Most of our thinking happens out of awareness – it is unconscious. Most of the data that pours in through our senses never reaches awareness either – but that does not mean it does not have an impact on what we remember, how we feel and what we decide and do in the future. It does.
Improvement Science is the knowledge of how to achieve sustained change for the better; and doing that requires an ability to unlearn unconscious knowledge that blocks our path to improvement – and to unlearn selectively.
So how can we do that if it is unconscious? Well, there are at least two ways:
1. Bring the unconscious knowledge to the surface so it can be examined, sorted, kept or discarded. This is done through the social process of debate and discussion. It does work though it can be a slow and difficult process.
2. Do the unlearning at the unconscious level – and we can do that by using reality rather than rhetoric. The easiest way to connect ourselves to reality is to go out there and try doing things.
When we deliberately do things we are learning unconsciously because most of our sensory data never reaches awareness. When we are just thinking the unconscious is relatively unaffected: talking and thinking are the same conscious process. Discussion and dialog operate at the conscious level but differ in style – discussion is more competitive; dialog is more collaborative.
The door to the unconscious is controlled by emotions – and it appears that learning happens more effectively and more efficiently in certain emotional states. Some emotional states can impair learning; such as depression, frustration and anxiety. Strong emotional states associated with dramatic experiences can result in profound but unselective learning – the emotionally vivid memories that are often associated with unpleasant events. Sometimes the conscious memory is so emotionally charged and unpleasant that it is suppressed – but the unconscious memory is not so easily erased – so it continues to influence but out of awareness. The same is true for pleasant emotional experiences – they can create profound learning experiences – and the conscious memory may be called an inspirational or “eureka” moment – a sudden emotional shift for the better. And it too is unselective and difficult to erase.
An emotionally safe environment for doing new things and having fun at the same time comes close to the ideal context for learning. In such an enviroment we learn without effort. It does not feel like work – yet we know we have done work because we feel tired afterwards. And if we were to record the way that we behave and talk before the doing; and again afterwards then we will measure a change even though we may not notice the change ourselves. Other people may notice before we do – particularly if the change is significant – or if they only interact with us occasionally.
It is for this reason that keeping a personal journal is an effective way to capture the change in ourselves over time.
The Jungian model of personality types states that there are three dimensions to personality (Isabel Briggs Myers added a fourth later to create the MBTI®).
One dimension describes where we prefer to go for input data – sensors (S) use external reality as their reference – intuitors (N) use their internal rhetoric.
Another dimension is how we make decisions – thinkers (T) prefer a conscious, logical, rational, sequential decision process while feelers (F) favour an unconscious, emotional, “irrational”, parallel approach.
The third dimension is where we direct the output of our decisions – extraverts (E) direct it outwards into the public outside world while intraverts (I) direct it inwards to their private inner world.
Irrespective of our individual preferences, experience suggests that an effective learning sequence starts with our experience of reality (S) and depending how emotionally loaded it is (F) we may then internalise the message as a general intuitive concept (N) or a specific logical construct (T).
The implication of this is that to learn effectively and efficiently we need to be able to access all four modes of thinking and to do that we might design our teaching methods to resonate with this natural learning sequence, focussing on creating surprisingly positive reality based emotional experiences first. And we must be mindful that if we skip steps or create too many emotionally negative experiences we we may unintentionally impair the effectiveness of the learning process.
A carefully designed practical exercise that takes just a few minutes to complete can be a much more effective and efficient way to teach a profound principle than to read libraries of books or to listen to hours of rhetoric. Indeed some of the most dramatic shifts in our understanding of the Universe have been facilitated by easily repeatable experiments.
Intuition and emotions can trick us – so Doing Our Way to New Thinking may be a better improvement strategy.