Recently, there’s been a lot of talk and excitement about unlearning, and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Because, frankly, unlearning physiologically isn’t really an option. So I thought I’d talk about the cognitive processes, and then look at what folks are talking about.
Learning has been cutely characterized as “neurons that fire together, wire together”. And that’s really it: learning is about strengthening associations between patterns (which is why you can only learn so much at one time and then need to sleep, that strengthening effect only takes so much at one shot). We start with conscious effort and compile it down below conscious level.
However, you can’t really weaken those associations! So, you simply can’t unlearn. What really happens, as Dr. Jane Bozarth suggests, is: “overwriting existing knowledge or skill, or just pushing it to the background to accommodate something new, or rewiring pathways”. And points out that it’s hard work.
In short, unlearning is really relearning. And it’s harder because you need to overcome prior experience, strengthen the associations of the new beyond the existing strength of the old. And it’s important that, if things have changed, or previous experience or instinct will lead you elsewhere, you need to make sure that you’ve now got learners making the decisions in the effective ways. Which may mean modifying, not necessarily just replacing, but it does take conscious effort in analysis and design, diagnosing misconceptions, figuring appropriate levels of practice, etc.
So why this excitement about unlearning? It appears people are having fun with words. They’re using the phrase to mean something else. Take, for instance, this definition:
“Unlearning is not exactly letting go of our knowledge or perceptions, but rather stepping outside our perceptions to stand apart from our world views and open up new lenses to interpret and learn about the world.” – Erica Dhawan
Um, okay. The same article quotes Prasad Kaipa as saying “we generate anew rather than reformulate the same old stuff”. So, it’s about a different perspective. That’s valuable. Why call it unlearning then? It could be a step to unlearning, looking afresh and seeing new opportunities for different ways of doing things, but it’s not really unlearning.
So I see no reason to mislead people. Learning is rewarding, and touting things as unlearning make it seem as straightforward as learning, but relearning a new way is harder. The use of the term seems to minimize the effort required. And using the term to mean something else seems misleading. If you want to talk about shifting perspectives, do so!
What am I missing? Until I find a better explanation than what I’ve found, I’m calling out the term. Genially, of course.
Reuben Tozman says
I love the post Clark. When I did the structure for ‘experience design’ http://blog.edcetratraining.com/?p=166 I built into the structure this idea of ‘starting state’ which accounts for all those things you bring to bear in all your experiences. To explicitly design an experience requires us to account for, the best we can, all those items that we either want our users to bring with them and which of the things we want them to park. Thats not to say we simply tell somebody park this belief and bring that one with you, but that our designs need to tackle that issue. In fact, experience design is a powerful way to let somebody ‘relearn’, create new neural connections, etc versus telling somebody to do that (since that will never work anyways).
Dan Pontefract says
What a BS term.
It could be relearning, as you point out, or perhaps it’s simply ‘open learning’.
In the end, however, it is really what learning should be.
But it reminds me of the time several years ago when every product was ‘clear’. The ‘un’ meme is unbecoming.
Pascal Venier says
A very thought provoking post, as ever, and the more so, as I have been using “unlearning” a lot recently.
I wonder whether it could not be argued that its use really can convey “a paradox, connoting two things that are different but in another sense the same”, in the same way that Dave Snowden and Cynthia F Kurtz contrasts in the Cynefin framework Order and Un-order. They have in a piece published in 2003, which I was reading again only yesterday, this very interesting passage on un-order and their use of the prefix un- which I have highlighted and may be pertinent to your discussion of unlearning. “Here we deliberately use the prefix “un-” not in its standard sense as “opposite of” but in the less-common sense of conveying a paradox, connoting two things that are different but in another sense the same. Bram Stoker used this meaning to great effect in 1897 with the word “undead”, which means neither dead nor alive but something similar to both and different to both. E. E. Cummings also used the prefix this way in his poetry: says Cureton (1979), “In normal usage, being and existing are stative concepts. They are not actions which a person must consciously perform, engage in, create. Words such as unbe and unexist, however, force the reader to see the dynamic nature of human existence….”.
I am not a specialist but the way I would be tempted to look at it would therefore perhaps be that when you are “unlearning” something, you are creating new connections and consolidating this knowledge, but adding an additional layer of signification by being aware that it is no longer pertinent, and you connect it with this new learning. I hope this makes at least some sense.
Thanks for the feedback. Interesting perspective, Pascal, hadn’t thought of it that way. I can see the value of taking a new look at learning, and particularly the meta-learning perspective, but I’d rather talk about second loop learning or something. I’m afraid if I follow the implication of undead, I think of something that’s neither learning nor not learning, and that would be more like performance support, which is useful, but not your implication. I think what you’re talking about is deeper than what most folks are doing, and I guess I’m railing at the casual misuse rather than the more philosophical stance you’re taking. My instinct here is that people are using it casually to imply that we can just unlearn things that aren’t right, and that’s misleading.
Mark Britz says
This was a topic that was brought up in a #lrnchat some time ago. I know during the conversation I was waffling a bit on what was meant by unlearning but it did gravitate into “memory” and recall some. Its been stated that when confronted with new ideas we either associate or accommodate to what we currently understand. Therefore it would appear that the previously learned is absorbed, morphs, or is set aside but not released. John Medina, author of Brain Rules spoke at LSCon and I remember his analogy about learning that went something like – everyone has a similar structure in their brain (highways, byways, ect) but where people learn is in each of their unique(from other people)streets, roads and avenues. So it would appear then that once the roads are created they remain but people just don’t use them anymore as new roads form that are superior.
Jay Cross says
Clark, Iâ€™ve unlearned lots of things in my life.
I have quite effectively unlearned Latin, trigonometry, and Mahayana Buddhism by not firing up those neural circuits in decades. Unused connections decay over time.
Iâ€™ve unlearned most of the religious beliefs I held dear as a child. In the face of something donâ€™t understand, I look for scientific explanation instead of reinforcing a belief in miracles.
Iâ€™ve also unlearned by replacement, as you and Jane describe. For instance, Iâ€™ve unlearned that electrons look like pingpong balls in orbit around a nucleus of protons and neutrons.
Why call it unlearning? Because even though you canâ€™t directly unlearn something, you can long for that result. We need a name for it.
When Iâ€™m jousting with a conservative about the need to flatten organizations, I take an advocacy position. I want them to unlearn the old ways to make room for the new. Frankly, Iâ€™d like to reprogram them, but unlearning sounds less aggressive.
Kathy Sierra says
I’ve used “unlearning” in just such a sloppy way, but after reading this post, I’m going to try to stop doing that. And the thing-formerly-known-as-unlearning that I referred to was almost always about one of two things: discovering a new and *better* thing to replace/override the old, OR, discovering that the thing you had learned was actually *wrong* in some way, either factually or procedurally.
Sometimes this happens as a result of new information coming to light, but sometimes it is simply because the *learner* has moved to a new level of ability where their previously just-right understanding (however naive or oversimplified) that once enabled them is now holding them back. When my husband teaches people the game of Go, he explicitly tells them that as they progress, some key parts of what they learn will have to be “unlearned” (though now we need a better word) in order to progress. The best/right patterns, moves, responses, strategies for a person at one rank will be harmful/inefficient at a higher ranking, etc.
So it really is learning something new about what you already know. Hmmm. Meta. And of course how you frame and implement this thing-previously-called-unlearning is drastically different if it is changing a strongly-held conscious belief/understanding vs. something that has been automated and no longer easily available to interrogation/introspection.
Thought-provoking post. I am going to work on stopping myself from using that word because I agree with you — it is misleading, and in a way that actually matters. Maybe not to the learner/unlearned, but to those trying to help someone replace previous knowledge and/or skill…
Michael Cushman says
I agree, sometimes people use the term unlearning where relearning is more accurate.
I applaud you for being open to new information, that’s the characteristic that builds adaptability and wisdom.
BTW, daily I track the word “Unlearning” using Google Alerts. I haven’t seen any uptick in it’s use, except for the book, Unlearning Liberty. If you would be kind enough to tell me where “unlearning” is used within your sphere, I’d appreciate it. Thanks.
Now as for ‘unlearning being physiologically impossible”…that’s something you might want to unlearn, in the near future. :-)
Let’s take classical conditioning and Pavlov’s dogs. Every day, a bell is rung just before the meat is given to the dogs. (The neurological representation of the bell and the neurological representations of the experience of seeing, smelling and consuming the meat are wired together. True? Wiring together means that dendrites grow between neurons. As you know, each neuron in humans has about 1500 to 3000 connections. When learning is “strengthened” in this context, it means there are multiple connections. In addition, once learned well, the synaptic chemistry of the bell-to-meat connections activate instantly when the bell is experienced (creating the expectation of the meat to follow).
So, what happens when the experiment changes and the bell rings, but there’s no food? In addition, there’s food, but no preceding bell? Several changes occur in the brain. First, the number of connections diminishes. Physiologically, the dendrites disappear. A few connections will remain (probably a just-in-case mechanism in the brain that makes relearning the bell-to-meat experience happen faster, if needed in the future), however, the synaptic chemistry changes and the synapses of the bell-to-the-meat experiences WILL NOT fire (there will be a depletion of dopamine).
So, was the conditioned stimulus of the bell unlearned? You bet it was!
Next, let’s take emotions. These are stored in the Amygdala, directly. To unlearn PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), one method is to block the writing of the protein that stores the emotion. After taking the drug, the PTSS client is asked to recall the experience. They will remember the events and the feelings, but the emotions will not be re-encoded. (The drug wears off in about an hour). The next time they remember the event, the sensory experience will be the same, but there won’t be any emotional component (no fear). I think it’s fair to use Unlearning in this context. You can argue for relearning if you want, but I think you are on shaky ground to say unlearning is physiologically impossible, since clearly direct physiological change occurred, and a previous learning is gone. FYI, people can also unlearn the emotional component of an experience via therapy, and several different approaches have been proven effective.
This unlearning of an experience is possible because all episodic memory is Read-Write. Every recollection of an experience is rewritten too. You cannot remember anything without also changing it. What you thought about prior to remembering and your current state (mood) will become connected to your remembrance, and thus it will be changed. This explains why it’s so easy to create false memories.
And, just like emotions are not part of the nightly hippocampus-to-neocortex learning process, all skills and habits have their own non-hippocampus learning mechanism (you don’t seem to know this). The procedural learning neurons are biologically very different from the neurons used to store experiences and meaning. FYI, procedures are learned using the 21-day rule and variety. It’s here, skills and habits, that the term “relearning” is most appropriate. It’s tough to change habits for the reasons you state. However, if an old skill is not used for a long period of time, some of the neurons will be confiscated by nearby, growing, networks, but that can take years.
Semantic learning (meaning, categories, abstractions, symbolics…) is learned best via the remembering curve and precise repetition. If someone believes the world is flat, and then learns that in fact, the earth is round, did they unlearn or relearn? In reality, the earth is now connected with the concept of round, which is something new. In addition, the earth-to-flat connection is now connected to the concept of “false” or highly doubtful. To me, neither “relearning” or “unlearning” precisely describe what happens, but either term is good enough for me. BTW, the mechanism isn’t so clear, but all our semantic and episodic memory is connected to “certainty”. When you want to destabilize this learning, the key is to introduce doubt. After doubt is introduced, what was learned is plastic for about 30 minutes.
Clark are you still sure unlearning is physiologically impossible? I doubt it. :-)
What great feedback, folks! However, while unused neural pathways can atrophy, there also seems to be an amazing ability to suddenly remember something we’d thought we’d forgotten, so my understanding of the neuroscience is that it’s not completely atrophied. I have heard of the drug to block emotional responses (and had forgotten, thanks),. Not quite sure we’re not rewriting, as opposed to undoing, but glad the result’s there, regardless.
My main point, however, is that learning over is typically hard (which is not the same as learning an alternative: electron orbits versus clouds, or flat versus round earth), and unlearning makes it sound easy, which I really don’t think it is. So the question is whether the term’s useful. If you carefully delineate what you mean, go ahead and use it. However, I will continue to rail against the shallow usage, which I do see being perpetrated.
Jay Cross says
Jonah Lehrer wrote the story on the forgetting pill for Wired this February: The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever.
The relevant portion of the article states: “To delete the memory, researchers would administer a drug that blocks PKMzeta and then ask the patient to recall the event again. Because the protein required to reconsolidate the memory will be absent, the memory will cease to exist. Neuroscientists think theyâ€™ll be able to target the specific memory by using drugs that bind selectively to receptors found only in the correct area of the brain.”
The article blew my socks off the first time I read it but it soon faded into the recesses of memory. The technology is not here yet.
Is eradicating memories the same as unlearning? Damned if I know.
Happy New Year! (I start celebrating early.)
I am thrilled to see dialogueing about the correct and appropriate use of words. To my mind many people make them-selves guilty of lazy thinking by catching a word in mid-air that vaguely expresses what the person wants to say, without thinking through the connotations and appropriateness properly.
Thank you all for sharing the various perspectives to “unlearning”. The acid tests is probably what is the physiology around learning and unlearning? Let’s start giving more attention to THAT dimension of learning and start creating a correct and appropriate framework of words and knowledge around that for our industry.
Happy new year to all!
Terry Elliott says
I am reminded of the terms schooling, unschooling, and deschooling. Perhaps unlearning is a political term for the ascendancy of informal learning. I know that unschooling for me had a political element when I unschooled my three kids. I am also reminded of another dialectic I am beginning to use in my own college classrooms–routines and anti-routines. I think of routines in the writing classroom as algorithms for generating stuff. Anti-routines are subversions and usually result in breaking stuff. For example, I used of version of Bill Waterson’s ‘Calvinball’ to subvert the idea of quizzes in the composition classroom. Most memorable. Made me think that Shumpeter has a place in the classroom if we can manage to do no harm in the process.
Nina Smith says
Thank you for this interesting post! I agree with you about unlearning being extremely misleading, and I think it is based on the outdated view of knowledge being something stagnant we learn in chunks and can extract at will. Fortunately the modern understanding of learning agrees with you and me and defines learning as interactions between the students, teacher and information. This way learning (and the learned) is dynamic by nature and will be modified each and every time we revisit the same subject, hence the importance for reflection.
Unlearning – or actually the non-existent need for it is also part of meaningful learning. And I think that is what all learning should be, so that it would also be a transformational learning experience, and this all is doable with the current technology tools, if we only got over the mindset of cohort-based education, where the system is build to model factories. (I lean on Mezirov’s definition on transformative learning: “a rational, metacognitive process of reassessing reasons that support problematic meaning perspectives or frames of referenceâ€ (Mezirov, J. (2009). An overview on transformative learning. In Illeris, K. (Ed.) Contemporary Theories of Learning (90-105). London/New York: Routledge.) My latest blogpost was also about meaningful learning at http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/
Philip Corless says
I found your blog after several frustrating experiences on linked in where I found people annoyed at the term unlearning and seemed to be club ing together and creating an echo chamber where what they mostly had in common was a dislike of the word unlearning. A common thing for people to say is unlearning is just forgetting things or they give a trite example and claim to have proved once again that unlearning is forgetting things.
Well this doesn’t move the discussion anywhere . Neither does picking faults with writers who put together journalistic sentences that are a bit sloppy and then saying. Aha! A sloppy sentence from a journalist. (Anita Dharwhan)
Obviously everything ever said about unlearning is now false.
You even say the term rubs you up the wrong way. What does that mean? Your biased against it?
Also. I don’t see how cognitive science provides any help in understanding this subject at all. What you are missing out with cognitive science is the experience of being human. That’s not a good start for reflecting on the personal experience of people when they are learning things.
It has its place. It’s an important activity. But nothing to do with peoples lived experience unless you think computers resemble human minds. Hardly..
I am frustrated because I’ve seen someone quite your book as proof that unlearning doesn’t exist. It turns out what you don’t like is sloppy use of terminology but you also wrote a book saying unlearning is a myth.
I read a Dharwan article in Forbes magazine and it seemed to make sense to me. She says that people coming out of business school are being conditioned to think and act and behave in similar ways and it is worth them reflecting on how they think to themselves and try and break out of the general conformity. To think outside the box. And if you tell me what’s wrong with the phrase thinking outside the box my reply is it doesn’t describe what unlearning is describing. They have been going in one direction and they need to reverse the process.
Freud and Neitzche and other psychologists ( yes a psychologist)dedicated their efforts to getting people to unlearn their patterns of thinking. to break their emotional connections with the past. To liberate people from habitual learned and unhelpful ideas about childhood. The patients learned neurosis and unlearned it in therapy. So you would say they learned neurosis and then they learned not to have neurosis? Unlearning points to the direction the learning is taking. I don’t think Freud called it unlearning but Otto Rank did who was a follower. He used it to describe how artists were able to completely change their outlook or perspective. Changing perspectives as you put it doesn’t do the job. Picasso didnt have a different perspective to the traditional artists of his day. It was not an angle but completely changing the meaning of art. Society had to learn to change what society thought art was. That is not a perspective but society isn’t the same society.
He influenced Carl Rogers the inventor of client centered therapy. Rogers has changed the way therapy is done which has changed society so much that people are more likely to question authority figures and sort out their own problems and have their own values and opinions than in the past. But it all took time and people changed and gradually they learned to behave differently if you like but unlearning is a better more accurate word .
I noticed this word used by Timothy Gallwey in his book the inner game of work. He mentions Robert W Woodruff , president of Coca Cola in 1923 who sacked the whole sales force and told them they could all reapply for their jobs in the morning. It was because they had unconscious momentum governing their current practices and no awareness of this and its difficult to make a change when you are not aware of how you do things o in the present. So Woodruff used a shock tactic to make his sales force aware. He knew they needed to unlearn old habits .
Given the need for companies like NASA, and Boeing, and Airbus to avoid company cultures drifting into dangerous conformity so they make mistakes that are well known in the media the term unlearning has relevance and application to them and many companies. In a world where understanding and improving company culture is essential to digital transformation the word unlearning is not a tool that should be cast aside and despised because some people have taken a dislike to it.
Thanks for that discursive argument for unlearning. My case is simple, at the individual level. What’s happening with learning is that we’re strengthening the connections between patterns, making it easier for them to get triggered again. While there is some natural decrease in strength, we can’t actively reduce that strength (unlearn). If we want to replace that behavior, we have to actively practice something else in that context (learn over that old pattern, e.g. overlearn). I fear that folks might interpret ‘unlearn’ to mean that they can do aught but what’s necessary. So I don’t like it. I’m really not addressing it as the philosophical, psychoanalytical, or organizational level. However, I think that the notion of deliberate practice of new behaviors is a useful one, so I suspect it’s relevant there as well. I also think it’s unrelated to ‘think outside the box’. I’m all for that, but it’s not unlearning. It’s consciously looking at things a different way, or using techniques to move us out of familiar practices and patterns. I’m also for improving culture, but I think we want to do it in ways that are grounded in how our brains learn. Unlearning is, to me, another cute concept that actually doesn’t bear a lot of relevance to what people actually have to do. While I’m willing to be wrong, so far you haven’t convinced me. Hence my statement, and I’m sticking by it.
Philip Corless says
I think new words appear every year in the dictionary and they start with someone using them informally and they can disappear or they can catch on.
I think you just came up with the word overlearning but perhaps I am not aware of the pedigree of that word.
I appreciate that I am not convincing you that unlearning is a word for describing something important and that may be because I am not entirely convinced myself.
But I think I am much more interested in this word and how it is used than you are. I am interested in what some people are using it to describe. And it is what those people are thinking that is fascinating to me.
However , as William James once said , in a democracy everyone votes by their attitude to what interests them. If nobody watches opera then it ceases to exist.
So only time will tell if unlearning becomes more accepted as a word than it is at the moment. If it’s what I think it means it’s got nothing to do with the way you are describing it. That’s a problem because unlearning might be seen as complicated. Theories that are connected to words that catch on and become popular are usually easy to understand . Evolution, psychoanalysis , ( the general public understand them up to a point) But unlearning is doing ok in the academic literature where a lot of hardworking researchers are keeping it going at the moment and large consultancies are seeing how it relates to change. It’s getting a lot of resistance from instructional designers and I am not sure why , yet, but in my view only time can tell if it will catch on.
Philip Corless says
I am researching unlearning at the moment and finding it hard going. People indeed do have different definitions that are arguments and facts that exist in different paradigms depending on whether you take a sociological, cognitive science or some other perspective. I did a psychology degree in 1994 and I revisited my cognitive science course and took a closer look at models of memory .
I believe how the mind is described in schema theory and levels of processing theory and other theories are not conclusive proof of how brains work. I came across loftus at that time. She had researched semantic memory and moved on to false memories. EF Loftus 75 ( leading questions and the eye witness report)
A key word is retrieval of memories and the human need to use memories in social contexts. Loftus has a Ted talk online about false memories. She has been involved in the most notorious court cases in America and been taken to court and vilified by some people and given many awards by academic institutions.I confess I had my doubts about this kind of research in cases like the recent maxwell case . However she seems to have gained a lot of awards and the problematic she creates is how fragile memory is and how easy it is to change it.depending on the circumstances in which it is retrieved. Her perspective seems to be very important to discussing unlearning from inside the cognitive science paradigm. And anyone who has caused so much disapproval as she has as well as so much approval is , in my view, on to something regarding discussions around how the brain works and how easy it is to alter our memories depending on our circumstances and motivations. She compares ( metaphorically speaking,) the brain to a series of Wikipedia entries where it’s possible for anyone to alter the details of the entries . This creates a messier picture of learning and memory as incremental improvements and strengthening schemas. It sheds light on how fake news reports influence people and why people can be hard to convince of obvious facts. Her research with juries involved looking at the methods of how memories are retrieved and the questions asked that can cause people to believe one thing or another. This involves training that is of interest to lawyers.
Philip, thanks for weighing in. I do know of Beth Loftus’ work, it was part of the curriculum. Yes, it’s alterable, but if memory serves, it’s more a valence thing than totally rewriting. I think the latter is very hard, but scrambling things is easier. I was steeped in schemas – Rumelhart was in our lab ;) – but also followed his transition to connectionist networks and the neural implications. I just think that when you’re trying to learn a new response to an old stimuli, if it’s well-practiced, it’s quite hard to change. There’s another long comment about how for orgs and things unlearning makes sense. Maybe, but I fear that people will read into it something that’s not there. And I’m happy to be wrong about that.