Thursday, July 28, 2005

Learning Without Thinking

A new study confirms that humans possess the ability to learn without remembering that we learned. Neuroscientists thought that this ability may had been "evolved" past--left behind with the chimps and gorillas. (Click on the title for the link to

As the most sophisticated mammals on this big blue marble, it would stand to reason that while we have higher functioning, we retain more rudimentary functioning. In this case, amnesiacs were taught a task and "remembered" it after weeks of doing it over and over even though they didn't know how they knew it. Make sense?

It does to me. If you think about babies and their ability to learn, it seems that a vast majority of their learning is through repetition of tasks that get hardwired--no memory of the learning required. For example, most babies learn to put one arm through a shirt hole, then another, then the legs, etc. They are not "remembering" the task through: let's see, first the left arm, then the right arm, then the left leg. They just do it--habit after days and days of mama putting one arm then the other arm then the head in the shirt.

By constrast, my child who has autism never learned ANYTHING in this manner. My sister marvelled because her son was 8 months and "helping" her dress him. At five years old, my son still had to be told the process. Then around seven he consciously learned: first I put my head through, then I put one arm through, etc. He had to "memorize" a system. It now occupies the space in his brain that memorized "steps for the potty", "steps when I go to school in the morning", "steps after dinner", "steps to draw a face". Not very efficient.

Is the problem, then, with his temporal lobe therefore no memory? Is the problem his frontal lobe, therefore no executive functioning? Is the problem the part of the brain that "knows" without conscious memory of learning? Maybe all of the above.

To me, learning without remembering learning equals survival. It must be a form of learning that happens simultaneously with "declarative" learning (remembering when you learned) that gets hard-wired. This learning could be a form of internal back-up. You may be conked in the head but still be able to perform basic tasks. How elegant and efficient. Humans were designed very well, indeed. Link
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