The Importance of Unlearning and Relearning

By Jimmy Warden

After reading some of Adam Grant’s recent book, Think Again, I have come to the realization of how important it is for us to unlearn and relearn. There is so much information out there today on the internet that it can be extremely challenging to sift through myths, facts, and biased research. This can make for some hairy, minimally informed understandings (and lots of misunderstandings) that people have on various topics. If we don’t engage in the process of unlearning and relearning, we could end up in a place that we never believed we would be.

What is Unlearning and Relearning?

Let me first take some time to explain what it means to unlearn and relearn. This is a process that people engage in to challenge their previously held beliefs, thoughts, and knowledge on topics that are held near and dear to their hearts. It is the process that we take part in when we try to examine our preconceived notions by analyzing information that we don’t agree with. In an analogy, it can be thought of as “updating our brain”. Just like computers needing new software updates, our brain also needs to unlearn and relearn information in order to make advances.

An example of unlearning and relearning that I have recently taken part in is my thoughts and beliefs on the concept of multitasking. When I first heard of the term, I just like a lot of people, believed it was indeed a real thing. Then, one day while in a cognitive psychology class during my undergraduate degree days at Norwich, my cognitive psychology professor Mark Stefani absolutely blew my mind when he said that there really is no such thing as multitasking.

During his lecture that day, he informed us that when we think we are multitasking, we are in fact task switching, due to the fact that our brain engages in this start and stop process each time we take on a new task. In order for me to accept this as the truth, I had to get rid of my previously held beliefs and thoughts around the concept and re-configure them based on the new information that was presented. After that, I also agreed with the evidence that Professor Stefani presented to us that day, and since then I’ve held that belief. That is until I listened to a recent neuroscience podcast in which Stanford Professor, Andrew Huberman stated that multitasking is something that people can do. His argument was that the brain can focus on two things simultaneously, however, the brain does have a heavier focus on one task over the other. The example he cited was adults having a dinner while watching their children. They are tasting and experiencing the food they’re eating, while trying to make sure their children are behaving.

After hearing this, I had to rethink my beliefs around multi-tasking. So, I went to the research. After navigating through multiple articles with links to scientific studies, I came back to the conclusion that multitasking really does not exist. It made me see the flaw in Huberman’s thinking because he even stated that the brain is more focused on one thing than the other in the example he had, which is a lot like the concept that Professor Stefani, along with many other psychologists state, that the brain is merely focused on one thing, then it switches its attention to something else. Therefore, in the case of Huberman, the adults are mostly focused on their meal, until their child, or children, do something that needs their attention.

Why should we unlearn and relearn?

One reason that we should try to engage in the process of unlearning and relearning is the fact that the world around us is constantly changing, for better or worse. This is happening at a lightning fast pace and there are no signs of slowing down. If we don’t try to keep up, we could very easily be left behind. Even Grant states, “The accelerating pace of change means that we need to question our beliefs more readily than ever before. Vintage records, classic cars, and antique clocks might be valuable collectibles, but outdated facts are mental fossils that are best abandoned”.

A prime example of this is from Grant’s book, when he tells the story about the former CEO of BlackBerry, Mike Lazaridis. His first crack at the smartphone industry was his invention of the BlackBerry, which was the first device that had the ability to send and receive emails, therefore its profits blew up upon its initial release in 1999. However, BlackBerry’s success was short-lived, as their profits over the next several years quickly plummeted, due to their failure to adapt with the times. Other devices like the iPhone were much more innovative in their approach with the smartphone as they added features like touchscreens, apps, and an internet browser, while BlackBerry CEO Lazaridis stuck to his guns and kept the features of the BlackBerry the same, despite employee requests as early as 1997 to add an internet browser to it. As a result, BlackBerry became obsolete in the smartphone industry because of their CEO’s failure to adapt.

Another reason that we should try to engage in unlearning and relearning is the fact that it will result in us having a broader, more open perspective on many topics. Over time, we’ll gain more insight to the ideas we thought we knew, as well as the ideas we genuinely didn’t know. Having this perspective can help us develop more humility and vulnerability in our thinking, considering we’ll be thinking more like a scientist, rather than a preacher, politician, or prosecutor. These are ways of thinking that Grant cites in his book. The scientist is the skeptic that digs deep for answers by searching for evidence, especially that which challenges their bias. Meanwhile, the preacher just preaches their preciously held thoughts and beliefs on matters, unwilling to change their mind, because their thoughts and beliefs are gospel. Not only that, but preachers are also very quick to prosecute the thoughts, beliefs, and information that disprove their stance. This is what people do when attacking arguments, as they attack small parts of the other argument in order to prove the other side’s argument wrong. This is also when the politician comes into play as they try to sway the neutral folks into agreeing with their side of the argument as a result of preaching their cherry picked facts and prosecuting small parts of the other side’s argument.

When we actually unlearn and relearn, we are attempting to get rid of our biases that lead to the vicious cycle of preaching, prosecuting, and politicking. The reason for this is due to the fact that one needs humility in order to get rid of preconceived notions and be open to change. There was even a note in Think Again that states, “the root of humility comes from a Latin phrase that means ‘of the earth'”. Therefore, having humility is a way for us to be grounded as humans. If we are wanting to evolve our thinking, and transcend thoughts and beliefs based on evidence, we must allow ourselves to grow our roots rather than let them rot. This results in becoming more thoughtful with seeking evidence that doesn’t have confirmation bias or desirability bias. These two types of bias tend to stand in the way of our ability to change our thinking, along with the ability to engage in metacognition, which is thinking about our thinking. Confirmation bias is when we seek evidence that supports our previously held thoughts and beliefs (this is how the cycle of preaching, prosecuting, and politicking begins) and desirability bias is when we believe in what we think others want us to believe in. This is how politicians are able to sway people. They create a sense of desirability with their explanations of how their “if elected” plans will improve the world. That message of improvement also speaks to specific groups of people to confirm their bias about how the world could improve, which makes those people believe that that is what is best for them and others, so as a result, they vote for that politician. However, if we want to make true changes, and start to advance in our lives, we must actively challenge our own thoughts, and become more thoughtful in what we think we know, and be willing to engage with what we don’t know.

How can we unlearn and relearn, and why is it so hard?

First and foremost, if we want to unlearn and relearn, it starts with a choice to engage in the process. That means taking the time and effort to actively pursue information that does not agree with what we think we know. This is how we challenge our current mode of thinking and believing. With that said, that means we need to try to let go, or at least challenge both our confirmation bias and our desirability bias. Once we start to do this, we’ll recognize that there can be a plethora of information that challenges our views. If we come across this, it is important to accept the evidence as such, especially if it is legitimate evidence that was gathered through well crafted research. Considering scientists are paid to be skeptical, most try to design studies to remove their own bias and confounds that would sway data in favor of that bias. This is also why it is important to gather information from legitimate resources, as well as check the credibility of the resources we’re using to gather information.

This proves to be a challenge to a lot of people because it truly does take some extra time and effort that we don’t always feel like we have. We are constantly on the move or tackling tasks at work, and even at home, often feeling like there is no time for anything “extra”. Especially, if it is something that we are not motivated to do. Another reason why this proves to be a challenge for a lot of people is that there tends to be a lot of emotional attachment, and a sense of self, that comes with our thoughts and beliefs. This turns into an identity crisis when we challenge our previously held beliefs because we could have thoughts like “there’s no way I could have been wrong this whole time” or “these are my thoughts and beliefs” or “this is my knowledge”. Almost as if someone is taking a part (or all) of us away. However, this is essentially how confirmation bias manifests. We absorb some knowledge on a topic and it becomes a part of us. Then, when we are challenged on that topic, we feel we are under attack by people that don’t know as much about the topic as we do.

Meanwhile, if we can truly recognize the value of unlearning and relearning, we just might be able to have the strength to persevere and push through despite some of the challenges that stand in our way. When we update our thinking, we are actually updating our sense of self, and becoming more wise in the process. Using the computer analogy, we are improving our cognitive software when we unlearn and relearn. We are putting the old files that we no longer need in the trash and replacing them with new, updated ones. We are allowing our mental hard-drive to function in more effective ways than before. Our character will grow, too, as traits like courage and authenticity take center stage. Our courage will grow because that is what it takes to admit when we were wrong or don’t know something, and willing to change our minds. It also takes courage to actively explore the depths of what we don’t know because it is uncharted territory with no roadmap for navigation. Authenticity will also shine through as we’ll be able to admit our faults and be willing to correct them for the greater good.

What if others don’t agree with the process of unlearning and relearning?

When we come to this challenge, it is important to consider how much value that person, or those people, bring to our lives. If the answer is not much, or they take value away, we might want to re-think our relationship with them. It is important to remember that not everyone will want to update their way of thinking, and as a result, they won’t be evolving. It is also important to try to remember why we’re unlearning and relearning in the first place. That is to add value to our lives and potentially to those around us. If others are not on board, then they’ll get left at the docks. Lastly, we can try to remember this quote from Adam Grant in the first pages of his book, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom”.

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