The neuroscience of unlearning

We had a lot of comments and discussion around our article on learn, unlearn and relearn. It seems that many in our community have personal experience around this process, and the diversity of these experiences fascinates us. So what is unlearning really about and why do we need to talk about it with learners?
The neuroscience of unlearning

Deep learning that involves a real shift in the way we see something, will often involve a process of unlearning something to make way for that to happen. The beautiful malleability of our brains, coupled with a conscious desire and willingness to learn and reflect, is what makes this possible, though we have to work a bit harder at it when we are older than 25.

Some of us, for example, are on a journey to identify and unlearn our unconscious biases to truly step up in anti-racism activism. Unpacking the systems of white privilege and colonialism which pervade so much of the world around us is a classic example of what author Layla Saad calls “a deep shift in consciousness and action within you” 

We have Learning Guides here at Learnlife who have talked often of the journey to unlearn habits, suppositions and tendencies that were built over many years in traditional learning environments. By unlearning the old and relearning a new way, they not only better serve our learners, but also role-model the fluid flexibility of the lifelong, adaptive learner. 

What is common to all of the examples we hear of unlearning in our community is the sense of it being a journey. It is not something that happens overnight, and it takes a great deal of effort to identify and shift patterns of thought and belief that may have been forged over generations and handed to you as the way it is. So how do we actually step outside of this, and what is happening in the brain when we do? 

Unlearning does not mean forgetting

Control + alt + delete. We don’t work like that, although it might be handy when we need a bit of rebooting at times. A common misconception about unlearning is that it means forgetting or removing information we don’t need. That’s not quite what happens. 

When we shift our way of thinking about something, the new way becomes dominant, and the old pattern is simply left to decay. The brain hangs on to it, because it might be useful at some point, but over time it does dry up. That length of time is variable, as Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve theory tells us, but it is really hard for the brain to really “remove” neural connections already there, and instead does something called inhibitory learning where the brain “depotenciates” the old neural pattern and prioritizes access to the new one. 

Unlearning and relearning as a continuous process

Research by Lally et. al back in 2010 really showed the difference between unlearning something like a daily habit that wasn’t good for you, which can be much more straightforward, versus unlearning deeply ingrained beliefs, which is anything but linear. 

When our Learning Guides talk about unlearning habits from traditional education, they are talking about shifting a perception of learning that they experienced as learners for many years, were then educated to uphold, and then actively participated in. What impact does this have on their sense of self, sense of community, their relationship with others, their core values and so many other aspects of the self construct? 

Those attempting to unlearn deeper trauma and stress triggers might want to look at Dr. Andrew Huberman’s work, which really takes a deep dive into everything from eye movement desensitization to Kundalini Yoga as part of the path forward.  

For those of us trying to shift patterns of thought and behaviour that are perhaps less emotionally rooted,  Dr. Jeff Borden offers 5 key approaches to the unlearning process:

  1. Be willing to unlearn and change. Nothing will happen without this, and nobody can pressure you to do so. Willingness involves an acceptance that something might need to shift, and at times, unlearning has to happen, so start here first. 
  2. Step out of your echo chamber. Your social groups, social media, go-to books and theories are likely to reinforce what you already think. Actively seek another voice, other ideas, other sources and circles. 
  3. Change your place and patterns. Things look differently in different places. Go somewhere new to reflect on things, change up your routines and habits, and actively seek to approach your thinking and learning in new ways. The brain will be less inclined to its automated way of processing in familiar contexts, more alert, more focused, and producing neurotransmitters we need to form the neuro-architecture of new learning patterns. 

All of this takes work, not only to develop, but to maintain (where the brain often reverts to preexisting patterns under stress), but we need to get comfortable with it all. 

Whereas the changes wrought by the industrial revolution took decades to really change our ways of thought and behaviour, those wrought by the digital revolution happened in the relative blink of an eye and we are still catching up with what that means. 

The world is changing at a bewildering speed and we are constantly challenged to adapt, lest we fall into passenger mode. We do not have to be the person that we were told we were. We do not have to repeat the things we’ve always done, or carry the beliefs of others. 

We need to talk about, model, explore and mainstream the process of unlearning in our society, and nowhere more than in our own learning environments. If you think about it, you’ve likely done it many times in your lifetime without really being conscious of it. 

Imagine if we took control of that potential to reinvent ourselves, to thrive in the challenge of a complex world, and strip it all back to discover how we can find ourselves despite it all. Imagine we supported others to see that they could do it too. 

Learn more about the different Learnlife offerings and Lifelong Learning Programmes that support you to explore, discover, and reinvent yourself and reflect on the way you learn. You may also read here to learn more about how learning happens at Learnlife.


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