Monday, February 14, 2011

Unconscious learning

Learning without knowing you are learning

Thread:                          Context, Learning
Relevant recent posts:     2/3/2011 Mistake of the week
                                     1/5/2011 We are always in a context

"You see, we don’t know what our goals are. We learn our goals only in the process of getting there… You don’t know what the baby is going to become. Therefore, you wait and take good care of it until it becomes what it will."
               — Milton H. Erickson (1979, see References, below)

Now, I will ask you the first question I have asked everyone who has participated in the hypnotherapy groups I have facilitated: 
Would you be willing to learn something useful that you may not know you have learned, nor how you have learned it? 
Learning: to control our bladder and bowels; to see something, reach for it, and grab it; to use a spoon, drink from a glass; to skip; to make sounds, to speak; to control a pencil, to play catch…. To learn about being in relationship: how to play with others, work on a project with others, provide value to others and get paid for it, form and maintain satisfying relationships, care for one’s self and others, raise children....

I invite you to consider that the much of what you learn—that forms the core competencies and understandings upon which you build your life—occurs without your conscious direction of the process. Furthermore, the learning occurs without requiring that you have conscious awareness of having learned anything. Yet, you still benefit from what you have learned! And this is normal for how we learn much of what we learn! 

It is this natural unself-conscious / unconscious learning which hypnotherapy engages. 
I’ll illustrate this kind of learning with a story of how we each come to walk.

We learn to stand on our two feet from the head down
There was a time when you didn’t know how to lift your head. When Mother entrusted someone to hold you, she’d say, “Be sure to support the baby’s head.”

Learning to balance your head between your shoulders
Gradually, you learned to turn your head, lift it and lower it. If someone held you under your arms, you could hold your head upright. You learned to balance your head between your shoulders.

This is an important milestone in learning to walk: The means by which you sense your balance is located in your inner ear, so you first need to balance your head between your shoulders in order to have a stable reference for learning to balance the rest of you. Of course you didn’t consciously decide to learn to hold your head up; you simply learned it naturally when you—your muscles, nervous system, and coordination—were ready.

Learning to balance from the waist up; learning to stay balanced while moving
Once you could reliably balance your head between your shoulders, then you naturally began learning to sit up. Then when you could reliably keep your own balance from the waist up, you explored keeping your balance while moving—either crawling on all fours or scooting around on your butt. 

None of this happened because you woke up in the morning and said to yourself, “I gotta put in my 6 hours today in learning how to walk.” You were not motivated by some idea of what you could do—climb a mountain, run, shop at a supermarket without being carried or wheeled around in the cart—once you had walking down. Toddlers don’t think that way. They are engaged fully in the unfolding of their own experience, exploring themselves and their world. And in the course of that unfolding and exploring, an immense amount of learning takes place, including learning to walk. 
Learning to stand on your hind legs
When you were ready—on average at about 10 to 15 months old, you naturally find something the right height to grab with your hands and begin exploring standing on your hind legs. You teeter a lot, and you fall down a lot.

Being out of balance is how you learn a new balance
That’s how you learn a new balance… by being out of balance and learning to make adjustments to stay up. Sometimes you forget to keep sufficient muscle tension around your knees… those muscles relax, your legs bend… and down you go. Sometimes, as you teeter, one foot comes off the ground, and then comes down again as you catch your balance. Your first step? It’s hard to tell, the process is all so gradual. But it happens.

Although others may help, it is your learning
You accomplished this complex task of learning to walk. Parents may be supportive and appreciative of Baby learning to walk, but they didn’t learn it for you. It was your learning… and you learned it at the pace and in the manner that was right for you… and you learned it so well you don’t even think about it. Now, you just do it.

Characteristics of unconscious learning
1)    Like all learning, it is gradual. Learning to walk, to talk, to understand language, to read, to write… each is too complex to learn all at once. Such learning is an incremental, time- and attention-consuming process.

2)    We do not consciously set a goal for what we will learn. From the conscious mind’s point of view, “it just happens.”

3)    We are not consciously aware that we are learning anything even when we are in the process of learning it.

When we learn something in this way, it is not a notable event. We don’t know that we are learning, or have learned, or what we’ve learned. Like finally learning to walk, we just use it. 

As adults, we still have the ability to learn this way; we don’t out grow it
Even as an adult, we continue to learn from our experiences, both good and bad—about our work, relationships, parenting,… and more. We can’t help but learn—any more than a toddler can help but learn to walk or talk. We typically don’t turn the bits and pieces of our life experience into a conscious story about, say, “how I learned to hold my own stance and set boundaries”—any more than we built a detailed story about how we learned to walk. We just do it. 
"My learning over the years was that I tried to direct… too much. It took a long time to let things develop and make use of things as they developed."

"Life isn’t something you can give an answer to today. You should enjoy the process of waiting, the process of becoming what you are. There is nothing more delightful than planting flower seeds and not knowing what kind of flowers are going to come up."

              — Milton H. Erickson (both quotes, 1979, see References, below)

Milton H. Erickson (1901 - 1980): These quotes are from a set of posters published by Milton H. Erickson Foundation, 3606 North 24th Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85016.

Erickson was the primary teacher of my mentors, Nancy Winston and Paul Lounsbury.

Milton H. Erickson's experimental and therapeutic explorations with the hypnotic modality span more than 50 years. His successful rejuvenation of the entire field may be attributed to his development of the non-authoritarian, indirect approaches to suggestion wherein subjects learn how to experience hypnotic phenomena and how to utilize their own potentials to solve problems in their own way.

Erickson is generally acknowledged to have been the world's leading practitioner of medical hypnosis. His writings on hypnosis have been a primary source for several generations of clinicians on techniques of inducing trance, experimental work exploring the possibilities and limits of the hypnotic experience and investigations of the nature of the relationship between hypnotist and subject.

Erickson was the founder of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and founding editor of both the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

(Excerpted and adapted from Ernest Rossi's preface to “The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis” (1980) Irvington Publisherts, Inc., NY)


youtube video about Milton Erickson
More about Milton Erickson
Selected bibliography about Ericksonian hypnotherapy

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"Of course you didn’t consciously decide to learn to hold your head up; you simply learned it naturally when you—your muscles, nervous system, and coordination—were ready."

I would add that that "readiness for action (change)" and actual action taking are mutually causal. There's often a 'doing' that gets one ready, and a readiness that gets one doing.