The four ways we learn (and how they limit us)

by Dorian Minors

April 6, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Have you ever suffered from the ‘broken escalator phenomenon’? You step on a stopped escalator and feel like you’re about to fall over for just a split second. Doesn’t matter whether you knew it was moving or not right? Well, this oddity is a...

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Have you ever suffered from the ‘broken escalator phenomenon’? You step on a stopped escalator and feel like you’re about to fall over for just a split second. Doesn’t matter whether you knew it was moving or not right? Well, this oddity is a surprisingly apt introduction into how we view the world.

You may not be surprised to find out that this is learning in a very fundamental form. Our brain is a shortcut genius - trying to cut down on every spare second of processing so it can focus on other things. In this effort, it creates rules or schemas about how everything should work, from objects to relationships to emotions. In this case, we expect the bloody escalator to move, so when it doesn’t our brain panics for a brief second until it works out what’s going on.

Many of these expectations, or schemas, are developed through experience. This, in a word, is learning and there are four kinds of learning (that have the least detractors) that dictate your expectations of the world. To master your expectations, one must first understand from where they come and why:

  • Learning what's important
  • Learning to predict
  • Learning the consequences of our behaviour
  • Learning from the experiences of others

The art of ignoring

The first and most primitive form of learning is that of habituation and sensitisation. Let's get a bit theoretical here. For argument's sake, one of the most adaptive things an eager young amoeba can learn is what things deserve it's attention in the primordial soup, agreed? What might kill it, what might feed it, and where the sexy amoebas hang out, among other things. In the same vein, it would also be very useful to be able to ignore the unimportant stuff. This means more time focusing on what matters and less time sorting out what's useful from what isn't. Many animals, from bees to humans, have a very deeply ingrained ability to unconsciously learn what to pay attention to and what to ignore. It starts with what seems to be a very innate drive to pay attention to novelty. From infancy, humans (and animals) will spend a great deal of time looking at novel (brand new to them) stimulus - this is called an orienting response. Over time the infant will either begin to respond less (habituate) or more (sensitise) to this stimulus depending on what the stimulus represents (e.g. does it pose a threat? might it predict a reward?). This kind of learning, the ability to ignore the useless and pay attention to the useful, is possibly the foundation of other kinds of learning.

Predicting the future

Once again, let's get theoretical. Now that our developing bundle of cells knows what to pay attention to, it would be ideal to know what those things will mean for us. Will they cause harm? Will they signal pleasure? We can do this by associative learning. Our brain is very good at pairing involuntary physical responses (like nausea) with previously neutral stimulus (like the taste of the first alcohol you threw up from drinking too much of) if they happen together often enough. This is called classical, or pavlovian conditioning. The idea is that somehow our brain is considering this previously neutral stimulus as equal to the thing that would ordinarily provoke that response. So in our drinking example, let's say you had too much fun over a bottle of tequila. You threw up a bunch. When you started, tequila made you feel nothing (it was neutral). Now you can't taste tequila without feeling nauseous (it's been conditioned). Your brain is now predicting that we'll get nausea from drinking tequila (part of our brain is super sensitive to things that make us nauseous - it's thought to be an anti-getting-poisoned-detector). Classical conditioning is actually far more complex that this though and deserves it's own article.

Behaving ourselves

Our growing little organism must also learn how to act. It's not enough to know what's good and what's not. It must know what actions to take in the environment to truly flourish; to be proactive, not just reactive. Enter operant (or instrumental) conditioning - reward and punishment. A pioneer, Ed Thorndike noticed that when an animal's action is rewarded then the animal performs that action more often. When the action is punished, it happens less often. He called this the law of effect, and this idea dominated psychology for upwards of 40 years in the form of behaviourism. These rewards and punishments can be obvious (pain or pleasure for example) but can be also be quite subtle (the removal of something that we didn't even know was improving our situation, or negatively impacting it). But when these rewards and punishments occur fairly consistently with our actions, you can be assured that whether you know it or not, you're doing that thing more or less often. Again, a topic that deserves a deeper understanding.

The value of others

Other people aren't just useful in alleviating the tedium of our in-between moments. People teach us valuable lessons too. Consider our flourishing critter. It would be supremely beneficial if it could learn to not get killed by the thing that killed it's compatriates without being killed itself, no? This imperative is known as social or observational learning. Basically, both people and animals will very clearly moderate their behaviour based on the experiences of others. From learning what food to eat, to what things to avoid, we spend a great number of our formative years developing schemas based on what we've seen happen to (or has been told to us by) others. In fact, the study of this is where we developed the term 'role-models' because the people that influence our learning the most are those we most admire (or have the most authority over us).

In these four ways, our brain creates the rules (or schemas) that dictate an enormous portion of how we live our lives. Learning is a very primitive mechanism and is quite hard to consciously control. For good reason too - imagine spending the amount of time it took you to learn the history of Caeser in high school on learning that what ‘painfully hot’ looks and feels like in all its guises. But, where there is no control, there can be no oversight and no oversight can lead to rules that hinder us rather than help us. Understanding how we learn is the first step the taking control of how we act.

Any fool can learn. The point is to understand. - Einstein (maybe).

Speaking of when learning goes wrong, find out about a time when psychologists terrified the crap out of a kid (for no good reason). Or learn how other people’s failures can stop you from achieving. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist with The Dirt Psychology.

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