to specify the rule. Arthur concluded that people could decipher patterns, learn unconsciously from no previous knowledge – this can also be called Intuition. These individuals knew nothing neither do they have time for such tasks as monitoring and judging alphabets, that’s a waste of time! But when compelled to sit tight and concentrate – unconsciously, they figured out the trick behind the letter strings. Why T should come with X and V and not with E. When asked, they answered that they could just know. You could wander about how you got to know when you took some actions, such as looking at some data or series of numbers and being able to figure out that the next number is an addition of the first and second number. You can also note that this pattern is common among children with a form of learning called PLAY. Here the child could simply learn some things just by playing around it or observing it.

A good example of children learning unconsciously was proven by Bandura, a Canadian psychologist who discovered that children learn traits such as industriousness, honesty, self-control, aggressiveness, and impulsiveness by imitating parents, other family members and friends – unconsciously. I remember as a child, I would watch my mom sew and mend some of our clothes. There was no motive of learning anything. There was curiosity though. The motion of the needles up and down, the rolling rills. My brain seemed to pick it all unconsciously, such that a certain day came, no one was around, and I sat down with the sewing machine and started sewing and mending clothes. Cut materials and sewed toy clothes. This happens a lot in children and adults. Learning unconsciously is instinctive, in fact, most of our daily activities are learned unconsciously. Language is also learned most times unconsciously especially in children.

What is the scientific basis of these? In a little-noticed article of 1963, Ulric Neisser wrote “many writers have distinguished two types of mental processes. One type is well ordered, easy to describe and controlled through conscious process such as planning. The other type is harder to describe and less easy to control. It is characterized by parallel processing – many things going at once”. Bruner Jerome described these two modes of thought as sequential or serial processing as in computers and simultaneous or parallel processing in artificial intelligence computers of which:

Serial processing = Our analytic thought (conscious)
Parallel processing = Our intuitive thought (unconscious)
It’s currently known through brain scans that the part of the brain where serial processing or analytic thoughts take place is just a little part above our eyes, called the Cingulate Gyrus. It’s called the center for “executive actions” – will power, to decide and plan strategies. This part is very much active in decision making and planning.

However, there are no specific parts that are extremely active during parallel processing – like many regions of the brain gets active at once. It includes maneuvers based on implicit perception (unconscious perception) of the entire problem. The thinker arrives at a conclusion right or wrong, with little if at all small awareness of the process by which he reached it. This is usually because there are too many processes going at once for the executive process to guide it all. Substantial evidence of this work was the experiment of Pascual-Leone and Grafman Hallet (1994) when they used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to study the pattern of activity of the brain when a person starts to learn something new. It usually follows this pattern:

Transition Unconscious knowledge Conscious (identification) Automaticity.

They found out that at the beginning of the learning process, cortical areas of the brain devoted to the task grew larger. The maps grew large and increased as the learning started, many areas of the brain were getting involved (parallel processing). The maps increased until the individual had explicit knowledge of the task and finally became conscious of it.

But immediately after cognition (conscious knowledge), the output mark started shrinking so that smaller areas of the cortex was active – say like “you can do it all alone now.” Then, the rest of the mind wanders off to do something else, so that skilled work can now continue among a select group of neurons. Many activities keep going on through our brain without our knowledge. They run in the background because the neurons have become very skilled at the task. This point is called automaticity. At that point, persons can do or carry out actions “out of mind” say learn by heart. An example of such is our Benjamin Lahey who drove miles without consciousness.

One famous experiment to mention here is that of Dr. Pawel Lewicki. A game at the University of Tulsa. He got volunteers to play a game of predicting where X will appear on the screen within four quadrants. Lewicki offered $100 to anybody who could report the rules after the experiment was over. The unknown rule was that the X followed a pattern determined by ten simultaneous rules, and of course, once you figure out the rule, you can always know where next the X will appear.

At first, it was difficult to grasp. However, later the volunteers became more and more successful with their predictions as the experiment went on. They worked out the pattern whatever it was. Predictions became more and more accurate like they always knew where the X would go next. So Lewicki had to suspend the rules and moved the X randomly. Again, the performance dropped to pre-learning levels. The brain always tries to figure the nature of what it’s dealing with without our conscious knowledge. Though this statement seems a little exaggerated “there’s nothing we can’t know.” We can know everything we set our mind to know, all it takes is a combatant action of the brain, and in the end, the earlier complex puzzle involving battalions of neurons to decipher will now become localized and handled by some few neurons once automaticity is achieved. The power of the subconscious is more exposed in learning given how it makes use of its neurons.

Here is a little assignment. Can you arrange the Brain processes of Dr. Lewicki’s game played in the order of the series of learning?

The pre-learning period is the Transition phase (blank period). When you start guessing right or wrong (unconscious phase), you had figured it out unconsciously, but not sure when you seem to be aware of the X movement pattern (conscious phase), finally choosing as fast and randomly becoming more accurate (automaticity).

Just as in the case of intuition and instinct, the brain always figured out an idea before it becomes aware that it did. “You know before you think you know.” That’s what learning is all about. You understand a language after a while when spoken. Even though you could not make a literal meaning of the statements, you could figure out what the person is saying through different automatic subconscious analysis of the speaker.


Implicit learning and tacit knowledge. Book by Arthur S. Reber. 1993

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory
Alvaro Pascual-Leone, David Bartres-Faz, & Julian P. Keenan (1999). Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Studying the brain-behavior relationship by “virtual lesions.”
Lewicki, Paul, Hill, Thomas, & Czyzewska, Maria (1992). Nonconscious acquisition of information. American Psychologist, 47, 796-801

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