Unlearning Is the New Learning: A Neuroscientific and Theological Case for How and Why to See the World Differently

Learning, as it turns out, was the easy part. Anyone who has observed a young child mimic the behavior of others knows how naturally children learn from their environment. Unlearning, on the other hand, takes maturity, discipline, and equal parts courage and humility. Unlearning, as discussed here, requires conscious effort to reflect on past learning in order to create the possibility of new future learning that goes beyond our passively formulated, yet operative, mental constructs that undergird how we understand the world, ourselves, and the people around us. Unlearning is the imperative of a maturing mind that recognizes the perennial importance of seeing things rightly. If unlearning is the new learning, so to speak, how does one go about unlearning and what difference does it make?

Bike riding offers a good illustration of the vexing mechanics of unlearning. The logic behind the commonplace phrase “it’s like riding a bike” suggests a resilience and durability to human learning, which can be a double-edged sword. It’s relatively easy to learn—and then remember how—to ride a bike. That's good, unless the way we originally learned to ride a bicycle no longer works in a new set of circumstances. In an episode of Smarter Every Day, the show’s host, Destin, reversed a bicycle’s steering mechanism so that turning the handlebars to the left would steer the bike to the right and vice versa. Destin then took his normal-looking, backwards-working bike to demonstrations around the world, inviting volunteers to try their hand at riding it. Regardless of athleticism or self-confidence, no one could manage to stay upright more than a few feet. It took Destin eight months of practicing every day before he could ride it and even then he had to stay completely focused or he would instinctively revert to trying to steer the old way.

Destin’s whimsical experiment also suggests a troubling, real-world downside of the brain’s tenacity to cling to habitual behaviors and thought processes. Countless events of the past year underscore the urgent need to recalibrate our understanding of the world and our place in it. But the experiences of being in quarantine, or watching the video of George Floyd’s death, or reading coronavirus statistics do not “automatically” create new learning in anyone. Our brains are constantly interpreting everything we see and hear, and in a highly digitally-mediated era, much of what we read and watch is already someone else’s interpretation. In order to truly learn anything new—rather than finding further evidence of what we already believe—the first thing we need to learn is how and what to unlearn. And this new kind of learning is about much more than our GPA or IQ: what is at stake is the very lives of people of color, the common good in the midst of a global pandemic, and the health of our planet.

To better understand the complex processes by which we develop our initial beliefs, often unconsciously, about the world and other people and the work it takes for our mental constructs to change and develop, we need to examine the neuroscience of how our brains learn things. There are approximately 86 billion brain cells, called neurons, in the adult human brain. Neurons are kept company by approximately 86 billion other brain cells called glial cells.[1] Together, neurons and glia carry out the brain's daily activities ranging from body temperature regulation and body movement to complex functions like language generation and problem-solving. The approximately 172 billion cells in our brains work in teams to help us respond physically and cognitively to our environment. What we know about the world is rooted in the neural networks of our brains; teams of brain cells are involved in making connections called synapses that allow brain cells to communicate, as well as store information and memories.

Memory is associative, meaning that learning is easier when you can link, or associate, new information with old information. In other words, our brains take advantage of existing neural networks (built on previous experience and learning) that contain related information so the brain is not building from scratch every time we learn something new. When navigating unfamiliar circumstances, our brains take in all of the new information while simultaneously drawing on and making associations with previous experience. This problem solving requires drawing upon previous experience or previously learned information, or in some cases pieces of information. Because our brains necessarily associate new information with old information to problem solve, this process can often give us a false sense that we know more about a new situation than we actually do. The brain’s propensity to fit new experiences into our previously established mental frameworks leads us to sometimes think we already know much of what we need to in a new situation. Well-established psychological principles such as the Dunning-Kruger effect and the Four Levels of Competence document the tendency of individuals with the lowest skill levels to overestimate their ability or skill.[2]

Associative memory also means our brains are experts at building bridges between ideas and experiences, but our brains don’t leave unfilled “holes” that represent experiences we have not yet had or information that we have not yet learned. Learning ultimately comes from scaffolding new synapses within and across the existing synaptic network, so the notion of unlearning can be thought of as a conscious effort to identify where there should be a “hole,” or where our experience and knowledge are lacking. Unlearning can take place when we intentionally reflect on experiences that we’ve had and consciously identify the types of experiences that are missing. By identifying the depth and breadth of our missing experience, we can begin to identify what we only think we know, but don’t yet have the existing synapses to understand.  

Unlearning is neither forgetting nor removing old information, experiences, or ways of thinking; instead, it is building new patterns of synaptic communication that can support different ways of thinking. In order to store new information into our neural networks, our brains need to create new synapses and then repeatedly use these new synapses so that they become operative as part of the permanent architecture of our brain’s neural network. The saying in neuroscience, “Neurons that fire together wire together,” means we only really learn what we spend time thinking about, a concept known as Hebbian plasticity.[3] Reflective exercises such as journaling significantly facilitate the creation and use of new synapses and thus leads to new ways of thinking and learning. Rather than passively creating new synapses as we unconsciously absorb information from our environment and experiences, the work of unlearning entails actively supporting the creation of new synapses by consciously comparing previous beliefs with information from new experiences, seeking to identify gaps in our experience and misalignments with what we claim to value.

One example of the effortful and important work of unlearning can be found in Maria’s story, who spent a recent summer working alongside individuals whose backgrounds included prostitution, drug use, and criminal convictions. For Maria, it was her first time interacting with individuals who had these experiences. It takes courage as well as humility to admit the limitations of one’s perspective as Maria did at the outset of her service work:

The problem is that I’ve closed myself off to problems that don’t directly affect me and positioned myself in a bubble. [...] I created in my head a tunnel, where I only care about the people who are like myself. I don’t know the first thing about talking to someone who has been to prison. I don’t know how to ask someone about their past with drugs.

Without realizing it, Maria had “learned” to make exclusively negative assumptions about broad categories of people she had never met. The first necessary step in unlearning is becoming self-aware, as Maria did, of how our own inherently limited life experience and knowledge affect our understanding.

As we saw earlier regarding the process by which our brains create and activate new synapses, Maria’s process of unlearning required the difficult work of literally changing the way her brain worked. Maria opened herself to new information that helped her identify assumptions that had previously filled in the “holes” in her knowledge. Summarizing some of her changed perspectives, Maria wrote:

I began to think of police officers in a different way instead of those positioned on the side of the highways. I stopped thinking of jails as punishment centers and instead as hospitals. But I came to find that the inmates are thought to be better when they come out of prison, only to be largely affected by the gross mistreatment of the prison system.

Unlearning what Maria previously thought created mental space for her to start seeing the people she was working with as persons with dignity and worth who can't be summed up or dismissed as simply "prostitutes," "addicts," and "criminals." Like Maria, each of us are socialized by and passively learn countless lessons from our environments and the information we are exposed to, especially as children.[4] It is the noble task of a maturing mind to actively reflect on our experiences and worldview, to intentionally seek out new relationships in unfamiliar contexts, and to commit ourselves to the exciting and sometimes exhausting work of unlearning.

Some observations from theology can further supplement the case from neuroscience for the importance of unlearning. Robert Barron suggests the Greek term metanoiete, which is related to the terms for conversion and repentance, is best translated as “to go beyond the mind that you have.”[5] Whereas the term “conversion” has come to connote an extrinsic change in one’s religious affiliation, metanoia refers to a reconfiguration and transformation of one’s very mind, and thus is something of a theological cognate to the neuroscientific process we’ve been describing as unlearning. Few illustrations of metanoia match the dramatic clarity of St. Paul’s infamous conversion in the New Testament.  

St. Paul might well serve as the patron saint of “unlearning” (should the Vatican ever find the need of designating a saint for such). Paul was highly intelligent and had been educated by the preeminent scholar of his day, Gamaliel. He had learned a way of seeing the world as divided among Gentiles, Jews, and apostate Jews who followed a man called Jesus Christ. The ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles recounts Paul “breathing murderous threats” while traveling to Damascus to detain and imprison followers of Jesus when “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him” (Acts 9: 1,3). Then, a voice that his companions could not hear addressed Paul and “for three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).

Darkness can be a form of temporary blindness since we need light to see, but Paul, interestingly, was blinded by an excess of light. The conditions are most ripe for unlearning when we are confronted by a preponderance of new stimuli and information in an unfamiliar context and when forming new relationships with people whose backgrounds are different from our own. Paul’s previous way of seeing the world was too small, his field of vision too narrow, and he needed to pass through a period of unseeing en route to seeing differently. Paul’s conversion, while undoubtedly dramatic, was not instantaneous. Unlearning takes time as our brains create new synapses within our neural networks that aid us in making new connections and see what before was invisible to us.

While still in this state of total blindness, Paul’s companions “led him by the hand” the rest of the way to Damascus, where God instructs a Christian named Ananias to go help the much-feared Paul (Acts 9:8). Ananias initially finds it easier to confront God than come face to face with his fellow mortal Paul: “Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13). Ananias then has his own change of heart, goes to find Paul, and in a gesture of deep religious significance and mutual vulnerability, places his hands on Paul’s head, and “immediately things like scales fell from [Paul’s] eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength” (Acts 9:18-19). For Paul, a highly intelligent, educated, and driven individual, it is noteworthy that his transformative breakthrough required considerable vulnerability in allowing himself to be led blind to a new city and then, while still blind and defenseless, asking for help from someone he initially saw as a threat. Paul’s conversion taught him that unlearning often requires the courage as well as the humility to open oneself to the wisdom and support of others whose experiences, abilities, and convictions differ from our own.

The account of Paul’s conversion unmistakably centers on divine intervention as well. The heavenly light, the voice from above that no one but Paul hears, God’s command to Ananias, the scales miraculously falling from his eyes: the story tilts beyond the empirically verifiable realm of neuroscience. If learning constitutes an essential function of what it is to be human, then unlearning could be described as a process—often aided by others but perhaps also at times mysteriously and divinely graced—by which we become more humane. And if we—individually and collectively—learn anything in 2021, may it be what it means to be more truly and fully human.

[1] Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain. J Comp Neurol. 2009 Apr 10;513(5):532-4.

[2] Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. By Kruger, Justin, Dunning, David. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec 1999, 1121-1134. For further discussion of The Four Levels of Competence, see http://www.wordsfitlyspoken.org/gospel_guardian/v20/v20n41p1-3a.html and http://www.gordontraining.com/free-workplace-articles/learning-a-new-skill-is-easier-said-than-done/.

[3] Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, T.H. Brown, Y. Zhao, V. Leung 2009, Pages 1049–1056.

[4] For further discussion of the impact of socialization, see Power, Privilege, and Difference. 2nd edition. Allen Johnson. Fig 2 p 79.


[5] Robert Barron, “And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation,” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p. 4.

Featured Image: Natalia Goncharova, Cyclist, 1913; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Before-1923.


Nancy Michael and Ben Wilson

Nancy Michael is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Notre Dame. Ben Wilson is the Director of the Summer Service Learning Program at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns.

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