Just recently I came across two examples of how being unconscious (of what is happening) is helping us with learning new skills. Here’s the thing: there’s a type of movement learning that is done without consciousness, without us knowing how the learning is facilitated. The first example is from PewDiePie, a famous Youtuber:
“Okay so I remember I wanted to do this flip and I thought it was impossible. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, but I kept trying and I kept trying. And you think you’re not making any progress but then eventually you got it. And it’s so weird to me how you can learn something without thinking it. Muscle memory, yes. This is very satisfying. To get that direct seeing, that instant improvement. There’s something very satisfying about that in my opinion and it just feels so good in your hands when you’re doing it. I love it.” – PewDiePie, Youtube, “My 12 Things I Can’t Live Without.”, Timestamp starts at 18:17, youtu.be/7tB4jwvvuhQ?t=1091
The second example that I want to show you is from Julian Jaynes, who was an American researcher in psychology at Yale and Princeton university and best known for his 1976 book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”:
“Nonsense, absolutely. We know that you can do lots of kinds of learning, like conditioning, it doesn’t happen with consciousness at all. In fact, consciousness wipes it out very often. There’s studies done at Columbia by (inaudible), another kind of learning that we do such as learning skills. And this has been shown to be astonishingly not conscious. If you want to try an experiment at home: now you take two coins and toss them like that and try to catch them. Well then go over what your consciousness is doing—it’s not really guiding your hands and really promoting the whole thing. It’s, oh, we say what a stupid thing, we’re picking up the coins and say, how clumsy I am. No this is something I’m going to have to stop doing… Suddenly it will happen. And you’ll say, How did that happen? Now can do it!” – Julian Jaynes, “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind” Presented at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, August 1986, Lecture available for members of the Julian Jaynes society, Timestamp starts at 13:51, julianjaynes.org
And then there was Moshé Feldenkrais, a Ukrainian-Israeli engineer and physicist, who tried to do something completely else: he tried to make the process of learning conscious. As an engineer he was like, “What if we break seemingly simple movements further down into parts that we can then observe and refine?” Some of his students saw a mathematical mind in this idea and thus called this process differentiation and integration. And in fact Moshé Feldenkrais was remarkably successful with this idea—and was able to rise to fame for the duration of his lifetime by helping many people who were beyond help in a medical sense. Instead of treating them like they had a medical problem, he viewed their troubles as a learning problem.
However, as technical as it might sound like, this kind of disassembly of elusive, simple, every-day movements did not remove the magic that PewDiePie pointed out when he said, “it’s so weird to me how you can learn something without thinking it.” There’s still this magic moment when something suddenly has been successfully learned. Nevertheless with Moshé Feldenkrais’s method the process of learning became more visible, more accessible, and more workable.
Have a look at the following example of David Zemach-Bersin, whose work is inspired by Moshé Feldenkrais:
“I have a suspicion that if the movement is organized more proximally that Matt will feel a difference in the weight of his head. So I’m going to bring my left hand under his head again. And I’m turning the head and then I’m going to bring his left elbow to be snug. And again the head gets much lighter, can you see? And look how his upper back is participating. I’m going to tilt Matt’s pelvis thinking of his lumbar spine. The fifth lumbar is coming towards the ceiling. Okay, so that was maybe again about four times. And now I feel like I’m working about a tenth of what it took to lift your arm and your head two minutes ago, and look how light your head has become. How do you explain that?” — David Zemach-Bersin, Youtube, “Functional Integration Demo: Oppositional Movement on the Stomach Part II”, youtu.be/rjnMe9lyUkw
By breaking down movements that are as simple as they are elusive, such as coming from sitting to standing, or turning the head, we become able to fiddle with and to improve not only the movements themselves, but the process of learning. Instead of being unconscious of the whole thing, we identify its parts, and thus can work on each part. And of course- by doing so, over the years we learned a whole lot of tricks and strategies to improve how we learn skills, and abilities. Strategies such as, just for example,
- to move from distal to proximal in movement initiation,
- to reverse proximal and distal movement,
- to distribute a movement proportionally over the whole body,
- to exaggerate one component of a movement in relation to all other components,
- to reduce work in order to be able to perceive smaller differences,
- to explore the same movement in a different position, which means a different organisation towards gravity,
and so forth. There’s no definite list of strategies as none of this is institutionalised and also we keep discovering more. Maybe that’s part of our learning as well.
I find consciousness one of the most fascinating aspects of my own work, as you can see with my Youtube videos. Instead of focusing my entire Youtube channel on a single topic, such as how to improve knee health, or hip pain, or back pain, etc, I created many videos for a whole lot of topics. But what they all have in common is this idea that was inspired by Moshé Feldenkrais: to learn consciously, to become more and more conscious—in our feeling, in our sensing, in our thinking, in our movements, and through our actions.
I’m not saying that being conscious is better than being unconscious, or that one is generally better for learning new skills than the other, but I’m saying both strategies—to learn consciously or unconsciously—have their time and place. I’m saying we should know both, and we should know how to use both whenever and however we wish.