Learning Makes Itself Invisible

This month I am guest blogging at School of Everything, the website that helps people who want to learn meet people who want to teach. I’ll be posting here and there about what psychologists know about learning. Below is my first post…

Once you have learnt something you see the world differently. Not only can you appreciate or do something that you couldn’t appreciate or do before, but the way you saw the world before is now lost to you. This works for the small things as well as the big picture. If you learn the meaning of a new word, you won’t be able to ignore it like you did previously. If you learn how to make a cup of out of clay you won’t ever be able to see cups like you used to before.

This means it is hard to imagine what it is like for someone else who hasn’t learnt what you’ve learnt. The psychologist Paul Bloom calls this the curse of knowledge in the context of being unable to model what other people don’t know, rather than on what you yourself used not to know. If you’ve ever organised a surprise party for someone, or had another kind of secret, you’ll know the feeling. It seems so *obvious* what you are keeping hidden, but usually the person you are hiding it from doesn’t catch on. They don’t catch on because the clues are only obvious to you, knowing the secret, and you find it hard to imagine what they see not knowing it.

The reason this occurs is because of two facts about the mind that are not widely appreciated. The first is that memory is not kept in a separate store away from the rest of the mind’s functions. Although there are brain regions crucial to memory, the memories themselves are not stored separately from the regions which do perception, processing and output. Unlike a digital computer, your mind does not have to fetch stored information when it needs it, instead your memories affect every part of your perception and behaviour.

The second important fact about the mind is related to the first. It is that learning something involves changing the structures of the mind that are involved in perception and behaviour. Memories are not kept in a separate store, but are constituted by the connections between the neurons in your brain. This means that when you learn something — when you create new memories — it isn’t just *added* to your mind, but it changes the structures that make up your mind so that your perceptions, behaviour and potentially all of your previous memories are changed too.

We can see this in microcosm if we look at a small example of what is called one-shot perceptual learning. What do you think this is?


Now probably you don’t know, but I would like you do savour the feeling of not knowing. Try and taste, like a rare wine, what the perceptual experience is like. You can see the parts of the picture, the blacks and the whites, various shapes, some connected to others and some isolated.

If you now look at this popup here then you will have this taste washed out of your mind and irrevocably removed. It will be gone, and you will never be able to recover it. This is why I asked you to savour it. Now look at the original again. Notice how the parts are now joined in a whole. You just cannot see the splotches of black and white, the groups, the isolated parts, again. When you learn the meaning of the whole picture this removed the potential for that experience. Even the memory is tantalisingly out of reach. You can’t recover an experience that you yourself had two minutes ago!

One-shot learning is unusual. Most learning happens over a far longer time-scale, so it is even harder to keep a grip on what it was like to not know. All of us will have had the experience of a bad teacher who simply couldn’t see why we had a problem — they simply couldn’t see that we couldn’t understand or do what was obvious or easy to them. A good teacher has to have the dual-mind of knowing something, but also being able to empathise with someone who doesn’t know it, someone for whom what is obvious isn’t obvious yet. It is because learning has this tendency to make itself invisible that teaching is such a difficult and noble tradition.

Cross-posted at schoolofeverything.com

Link A Mindhacks.com post in which I discuss a similar thing in the context of the role expectations play in our perception.

The reference I took the picture from: Rubin, N., Nakayama, K. and Shapley, R. (2002), The role of insight in perceptual learning: evidence from illusory contour perception. In: Perceptual Learning, Fahle, M. and Poggio, T. (Eds.), MIT Press.

7 thoughts on “Learning Makes Itself Invisible”

  1. Many thanks for this. Would be a good demonstration for interface designers to explain why interactions that appear quite logical to them as designers can sometimes be unfathomable to users.

  2. This reminds me of something from Robert Burton’s recent book, On Being Certain. He includes a very similar definition, but this one is not visual.
    Read the following paragraph:
    “A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.”
    Now, did that collection of sentences mean anything to you? As in the picture in the post, read over it again and feel yourself trying to make sense of this. Loose yourself in the apparent meaninglessness of it all.
    But watch what happens when you read a single word: kite. Suddenly it all clicks. Read through the paragraph again, and it makes complete sense. Every word and phrase works, and as you continue to read it, you can’t return to the state of not knowing you were just in. You simply cannot go back.
    I was blown away when I first read this, and I thought it would be an appropriate addition to what was written in the post.
    (It’s a bit annoying that you can’t break a comment into paragraphs).

  3. I read this to my wife out loud, and we liked what it had to say. It does speak to the different types of teachers. But, when I turned the monitor around to show her the black and white picture she said “It looks like a frog to me.” 🙂 (I thought it looked like someone in a bike helmet.)
    It also describes much of what can drive a person into burnout if they are teaching things. Or if they are providing technical support for something (especially to the same people every day) and getting the same questions every day and attempting to find a different way every day to try and communicate “what I know” to other people who have no interest in making it “what I know” for themselves but only in achieving a particular goal. e.g. A good blackjack player that can understand the game and count cards and be successful every game has a very important “what I know” that is a big picture item that goes beyond the goal of money. However, what most people want to make “what I know” in playing blackjack is simple: how to win. They have a single point goal that has nothing to do with “what I know” but has a lot to do with “what I want to happen”.
    I provide desktop computer support to everyday users of computers, not technical people, and after ten years of it I still get asked by the clients “Why did that happen?” and I generally am honest and tell them “I don’t know. In fact, unless it happens to the point where you can’t work again I don’t want to know. My goal is to get you back to work.” I am honest with them about it because after enough times of actually trying to determine why something happened and I have invested time and effort into making why it happen “what I know” (and it often takes a lot of time) and then I go back to answer their question of “Why did it happen?” I find out that, in fact, they are not remotely interested in why it happened, they are simply interested in it not happening AGAIN and the believe that if they know why it happened that they can avoid it or prevent it from happening in the future. (SO, often the real question when they ask “Why?” is “Did I do something to make this happen? If so, what was it so I can avoid doing it again in the future.”)

  4. I don’t have any trouble looking back at the frog as an abstracted set of blobs (except for the eyes, but those jumped out as eyes the instant I saw it. You know how people are about eyes). Learning about reliable, species-typical motivations and responses surrounding sexual behavior doesn’t stop me from getting wrapped up in that, either. It varies between people, I’m sure — some people have trouble regaining the pure experience of black and white blobs, but I doubt that more than a few have trouble regaining the unreflective experience of sexual pleasure after they’ve deconstructed it.
    The curse of knowledge is very serious, but I wonder if it’s confined to situations in which you’re trying to simulate the mind of someone who doesn’t know something _and_ the path they’d have to take to learn it. I think the curse is overstated when it comes to compartmentalizing different ways of seeing things within ourselves.

  5. I think another element of what we know affecting what we experience (thanks for the great, non-visual, example Andy!) is that we can’t really appreciate what we are trying to learn before we learn it. If learning was just content — a single fact for example — then it is easy enough to pretend that we appreciate what we’ll be like after we’ve learn it (“I just want to know where there nearest pizza take-out is!”), but for other things, for serious learning — such as a University degree, a professional skill, or even a technical support enquiry — by definition if we understood fully what we had to learn we wouldn’t be seeking to learn. Which is why teachers, and technical support, are in an inherantly asymmetrical (power/knowledge) position with respect to learners and have a duty to provide what people really need, rather than what they (think they) want.

  6. I love it! This reminds me of computer programming, when a program is “complied” into an executable version of itself, but in which the connection to its source is (mostly) lost. The program forgets where it came from.
    The books I find most useful are those that change my perspective of the world – that change how I think or how I behave. Maybe this relates to your post about the joy of learning (the learning of joy?)

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