Unconscious Learning

Some readers question whether very young children can truly learn simple rudiments of The Dangerous Child Method well before they are able to talk or form verbal concepts. This betrays a society-wide “tyranny of language” which has held human societies back for so long. Today we will begin to scrape the surface of concepts in pre-verbal, unconscious learning.

In Lower Animals, All Learning is Unconscious

The same is true of most learning in infants and toddlers. Children are born with instincts and rudimentary mental mechanisms, but these are unconscious. Before conscious awareness can develop, a scaffolding of unconscious learning must be built, at the same time as the brain itself is going through critical and sensitive periods of development. Young humans must undergo similar forms of early learning as animals — such as lab rats or pigeons — experience. This type of early unconscious learning is often referred to as “conditioning.”

Unconscious Conditioning

Behaviourist Psychology dominated the field of psychological research and theory during the first half of the 20th century. Behaviourists felt that animals — including even adult humans — were largely unconscious, and their minds a jumble of conditioned reflexes and automatic responses. Two different — but related — types of conditioning were devised by Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner.


Classical Conditioning

  • First described by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist
  • Involves placing a neutral signal before a reflex
  • Focuses on involuntary, automatic behaviors

Operant Conditioning

  • First described by B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist
  • Involves applying reinforcement or punishment after a behavior
  • Focuses on strengthening or weakening voluntary behaviors

___ Source

Importantly, classical conditioning creates a paired link between an artificial stimulus and a preexisting innate response — bypassing the original natural stimulus. A good example of classical conditioning is Pavlov’s experiment pairing the ringing of a bell with the exposure of a dog to appetizing food. Soon, only the ring of the bell was necessary to make the dog salivate.

Operant conditioning seizes upon a particular behaviour (such as an animal exploring part of a maze), and either rewards or punishes the behaviour, depending upon the response the experimenter desires.

Consider “The Little Albert Experiment” and decide which type of unconscious conditioning is involved:

The Little Albert Experiment

Before the experiment, Albert was given a battery of baseline emotional tests: the infant was exposed, briefly and for the first time, to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks (with and without hair), cotton, wool, burning newspapers, and other stimuli. Albert showed no fear of any of these items during the baseline tests.

For the experiment proper, Albert was put on a mattress on a table in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, Watson and Rayner made a loud sound behind Albert’s back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer each time the baby touched the rat. Albert responded to the noise by crying and showing fear. After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was presented with only the rat. Upon seeing the rat, Albert got very distressed, crying and crawling away… In further experiments, Little Albert seemed to generalize his response to the white rat. He became distressed at the sight of several other furry objects, such as a rabbit, a furry dog, and a seal-skin coat, and even a Santa Claus mask with white cotton balls in the beard

… Albert’s conditioned fear was never extinguished. Although he probably continued to fear various furry objects for a time, he would likely have been desensitized by his natural environments later in life… __ Wikipedia “Little Albert Experiment

The experiment described above is often described as an example “classical conditioning” or Pavlovian conditioning (see Wikipedia article above). More rationale attempting to describe this experiment as classical conditioning.

Cognitive scientists at the Al Fin Institutes assert confidently that Little Albert is actually an example of operant conditioning, with the loud clanging used as an aversive stimulus or a form of punishment used to influence behaviour. The logic behind this claim is much cleaner and simpler than the convoluted argument in the link above.

Enough About Conditioning

Unconscious learning is far deeper and more complex than the elementary forms of conditioning introduced by Pavlov, Skinner, and Watson. Conditioning is about programming reflexive and involuntary behaviours in animals. But unconscious learning goes far beyond, involving complex cognitive mechanisms that the behaviourists could not have imagined. Example:

Here is a typical experiment that supports Reber’s theory of implicit learning. It comes from Dr. Pawel Lewicki of the University of Tulsa. He had volunteers try to predict where an X would appear on a computer screen, selecting one of four quadrants. The subjects pushed a button corresponding to the quarter of the screen where they predicted the X would appear next. The X followed a pattern determined by 10 simultaneous rules.

Lewicki offered $100 to anybody who could report the rules (after the experiment was over) but nobody could specify them. However, the volunteers became more and more successful with their predictions as the experiment went on. They sensed the pattern, whatever it was. Their predictions became more accurate until Lewicki suspended the rules and moved the X randomly, whereupon their performance dropped to pre-learning levels again (Goleman, 1992).

How did brain scans change as people practiced a simple motor skill?

At some point a person may grasp a pattern or make it conscious. This process can be traced in brain scans. Pascual-Leone, Grafman, and Hallett (1994) used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to study this. They used a motor (movement) task and looked for changes in the motor cortex as subjects practiced.

The transition from unconscious knowledge to conscious knowledge and then automaticity showed up as a progression of changes in the brain scans. Initially, while subjects tried to figure out what they were supposed to do, cortical areas devoted to the task grew larger. The enlargement of these “output maps” increased until subjects achieved explicit knowledge of the task, becoming conscious of the pattern. After this, their reactions became more automatic, and the areas of brain activity shrank so that only a smaller area of cortex was active. __ http://www.intropsych.com/ch03_states/unconscious_learning.html

Implicit Learning

The more common term used for unconscious learning is “implicit learning.” Learning to speak one’s native language — at least in the early years — is an example of mostly implicit learning, as the basic “rules” of language are internalised without conscious intent by very young children. More:

Examples from daily life, like learning how to ride a bicycle or how to swim, are cited as demonstrations of the nature of implicit learning and its mechanism. It has been claimed that implicit learning differs from explicit learning by the absence of consciously accessible knowledge. Evidence supports a clear distinction between implicit and explicit learning; for instance, research on amnesia often shows intact implicit learning but impaired explicit learning. Another difference is that brain areas involved in working memory and attention are often more active during explicit than implicit learning.[4] __ Wikipedia Implicit Learning

Note: The distinction between “consciously accessible knowledge” and “unconsciously accessible knowledge” is not always so clearcut, leading to intense but often meaningless arguments between psychological researchers.

Modern educational systems tend to focus on verbal learning styles, at the expense of visuo-spatial, musical, physical kinetic, pattern maths, and other forms of learning that can often lead to more innovative and disruptive destinations. It is no accident that female humans tend to — on average — do better at verbal tasks than do the masses of male humans. This is not true at the very highest levels of accomplishment, but that is another story that goes beyond the simple statistics used in modern educational research.

Dangerous Child Training Focuses on Pre-Verbal and Non-Verbal Forms of Learning

Much of the difficulty in explaining The Dangerous Child Method consists in the challenge of using words to describe non-verbal phenomena. Each child is unique from the outset, requiring much variety, careful trial and error, and close personal observation in the training of Dangerous Child foundations and skills at different levels of development.

To be continued . . .


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