Mar
06

Can we “Unlearn?” What’s Really Happening? What Does This Mean for Designing Change Programs?

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What's on, or rather in, your mind?

What's on, or rather in, your mind?

A recent dialog in a Linked In HR group for Organization Development and Training practioners focused on the concept of “unlearning.”  Can we actually unlearn? 

The concept of “unlearning” has been circulating for a while.   While the idea of “unlearning” might be useful, that’s not really what’s going on within your brain. 

First, let’s review what was posted by Ilze Els, who provides some insights into how the brain actually works.  For those who have read my article, Stop, Look, and Listen, you will see that she touched upon what I was discussing there – the conscious and unconscious mind.  On to Ilze’s post…

“Broadly speaking there are two parts of the brain: working memory and hardwiring/long-term memory: the conscious mind versus the unconscious mind.   Working memory doesn’t really hold very much; in fact only about 7 items at any one time.  Hardwiring/long-term memory holds everything we actually know which basically means anything that you don’t need to think about anymore.  Our brains are designed to push things down into our hardwiring/long-term memory to keep our working memory fresh.

Think about the learning journey – taking on new learning is tiring and hard work and causes stress.  Creating new wiring takes up a lot of effort and resources – literally.  Once we have learned something however (hard wiring) we don’t have to actively think about it anymore and it becomes easy.  The information stored in hardwiring/long-term memory becomes the basis for how we view the world and create new learning.  We perceive the world around us based on our own unique experiences and what bits of information we have stored in our brains from these past experiences.  Thus our reality is our interpretation of the world based on the way our brains are wired.

It’s practically impossible to deconstruct our wiring.  It doesn’t take long to hardwire things – anything we think about several times over makes many connections in the brain thus getting hard wired.

It’s an attention economy in the brain.  Anything we give focus to can become hardwired (remember the brain works hard to get things out of short term memory and into long term memory – it uses less resources this way!).  The more we focus on a given connection, the more we deepen that connection.  In fact what happens when we try to get rid of some wiring is that we actually think about it even more thereby making it even stronger.

It’s almost impossible to get rid of old wiring just by thinking about it!  For example, if you are told not to think about smoking, you immediately think about smoking.  The more you try not to think about smoking the more our brains will tend to focus on smoking.  This increased focus tends to deepen the wiring even further rather than erase it. 

Numerous studies have shown that the ability to effectively handle change is a key predictor for success.  However, the fact is, our brains are hard-wired to resist change.  When we encounter something new, a whole set of automatic responses take over the brain and the body, often interfering with our ability to respond optimally.  Break-through research shows that we can “re-wire” our brains to make changes, throughout the human life span and at any age.  You can“out-smart” your brain when it comes to handling change.  It’s easy to create new wiring. 

Luckily however it’s almost effortless to create new wiring – it’s what our brains are designed to do.  We are able to reconcile impasses by creating new maps.  This is what happens in the moment you have an insight.  As long as we are given the opportunity and encouragement to reflect, we create hard wiring.

Bringing in a new wiring doesn’t get rid of the old wiring.  It’s still there – it’s just not being used so much.  The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ is very relevant here.  By using the old wiring less it becomes weaker and less able to guide our perceptions/thinking, whereas the new wiring becomes stronger and takes priority over the old wiring.

Until very recently, it was widely believed that the human brain is hard-wired in childhood and determined largely by genetics.  Not so.  Current scientific research demonstrates that the brain is capable of growth throughout our lifetime and that while neural connections can disintegrate through lack of use, new connections can also be created.  This ability to re-wire the brain is known as neuroplasticity.

Think of our person wanting to stop smoking – thinking about why you smoke just increases the hard wiring for smoking; thinking about what else you could do at the moment of wanting to smoke creates new wiring.

We create millions of maps every second – with so much going on inside each person’s brain, it behooves us to make it easier for each other and keep things simple.  We love making connections – we often feel energized when we make connections.  It feels good to make connections and have everything fit into our mental maps.  No longer must we believe that our behavior is pre-determined.  If such behavior is changeable, then we can change it.  It is a liberating idea. Understanding your hard-wiring and how to work with it to fully realize your potential.”

Here’s my follow on to Ilze’s post…

My educational background brings me in alignment with Ilze, but then of course I am always open to re-wiring… :-)

I personally think of it as “scaffolding” and creating mental overlays.  The old one is there, the one on top is simply stronger.  Whether it is physically on top within the brain is a whole nother discussion…

If you can create a “bridge” from the first hard wiring point to the new item you want to hard wire it can be processed and embedded more quickly.  We see this in the use of analogies.  Part of the trick in the rewiring (when you want to “unlearn” something) is to focus on the benefits or positives of the new, not the negatives of the old, which will reinforce the earlier hard coding.

The underlying message within Ilze’s response (at least as I see it) is the value of better understanding psychology, cognative science, and medical science.  The better you actually understand how the human brain works, the better able you are to design and redesign things in a way that will “stick”.  Rather than “unlearning”, you “forget”, “bury” or “overwrite” something with new and better information.

I touch upon these concepts – albeit more indirectly – in a couple of my blogs:  If Life is Like a Box of Chocolates, What am I? and Stop, Look, and Listen.”

So what are the take-away messages:

  • The better we understand how the mind itself works, the better we can plan Change Programs.
    • If you work in the Change Management arena (not just the Training and Development arena where this dialog occured), it behoves you to actually understand how the mind works. 
    • The more we can help our target audience (whether training related or other CM activities), the better we can help them learn and adjust.
  • Our brains are designed to push things down into our hardwiring/long-term memory to keep our working memory fresh.
    • The information stored in hardwiring/long-term memory becomes the basis for how we view the world and create new learning. 
    • If you understanding your hard-wiring and how to work with it, it helps you realize your potential.
    • We perceive the world around us based on our own unique experiences and what bits of information we have stored in our brains from these past experiences.
  • It’s not truly “unlearning.” 
    • That might be useful as a concept, but that is not what is actually occuring within your brain.
    • Rather than “unlearning”, you “forget”, “bury” or “overwrite” something with new and better information.
    • The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ is very apropo.
  • Our behavior is not pre-determined. 
    • If such behavior is changeable, then we can change it. 
    • Focus on the new behavior, rather than what you want to change.  It will be more effective.
  • It feels good to make connections and have everything fit into our mental maps. 

Some closing thoughts…

I encourage you to not only focus on what we have “learned” through your experiences and education, but to also expand your understanding of how the mind works as defined by medial science.  There is so much more that I could write on this subject – maybe more later is the writing muse inspires.  Ilze and I kept it simple (relatively).  My latest understanding in this area of how memory works is that a belief was evolving that there was also a “middle ground” between short-term and long-term memory.  In addition, the concept of 7 +or- 2 that has historially been used (Lewin’s research if I remember correctly) may actually be more like 5 + or – 2.  These concepts relate to the concept of “chunking” of information/data. 

Anyone ever thought about how phone numbers are grouped?  That they originally evolved as seven digits?  (Prior to individuals worrying about area or country codes.)  Have you considered how the “breaks” with the dashes help you remember groups of numbers?  They are “chunked” for you. 

Did you happen to notice that I have actively and intentionally “chunk” data for you when I have a large number of bullets (not just here, but in prior posts)?  I do pay attention to the number of bullets I am working with.  I get the list created, then will go back and group together and create sub-bullets where I have more than 5 or 6 bullets.  I use this approach for both writing and in presentations.  It does make a difference.

My hope and wish for today is that you take a few minutes to stop and reflect upon how you have learned, relearned, and “overwritten” information within your mind.  Think about what it has taken to change your memory of someone’s phone number when they change it.  How can your translate your own experiences and understanding of how the mind works into better, more lasting Change Programs?

Some additional information and links from Ilze…

After this article went up, Ilze sent me the following message.

I’ve learned this from our CEO David Rock so in essence he should be quoted for more on this and neuroleadership you can visit his websites:
www.davidrock.net/
www.psychologytoday.com/blog/bloggers/david-rock
www.neuroleadership.org/

Comments

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  2. JW says:

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  3. IMC says:

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  4. Hayden says:

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