Why is Unlearning Important and How to Do That!
Never stop learning – goes the popular advice. In this age, when technologies and business practices are changing at such a rapid pace, this is sound advice. But ever wondered why we need this advice at all?
Most of us think of learning in terms of adding new information. That process is actually easier than it sounds like. Learning is one of the most natural processes that occur in a human’s life; as long as we have the faculty of our senses, we are adding information anyway.
But there is a hidden aspect to learning that most of us don’t recognize – the unlearning of obsolete and/or old information. We are not able to unlearn old knowledge half as easily as we learn new information. Yet, in most cases, new knowledge cannot take place unless we get rid of old knowledge. This is why we stop learning, and therefore need that advice.
Why is unlearning so hard?
Our brain functions through a network of millions of interconnected neurons or brain cells. Whenever we learn a new thing, a new path of connections open up in this neural network through which that particular information or group of information are processed. Now, our brain is designed to preserve the neural paths it makes, because it relies on those paths to provide us survival cues. Hence it stalls anything that may want to significantly change those paths.
There are two ways this can happen.
- The new information directly contradicts the previously learned information. This is why nobody believed Copernicus when he first claimed that Earth circles the Sun and not the other way round. It took hundreds of years for this knowledge to become mainstream.
- It introduces significant modification to the old information, and requires a modification in the neural path as well. Suppose you are a graphic designer and highly skilled in a particular designing software tool. Now, your company decides to use a different tool. You are habituated with the different segments and shortcut keys of the old tool and could probably perform them with your eyes closed. When you start working on the new one, for a certain period of time you will find your fingers moving towards the old shortcuts and segment locations.
These problems occur because of Confirmation Bias. We are more likely to believe new information that already confirms our previous learning than the ones that contradicts or modifies them.
Vaccine hesitancy is one of biggest instances of confirmation bias in our times. Parents who have been told by a significant number of trusted people that vaccines cause autism, are more likely to disbelieve the scientific evidences proving that vaccines are harmless and has no connection to said condition. A widespread failure of unlearning is now bringing back diseases long thought extinct.
How to unlearn
Keep doubting yourself – Scientists are more used to this method, but it’s equally applicable for all walks of life. Deliberately expose yourself to information and opinions that contradict your previously-held beliefs, and try to gather information from sources that are held trustworthy by general consensus. Continually testing your ideas against contrarian ideas will help your brain form new connections and your brain will gradually shift from the old neural paths.
Double your sources – Our confirmation bias makes us look for proof of our beliefs, and we stop searching when we find that. The trick is to continue looking further. Some experts say, the formula is to always consult at least double the amount of data sources than you are prone to look for. So if you are reading 3 books on why vaccines are bad, try reading at least three books on why they are not as well.
Use your fear – Unlearning is hard, and that is why most of us never start. You, the graphic designer, can keep arguing how the old software had better interface and features than the new one. A lot of people do. But when your company gives you a deadline within which you have to shift to the new system or lose your job, you are more likely to learn the new system and faster. Fear is a very powerful motivator of new learning. To use it to your advantage, keep in mind what you stand to lose if you do not unlearn the old behavior.
Unlearning does not come naturally to us. But in a world where dominant skill sets change every eight years, it has become an invaluable skill to have. Not constant learning, the new mantra is serial unlearning. Better start practicing today!