The Art of Learning

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This is the second blog in a two part series about our brains and how we learn. In the first blog we discussed fixed versus growth mindsets and how our thought patterns help determine our brain’s map. Next we are going to delve further into how the brain works, how it processes information and how we learn. To begin, let’s look at a breakdown of the human brain. The human brain consists of three separate brains, responsible for different aspects of thinking, behaving and reacting.

Our reptilian brain sits within the brain stem. It is our old brain, the one we share with reptiles, and it is responsible for keeping us alive. It controls the things we have no conscious control over. Eg: our breathing, our digestion, our heartbeat, our reflexes and our fight/flight/freeze response.

Our limbic brain is our emotional brain, it is the one we share with mammals. Our limbic brain is responsible for our memories and judgement. It is where loyalty and fear reside. It is also where all decisions are made. If you’ve ever been in a confrontation and wanted to react immediately based on your emotions only to realise later that perhaps you’ve overreacted, you were hanging out in your limbic brain.

Our neocortex is our rational or thinking brain. Humans are the only species with this evolved brain. It allows us to have an awareness of ourselves, as well as of the past and the future. It also ensures we can problem solve, use language to communicate, analyse and rationalise situations. For the purpose of this discussion we are going to call it the ‘thinking brain’.

The interesting thing to note is that although we often use our ’thinking brain’  to rationalise something, we have to return to our limbic brain to actually make the decision. It is also fascinating to acknowledge that the language centre of our brain and the emotional centre of our brain exist in two separate parts - the neo cortex and the limbic respectively. This explains why people often struggle to describe how they are feeling. Someone who is in love might say “words cannot describe how I feel about you”. This is a very accurate statement.  Your brain does not know how to articulate or verbalise an emotion because the two are disconnected -  they occur in different parts of your brain.

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 According to the English Oxford Dictionary, the definition of learning is to “gain or acquire knowledge of or a skill (in something) by study, experience or by being taught.” When we think of learning we usually think of education, schooling or university. We associate learning with being taught something by somebody else. This is called explicit learning. Explicit learning is when you acquire information from an external source, eg: somebody else is telling you what to do and how to do it. It can be instructional, directive, step-by-step or suggestive. Explicit learning occurs in our ‘thinking brain’,  it is rational, analysed and cerebral.

When you learn explicitly you are consciously aware that you are learning.

 

Then we have the other type of learning; implicit learning. Implicit learning has been a controversial topic in psychology since the term was first coined by Arthur Reber in 1967 (although pioneer studies of the concept date back much longer). Originally it was said to be “the learning of complex information in an incidental manner.” Other phrases that have been thrown around are “accidental learning” or “learning without awareness.” For the purpose of this discussion we are going to go with Stadler and Frensch’s definition that “learning is implicit when the learning process is unaffected by intention.”(Stadler, M.A.; Frensch, P.A. (1994)

Implicit learning often occurs when you’re busy doing something else which is why it is often explained as unconscious learning. For example when learning to ride a bike your intention is to not fall off. However the unconscious learning is the balancing, gauging speed relative to effort, assessing distance and interpreting the movements of other objects around you such as people, cars and other cyclists. Your intention was not to learn any of those things and you probably weren’t even consciously aware you were learning them. They were happening as a result of the situation you were put in. That is learning unaffected by intention.

Implicit learning relates to the individual's experience or interpretation. It is a form of self learning that is not cognitive, but rather intuitive or felt. Learning implicitly occurs in the brain stem and requires you to use all of your senses. At Movementality, we believe that you are incredibly aware when you are implicitly learning, maybe just not cognitively aware. Implicit learning cannot be instructed by another person, it comes from you! You have to pay attention to your senses. You have to put yourself in challenging situations which require you to do something new.

Both explicit and implicit learning are valuable and have their purpose in Pilates. Explicit information is required to help set up an exercise, ensure you are safe and understand anatomical cues. It is why we have an instructor! However there is also an element of implicit learning which we can all tap into much more. There is a missing link that the instructor cannot give you, and that’s your interpretation of how your body feels when you do an exercise. What your breath feels like in your body, your experience of how your muscles and bones move, your sense of balance and the amount of effort you need are just a few examples. There is so much implicit learning that occurs in Pilates because it is a ‘doing’ thing. You cannot just think about Pilates to be doing it, you have to physically execute the movements and exercises and the implicit learning that can occur when you do Pilates is extraordinary.

 

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Why is implicit learning so powerful?

Unlike explicit learning which occurs in the neocortex (thinking brain), implicit learning happens within the brain stem. Studies have shown that when we learn implicitly, the information actually embeds itself more firmly in our brain. There is also research to indicate that explicit information often escapes us when we are fatigued or put under serious stress. Our ‘thinking brain’  is the first to switch off when our bodies feel the need to be in fight or flight and therefore things like exams can trigger a loss of explicit information. If we have learned something implicitly on the other hand it is ingrained and therefore we are able to hold onto that information through tiring or stressful conditions.

So the next time you feel like your instructor is asking you lots of questions about how you feel, or maybe even walks away from you during an exercise, you can know that they are implying that there is an opportunity for you to learn intrinsically. Beside they don’t have all the answers, a large portion of the learning has to come from you!

 

Ways to improve your implicit learning in Pilates

1. Ask your questions inwardly (sometimes) - when you feel the urge to ask your instructor to reiterate something or confirm something for you, stop yourself from asking them and ask yourself instead. Rather than analyse the exercise with your mind, do the exercise and see if you can find a solution through how it feels. Of course there are times where you need to ask questions and the instructor is there to assist with that, but your Pilates practise shouldn’t ever be 100% reliant on your instructor. Your Pilates practise is the building of a relationship between you and your body.

 

2. Listen to your breath - see if your breath can assist you in the exercises. If you feel stuck in a movement, try to come back to your breath. Not only is breathing rhythmic is also anatomically assists you in activating your core which will help you find more flow as you move through exercises.

 

3. Use imagery and visualisation - listen for

the cues that are based on imagery or visual stimulus. Better yet, see if you can come up with your own imagery for how something feels. If your brain can imagine something the already exists and liken it to what you are currently feeling or doing, you are more likely to grasp the feeling faster. For more information about imagery see The Franklin Method.

 

4. Spend time balancing - Practising balancing gives you the intent not to fall but it requires you to do a whole lot of other organising in your body to achieve that intent, therefore balance teaches you to implicitly learn. It requires you to respond immediately to the stimulus without analysing or rationalising why or how.

- The Art of Doing - the doing is the most important part. If in doubt, practise practise practise! If you are spending your lesson thinking about how you are going to do it, you are in the wrong part of your brain for implicit learning to occur. Pilates is a physical practise and the doing of Pilates is the best way to learn how to do Pilates well!

 

Have fun learning!

 

References:

  • https://en.oxforddictionaries.com

  • Stadler, M.A.; Frensch, P.A. (1994). "Whither learning, whither memory?". Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4805647 (article by Karin. J)

  • Workshops with Janet Karin (2017) and The Australian Ballet School (2017)