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 . . .

Bottlenecks to Learning: Spoken Language

Serial vs. Parallel http://www.explainthatstuff.com/how-supercomputers-work.html
Serial vs. Parallel
This is the first mistake people make with small kids. They try to teach them by TALKING to them as if small children can simply reason along with their TALKING and automatically see the adult’s intent and adopt the adult’s logic. But even young adult brains do not learn so well by the TALKING method — much less small children!

Verbal language is processed in a relatively “serial,” straight-line manner. Visual information is processed in a highly parallel manner. Large amounts of information can be transferred in a short amount of time via parallel pathways. The image to the right illustrates the “serial bottleneck” that verbal language suffers from. Never forget that each word is slippery beyond belief, and each thought accompanying a word is both highly viscous and subject to total fragmentation.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

In the learning pyramid below, we can see that humans retain far less from a lecture than they do from a demonstration. This is infinitely more true for toddlers and pre-schoolers than it is for university students — and it is true enough for them.

How People Learn
How People Learn

More on the “learning pyramid.”

For particular areas of special interest, many young children may be ready for self-directed learning practise by the age of 2 or 3, but most of the time — for most areas of learning — they will need careful guidance, with an emphasis on exploratory play, expanding movement skills, simple music appreciation and training, basic underpinnings of art, and creative story-telling.

Such young children are not ready for lectures, or even group discussions of any depth beyond a rudimentary analysis of characters in stories.

They need to be shown, encouraged, guided, and playfully cajoled, but always with a consistent end in mind. No lectures, no debates, no group discussions except in playful, creative mode.

Cognitive Pyramid of Learning
Cognitive Pyramid of Learning

The cognitive pyramid of learning by Williams and Schellenberger, demonstrates how academic learning depends upon a deep and broad set of nervous system functions. Most meaningful learning takes place automatically, well beneath the level of consciousness.

Many years of profound preparation are needed before children and youth will be able to easily and automatically adapt to the style of learning common to modern secondary schools and universities. Unfortunately, 90% of young students never receive the preparation they need, to achieve broad success and competency in the larger world beyond their parents’ homes.

Hierarchy of Skills https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skill
Hierarchy of Skills

The hierarchy of useful skills by Kokcharov is a useful concept. But it is meant to be applied much earlier in child development than is done in many societies. A large number of “children” reach university without having acquired more than a sprinkling of basic knowledge — the bottom-most layer of the skills hierarchy! One hates to tell the young darlings and their parents that they are starting too late to achieve anything close to their best.

Keep in mind that where the term “knowledge” is used in the above pyramid, non-verbal knowledge will be key during the early years, and will serve as a foundation for later learning. An early mastery of many non-verbal skills will put the child at an early advantage in Dangerous Child training — particularly in areas of movement, art, basic mechanisms and forces, music, and the non-verbal aspects of language.

Very young children should be exposed to a wide range of situations where they must develop problem-solving skills. In fact, besides executive functions (including basic social skills), the love of difficult problem solving is at the top of vital childhood lessons to be learned.

Again, these vital early lessons are largely learned on a non-verbal level, by observing and by doing — and by creatively varying the basic approach.

Prism of Competence Clinical Medical Competence Used as an Example
Prism of Competence
Clinical Medical Competence Used as an Example

The image above illustrates development of competence in the field of clinical medicine, for medical students and doctors in training. Going from novice level to the level of mastery requires many years of training. By this time in a person’s education, he is expected to have mastered verbal knowledge acquisition, which involves a great deal of reading, testing — written and verbal — and little by little, practical hands-on skills training. The old saying in medical training is: “See one, do one, teach one.” And in basic terms, that is how medical and surgical skills propagate in training.

But a medical student, resident, or fellow will not reach his optimal levels of competence if he has not built a solid foundation of basic skills, competencies, executive functions, and a love for problem-solving, in his early years. These basic skills and competencies need to be mastered to the point of “conscious automaticity.” More on that seeming contradiction later.

OODA Loop John Boyd
OODA Loop Col. John Boyd

The OODA Loop pictured above was developed by USAF Col. John Boyd, several decades ago. It was used to help fighter pilots to gain the advantage in dogfights against enemy fighters. But over time, it has been seen to be useful in a much wider range of situations.

Here are the four steps:

  1. O…bserve
  2. O…rient
  3. D…ecide
  4. A…ct

It is called an “OODA Loop” because it should be running constantly, feeding back into itself at different points, as the situation changes.

But . . . humans should not have to wait until they train to be fighter pilots to learn this basic concept of moment to moment interaction with their environment. We have talked about “situational awareness” and “mindfulness,” but the OODA Loop gives tangible and actionable bones and structure to those verbal concepts, once it is mastered and applied to daily living.

How old do children need to be before they can learn the OODA Loop? If taught properly (nonverbally through play), children as young as 3 can learn to apply the OODA Loop automatically and unconsciously — long before they would be able to learn the concepts verbally. And to be sure, one never knows when his own life may balance on the ability of his child to act automatically with wisdom beyond his years.

More on OODA and John Boyd:

Human reaction time is defined as the time elapsing between the onset of a stimulus and the onset of a response to that stimulus. The O.O.D.A. Loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, is Boyd’s way of explaining how we go through the process of reacting to stimulus. First we Observe, and keep in mind that although we process approximately 80% of the information we receive with our sense of sight, we can and do make observations with our other senses. For instance you might hear a gunshot and not see the person who fired it. Once you look and see the source of the gunfire you are now in the Orient stage of the process. In the Orient stage you are now focusing your attention on what you have just observed. The next step is the Decide step in which you have to make a decision on what to do about what you have just observed and focused your attention on. Finally you have made your decision and the last step is to Act upon that decision. Keep in mind that the O.O.D.A loop is what happens between the onset of a stimulus and the onset of a reaction to that stimulus.


The ideas are there, but the way it is presented above is not truly practical, in action. Going through the OODA Loop step by step in a conscious, “check-list” manner is a good way of getting yourself and others you care about, killed.

Ideally, Observe and Orient should be combined and Decide and Act fused together by practice, so the opponent’s action triggers your automatic reaction, without your needing to decide. Even below such a level of automatization, not having to think about your movements improves your reaction time because reaction time is shorter when set on “signal” than when set on “action.” (For example, if you are in a car stopped at a red light and you are thinking “green,” you will move faster than if you are thinking “green: press the gas pedal.”)


Intro to John Boyd’s Strategic Thinking

John Boyd Compendium

Strategy books by and about John Boyd

Strategic Theory of John Boyd 349 PDF free download by Frans Osinga

Thesis on Air Power Strategies of John Boyd and John Warden

Children will go much farther in life if they are provided with useful and productive strategies along with a broad range of skills, competencies, and real world experiential knowledge of how people, groups, and institutions behave.

The foundations for all of this are built of non-verbal material. Sure, one should always talk to the child on a child-appropriate level (each child is unique). But in the early years, non-verbal forms of communication are much more potent than any semantic meaning of the words themselves. Even the “non-verbal” aspects of language itself exercise far more influence on the young child than the word or phrase meanings: Tone and speed of speech, prosody, speech melody and inflection, as well as facial expressions and body language that accompany the speech.

Dangerous Children master at least 3 different ways of supporting themselves financially by the age of 18. But as we have said, that is the easy part — and only the beginning.