As human beings we must learn if we are to ensure our survival, to adapt to the ever-changing threats and opportunities with which we are confronted. As a result we are born as learning machines, capable of great achievements with or without the help of others.
Of course, we do start off with some basic, but still absolutely essential capabilities. At an instinctive, ‘visceral’ level, we are hard-wired to react positively to situations that, throughout our evolutionary history, have provided us with the promise of food, warmth or protection. Similarly, we are predisposed to respond negatively to those situations which have historically represented danger. These responses, positive or negative, are emotional ones, alerting the rest of the brain and sending signals to the muscles.
Beyond this rather primitive level, the brain is also capable of acquiring and then applying all sorts of skills and behaviours needed to function effectively in the world. Some of these are so important, they are set up in advance. As Norman describes : “The human brain comes ready for language: the architecture of the brain, the way the different components are structured and interact, constrains the very nature of language. Moreover the learning is automatic: we may have to go to school to learn to read and write, but not to listen and speak.”
Once these behaviours are firmly established through repetition, the brain is quite capable of carrying them out routinely without any conscious effort. There are literally thousands of things that all humans can do without trying, without giving a second thought; a state that some educationalists have referred to as ‘unconscious competence’.
According to Norman, Ortony and Russell, psychologists at Northwestern University, the brain operates at three levels. The first two, the visceral and the behavioural, are sub-conscious, as we have seen. The third is of a higher order. It allows us to reflect on our experiences and communicate these reflections to others. And because the lower level functions look after themselves, we can do all this while we carry out all sorts of everyday behaviours, the one sense in which we can genuinely multi-task.
Just as the behavioural level of the brain can enhance and inhibit our responses at the visceral level (so we don’t have to run and hide if we encounter a spider, and so we can develop a taste for bitter tasting food and drink if that’s what we like), the reflective level can enhance or inhibit our behaviours, so we can improve our performance or react to change. As an aside, the reflective level can also get in the way of performance, as tennis or golf players will attest when their inner voice berates them for their shortcomings and questions their ability to perform shots that have long since been assimilated into ‘muscle memory’. Timothy Gallwey has done very well with his Inner Game books, persuading players to ignore their reflective minds and ‘just do it’.
Well life isn’t just a game of tennis (more’s the pity). We need our reflective minds to investigate, question, contemplate and generalise. That’s what makes us human. That’s how we grow and adapt. As Jay Cross concludes, “Learning = adaptation. The strength of the human mind … is its ability to adapt to a change in circumstances. We call this learning.”
Emotional Design by Donald A Norman, Basic Books, 2004
The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, Jonathan Cape, 1975
Coming next in chapter 3: A little reflection does us good
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