The Neuroscience of Unlearning

The Neuroscience of Unlearning
Research, Teaching Methods
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Dr. Jeff D. Borden is a professor, learning design expert, Executive Director of the Institute for Inter-Connected Education and the Chief Academic Officer at Campus.


Until I was 18, I completely misunderstood a commonly used idiom. My dad is a pastor and so I heard a lot of anecdotes and analogies as a boy. One of the stories I heard was an old example about the traps of traditional thinking. It comes from an illustration of “grandma’s ham” and how to properly prepare it. In summary, it recounts a newly married couple who fight over how to prepare a ham. The young wife says the ends must be cut off. The husband argues that the ham should stay intact throughout the cooking process. For corroboration they call the wife’s mom who explains that indeed, this method was passed down from dear old grandma. Eventually they get grandma on the phone and find out she did, in fact, always cut off the ends of the ham. Why? Because her pan was so small, it would not fit otherwise.

Why did I tell you that story? It is the reason that I misunderstood another colloquialism I heard as a boy. The phrase “making ends meet,” in my mind’s eye, was about “making ends meat.” Yes, I thought that the phrase was about piecing scraps (like the ends of the ham) together to make a meal. It seemed to fit into the right context whenever it was used to describe how people were “scraping” together resources just to survive. And so, it was not until college that I saw the phrase written down and realized my mistake. I instantly felt embarrassed. But I was also lucky enough to be able to “unlearn” the wrong information right then and there.


How the Brain’s Plasticity Affects Unlearning

You’ve probably heard about neuroplasticity. Our brains can (literally) change shape, reroute information, filter out some data while focusing on others, speed up and slow down our thinking, faster and slower over time. We learn, relearn, and learn again throughout our lifetimes.

To that point, one of the great ironies in life is that as we age, our neuroplasticity slows down. It never goes away. But as we form neural pathways, those processes become easier and easier. Our brains would much rather be efficient than expend energy to say…think. This is one reason those “teach your baby to read” commercials were so dangerous (and found themselves at the center of lawsuits). Those children were creating inefficient pathways in the brain that would be super hard to overcome later when their brains had matured and could form better, stronger, more efficient pathways. So, even though our brains are so sponge-like as kids (when we have no real understanding of how to use that super-power strategically), we have to work at stretching and expanding our brain’s capabilities as adults.

But let me go back to my “ends meat” example now. I assume that every reader inherently understands that as we grow and process and learn, our brains sometimes store information, processes, or paradigms that are incorrect. It is not controversial to state that everyone has believed something that is untrue or has been taught to do something in a way that is ineffective, inefficient, or simply incorrect.


Examples of Unlearning

New Math

Do you remember Base Eight math? I barely missed the introduction of “New Math” in Jr. High School, but I watched as students a few years younger learned a completely different model of arithmetic. Educators once lauded Base Eight as the New Math that would finally give Americans back the “edge” as a worldwide math power. But the strategy lasted only a few years, seeing students perform worse and worse in overall numeracy.

Although there were important successes in the New Math period, some of the New Math curricula were excessively formal. There was little attention to basic skills or applications of mathematics. Programs that focused on number bases other than base ten as well as set theory or more exotic topics tended to confuse and alienate even the most sympathetic parents of school children. There were instances in which abstractness for its own sake was overemphasized to the point of absurdity. Many teachers were not ready to deal with the demanding content of the New Math curricula. As a result, public criticisms increased.

Uh-oh—time for some un-learning.



By the time I graduated from high school, I would have confidently reported that the Italian Christopher Columbus had indeed sailed through storm-ridden waters, constantly having to convince his men that they would not fall off the end of the Earth, but instead circumnavigated the globe, finally to be the first person to discover America.

The Problem? There are several.

For one thing, using our best, modern forensic methods, we no longer believe that Columbus was Italian. Why? Because we have his writings. His writing was far more fluent (grammatically, in vocabulary, in syntax, etc.) in Spanish and Portuguese, suggesting he was likely not Italian. Why would he lie and say he was Italian? Most experts believe Columbus was Jewish and, at that time, no Jewish man would have been given the captaincy of a fleet of ships.

We also know that Columbus did not have to convince his men (nor the King and Queen of Spain) that the Earth was round. Most humans had known that information for centuries. His men’s greatest concern was fear of an inability to turn around with enough supplies to get home. But textbook authors know the power of conflict in keeping attention, so they added some tension to the story. Giving Columbus both heightened intelligence above everyone else and making him a persuasive leader is a good way to help the story, and the hero, resolve that conflict.

Uh-oh…time again for some un-learning—followed by re-learning.


How Does Unlearning Work?

So, how exactly does unlearning work anyway? It’s important to note that humans can’t just consume the “correct” information and flip a switch. If only it were that easy! See, our brains never (technically) remove anything. This is the notion of mastery, meaning one likely never knows a “best” way. Instead, one always seeks out new, better ways and consciously or unconsciously chooses those better ways. That is learning.

The metaphor I like to use for this is an iceberg. Think of an idea in the form of a neuron moving down a neural pathway as a small river. It is later frozen over, covered by a bigger, deeper, or stronger river at some point. The first river does not go away. But it does “die” in the ice as it’s no longer used or needed.

Payne, et al. reported that we retain older motor patterns in anticipation of using them again. Those who study and report on the Forgetting Curve (sometimes called Ebbinghaus) note that the rate of decay for any piece of information is different per situation, per person, per the intensity of the information, etc. In other words, it is almost impossible to anticipate how long a person takes to “forget” something and replace it with something else.


Putting Unlearning into Practice

Dr. Andrew Huberman has reported some fascinating and even ground-breaking discoveries into ways we can operationalize unlearning in the brain. Taking cues from EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), psychoanalysis/psychotherapy, somatic embodied release, and even Kundalini yoga (breathing), Huberman suggests all are assistive in helping people unlearn trauma, stress, and negatively connotated information. Essentially, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and other treatments sought to unlearn the negative feeling or memory by connecting (learning) to something better, positive, or more dominant. But these same methods may prove useful in unlearning “bad” information, too.

For example, goal-directed eye movement (like what happens when you’re walking or driving and scanning the environment for threats) actually suppresses our amygdala’s normal desire to call out risks. To do this, as we move forward, scanning back and forth, we generate the neurochemical dopamine. This literally activates a “courage” circuit in the brain, quelling the amygdala, promoting belief that we can move forward safely and securely. (If we do not believe this, we turn around and run away!)

By tapping into this known reaction of the brain while moving our eyes left and right (leveraging our Abducens nerve) and considering the old information as well as the new, better information, we will have a far easier ability to unlearn the old and relearn the new. Standing up and walking forward will only increase your unlearning potential.


The Main Ingredients of Unlearning

So, what does it take to actually unlearn? How do we set ourselves up with a context that is amenable to unlearning at all?

  1. Willingness. If a person is unwilling to see/hear/experience other perspectives, then they will go on believing everything they do is correct or accurate. Just as we encourage students to have a sense of curiosity and/or to question things, architects of learning must always do the same.
  2. Break Filter Bubbles. When we allow our apps, TV, reading, and conversations to only reinforce what we already believe to be true, then we are not likely to unlearn or relearn much of anything.
  3. Associative Thinking. Beyond choosing to allow other ideas into your world, go out of your way to pursue problems and solutions from other contexts. Seek new or contrary opinions or ways of doing/thinking/being.
  4. Change Locations. Remember that scene in Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher has the students stand on top of their desks to view the classroom from a new perspective? This has some grounding in learning science as changing our physical space can impact how we view problems or solutions.
  5. Achieve Research Saturation. My master’s advisor made it clear that my thesis needed to include seminal and foundational works as often as possible. How was I to achieve this? I had to ensure that I followed the breadcrumbs of citations back to their original source(s). While we may not have time for that in all aspects of life, is it really that hard to double check a YouTube video, a keynote speaker, or a blogger by seeking out a source or two?


What’s Worth Unlearning?

So, the next time you find yourself needing to unlearn something, you now have a strategy to help that process happen faster. What is worth unlearning? Wow, the list is likely long. For example, politicians definitely need to learn that “trickle-down economics” does not, nor has it ever worked. Numerous studies, dating back decades, by Nobel prize winners show that it is a myth. Yet how often are tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans promoted and even passed?

But let us get specific to education. How often do we still hear or read about learning styles? Even though numerous studies have debunked the notion that a person has a “preferred” style of learning? The APA has reported, “…in two online experiments with 668 participants (including educators), more than 90 percent of them believed people learn better if they are taught in their predominant learning style.”

There are plenty of things to unlearn. Finding them takes work and tenacity, but so does the process of unlearning and relearning. Luckily, we are not confined to using bad information or methods. So, we can cook the ham in one piece.

Good luck and good learning.


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