You learn through experience.
In fact, the only way you learn is through experience.
Your brain – that amazing complex mess of neurons and ganglia and grey matter and synapses and hemispheres and all of that stuff – sits in the darkened box of your skull from before you are born until you die, receiving impulses and responding, receiving impulses and responding.
That’s all it does. It doesn’t ever get to go out and party in the world, it sits in the dark receiving impulses, choosing responses.
When you first come into the world, you receive all sorts of crazy impulses. To a new born baby, the world is an undifferentiated overwhelm! Your brain doesn’t know good from bad, safe from dangerous. Survival means learning the difference pretty damn quickly, so the baby brain looks for things that give it pleasure and learns to avoid things that cause it discomfort or distress.
And so begins your lifelong process of deciding between good and bad, attractive and ugly, success and failure. Through experiencing, you learn to differentiate. You also learn to anticipate.
All the experiencing, processing, deciding, responding, evaluating takes a lot of brain power. If you needed constantly to be working out exactly what is happening around you, and choosing the appropriate response, it would mean your brain had pretty much no time for any other activity. So the brain creates shortcuts.
You know the sort of thing. It sees a chair. It doesn’t think: ‘Wow, what’s that strange shaped thing with four legs? Is it a tiger? What am I meant to do? Is it about to attack me?’ Instead it thinks: ‘It’s a chair’, and it tells the legs to start bending in preparation for sitting.
See a chair, sit down. Not – see a chair, wonder what it is, try to work it out, turn it upside down etc etc etc.
No – see a chair, sit down.
Of course, sometimes you might sit on a chair and discover that one of the legs is a little bit wobbly. As you sit and give your weight to the chair, it starts to collapse beneath you. Immediately your brain goes ‘Woah!!!!’ Immediately it sends a radically different set of instructions to your legs (and hips and face muscles and possibly your voice too, as you cry out in alarm).
Unexpected information has entered the dark space of your skull. The brain realises this is not the same-old-sitting-on-a-chair experience it anticipated. This is something new – the wobbly chair-experience. New stimuli means new responses are required!
The brain kicks into action to save you from disaster because that’s really what the brain’s function is – to save you from disaster, to keep you safe. In fact, that’s the brains only function to keep you safe (and to pass on your genes to the next generation).
However, in the absence of some sudden, immediate and unexpected detail demanding its attention, the brain just does things the way it has always done them. It anticipates how things will go based on what it has learned in the past, and so follows well-worn, habitual ways of doing things.
Anticipated impulse. Habitual response.
The brain has a low threshold for defining success. It thinks: ‘Did we survive? Are we safe?’ If the answer is yes, the brain is satisfied with a job-well-done and it turns it’s attention elsewhere – often to passing on its genes. The chair may not be the most comfortable or in the best part of the room but the brain doesn’t care that much. As long as you’re not in danger, the brain is happy to turn its attention elsewhere, scanning for other threats.
You do not change how you respond to some event (like seeing a chair) unless you discover that a new response is necessary, or at least possible.
Sometimes you have a new response forced on you (such as with the wobbly chair leg). Sometimes however, you can choose to change.
It is this possibility of choice that lies at the heart of personal growth and development.
Sometimes you feel you need to ‘unlearn’ some things – unlearn your habits. You can’t really do that. You can’t really unlearn something you’ve learned. It’s in your head. It’s part of you. You can’t pretend something didn’t happen.
Rather than thinking of unlearning you need to think of new learning. How do you learn new things? Same way as you learn all things – you have new experiences. New learning comes from new experiences.
To change means to learn something new. To learn something new requires new experiences to learn from.
Instead of doing things habitually, you can decide to pay active attention to what is going on around you. You can choose actively to notice how an experience you are having is different to previous experiences. You can treat experiences as if they are new, and so create new reactions and responses from your brain.
New experiences, new lessons.
This is the heart of effective and healthy learning – the creation of new experiences from which you can learn. Sometimes that means doing new things, sometimes doing familiar things in new ways or with new attitudes.
Another way of saying that is that the heart of personal and professional development, is enhancing a capacity to create for yourself healthy learning experiences. In doing that you can ‘overwrite’ (or evolve) less healthy learning experiences you have accumulated in the past. You can replace unhealthy or perhaps obsolete ways of acting, thinking and responding, with healthier, more effective and more up to date ways of acting, thinking and responding. You can create lessons and behaviours based in the present – based on who you are now and who you aspire to be, not on who you were once told you had to be, or who you were moulded to become decades ago.
If you want to have experiences in the present, to create new learning and so to change, then you have to be in the present.
That is why the heart of all effective learning is presence. If you want to grow, you must be present.
If you would like to listen to this post – you can find me reading it here: https://presencepodcast.libsyn.com/why-presence