Learning with two minds

I'm currently reading a couple of books in cognitive neuroscience that I discovered in the bibliography of a wonderful book that I read last month: U-Turn What if you woke up one morning and realized you were living the wrong life? These books are adding insights about brain functioning that relate to the problems we see everyday with learners. They suggest that most of our conduct is unconscious and conflicted with our intentions. It's looking like we are hard wired to be hypocrites.

Coincidentally, Ray Sims just wrote about Presence (Peter Senge, et al.). Senge's work builds on Chris Argyris's model of single and double loop learning with led to Donald Schon's writing about reflective practitioners. All this relates to the two, separate minds that are getting clarified by cognitive neuroscience. Here's a primer on some of the effects of learning with two minds.

The unconscious mind maintains a goal of replication without conscious awareness, choice or interference. The conscious mind innovates, reasons, chooses and rethinks.

The unconscious mind resolves two issues: survival and success. It learns to stay out of trouble and perpetuates those avoidance tactics. It learns to succeed in ways that increase power and control of situations. The conscious mind learns to relate to others, understand other viewpoints, and consider long term effects of actions. The conscious mind can choose to fail in order to learn more and explore danger that is ordinarily avoided.

The unconscious mind takes evidence literally. It learns to react to the facts and maintain stances based on that obsolete data. It conforms the contradictory information to established categories. The conscious mind learns to handle increasing complexity of meaning, interpretation and framing of facts. The conscious mind changes with new information and hypothetical reasoning.

The unconscious mind learns effortlessly with very little energy spent. The conscious mind learns laboriously with a significant drain on the body's energy resources.

The unconscious mind jumps to conclusions and then revises it's fixations slowly. Assessments are habitual, closed circuits that cannot question themselves (single loop). The conscious mind learns from contradictions, feedback and consequences to take different approaches and utilize other patterns (double loop, reflective practice).

This suggests we naturally pick up habits, examples, routines without conscious awareness. All we need is immersion in situations that challenge us to come up with new fixations to replicate ad infinitum. We can then execute these resources without thinking, slowing down or trying.

This unconscious learning relates to autotelic experiences that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described in Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The learning is done for its own sake (replication) not external goal attainment (innovation). The flow experience occurs because thinking is unnecessary. We lose our self in the process of executing unconscious resources.


  1. Beautifully said.

    I've had these pieces laying around my desk for a long time and you put them together very nicely for me.

    Thank you.

  2. Re: "...a wonderful book that I read last month: U-Turn What if you woke up one morning and realized you were living the wrong life?"
    I agree.
    FYI, (1) more on the book and author, Bruce Grierson, (including suggested readings) ;
    (2) for a descriptive review,