What Does It Mean to Unlearn?

Margaret Wheatley <mjw@berkana.org>

I read these extraordinary autobiographies as the stories of individuals noticing how theyíve been conditioned to see the world, learning to think critically about their experiences, and striving to see the world through new eyes. I love the stories and learned a great deal from them. But I do not regard them as examples of "unlearning." For several years, the term "unlearning" has provoked a strong negative reaction in me. Iíve thought about why I react this way, especially because each of these tales is very instructive. As Iíve explored my reaction to the concept, Iíve concluded that itís more than personal word aversion. I think the image of "unlearning" moves us away from more robust understandings of how we humans and all life grow and develop. Iím interested in surfacing how a concept like "unlearning" reflects invisible cultural assumptions about the way the world works. (In describing these assumptions, I do not believe that any of them were evident to these authors.)

To begin with, unlearning conveys an image of the material brain. It portrays the brain as the place we store things, limited in what it can hold, needing to be emptied before we can pour in more knowledge. This, of course, harks back to the "empty vessel" notion of education, where students passively receive the wisdom of their teachers as it is poured into them. I must admit that frequently I feel as if my own brain canít hold another thing, that itís bursting with information overload. But I never think that I have to "empty" it, or undo whatís in there, before I go on to learn something else. So part of my dislike of the concept of unlearning stems from this sense that itís embedded in the image of brain-as-storage-facility.

At a more fundamental level, unlearning is not how life works. We donít unlearn first, and then learn something new. Life is always engaged in learning. Period. Whether we are conscious humans or wondrously adaptive bacteria, we are always engaged in taking in information and reacting to what we perceive. We perceive the world according to who we are, how weíve perceived it in the past. If we want to see the world differently, we do have to break out of our perceptual filters and habits of seeing. We do need to break with our past and actively strive to see things differently. But I wouldnít call this unlearning. Itís active learning, wrestling ourselves out of the confines of our world view, actively engaged in taking in new information, and then interpreting that with new eyes. Weíre not undoing our world view, itís not deconstruction weíre involved in. Itís creation and the evolution of newness, which is what all life engages in. Living systems are synonymous with learning systems. We canít help but be learning; we never pause to unlearn before we engage in learning and adaptation.

There is a second dynamic at play in all living systems that feels relevant here, that of emergence. Emergence describes the sudden appearance of a new insight, a new system, a new capacity. It is the core organizing dynamic of life, what happens when disparate parts, ideas, people become connected. What emerges is something of greater complexity and capacity than the separate parts that created this emergence. Always, what emerges comes from whatís already present. Emergent systems, ideas, capacities can never be deconstructed, we canít work backwards to figure out exactly where the emergent phenomenon came from or what exactly caused it. And itís also impossible to work backwards to change it. In life, you canít undo anything. You can change, but not through undoing or unlearning.

This is my fundamental problem with "unlearning." It describes an unnatural possibility. We deconstruct our perception or world view, and then create something new. It would be more accurate, and one that incorporates emergence, to describe the process as trying to step outside our perceptions, to see if we can stand apart from the world view that has emerged in us, and create a new perceptual lens with which to interpret the world. Life moves forward, creating newness out of whatís already present, moving toward greater complexity and organization. The only time this forward movement stops is when the entire system falls apart and dissolves into chaos, a period of absolute deconstruction. At such a time, the past has very little influence, and there is maximum opportunity to create something new. The need then is to create something new from the rubble of the past.

In these autobiographical accounts of unlearning, I observe people consciously trying to see past their current perceptual filters which have emerged over the course of their lives. Theyíre engaged in creating a new world view that seems more in tune with current realities. These authors are consciously acting to see the world differently, organizing information into different perceptual patterns that can yield a new understanding of the world. It may be more accurate to describe their efforts as "repatterning" rather than unlearning.

This process of repatterning is described in some current brain research. Each time we practice a new behavior, we create new neural pathways. Over time, these new pathways take over and become our perceptual habits. We no longer have to be conscious about what we do or how we see, until we again want to change them.1 I believe in the efficacy of creating new patterns, both perceptual and behavioral, as the means to change. First, I must be able to see the pattern, or the perceptual filter Iím using. I must be able to step outside of my habitual responses and realize that there are other ways of seeing and behaving. If I can step outside myself for a moment as the observer or witness self, I become free. I can see my response for what it is, one among many possible ones. With this insight, I have choice. I can continue to respond in my habitual way, or I can choose to experiment with a new response. This is how we change, by being able to see what weíre doing, and realizing we can choose to respond differently. This freedom to choose is characteristic of all living organisms. Every living being retains this freedom ó to decide what it will notice, and then to determine how it will react.

In this process, I am fully alive, actively learning. If I then choose to try a new behavior, I practice that until it becomes my dominant mode, my habitual lens or response. At the point where it becomes habit, and I cease being active, I become less vibrant, a bit deadened. Whenever we need to feel again the fire of life, to feel creative and open to new possibilities, we donít do this by unlearning. We awaken ourselves by reengaging both our consciousness and our freedom to choose. We become eager learners, willing to see differently and thereby moving, as life does, toward newness and greater possibility.

1 This physical description of what goes on in the brain may be true, although my own experience with cognitive and neuroscience is that they provide physical explanations for phenomena that are, in the end, inexplicable at the physical level. Many neuro scientists can explain brilliantly how electrical impulses move through the brains, resulting in thoughts, movements, perceptions. But no one can explain where those impulses start from. When it comes to first causes, neuroscience canít explain any of it.