Wednesday, May 18, 2011

consciousness not necessary for learning

OCBBM | A third important misconception of consciousness is that it is the basis for learning. Particularly for the long and illustrious series of Associationist psychologists through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, learning was a matter of ideas in consciousness being grouped by similarity, contiguity, or occasionally some other relationship. Nor did it matter whether we were speaking of a man or an animal; all learning was “profiting from experience” or ideas coming together in consciousness - as I said in the Introduction. And so contemporary common knowledge, without realizing quite why, has culturally inherited the notion that consciousness is necessary for learning.

The matter is somewhat complex. It is also unfortunately disfigured in psychology by a sometimes forbidding jargon, which is really an overgeneralization of the spinal-reflex terminology of the nineteenth century. But, for our purposes, we may consider the laboratory study of learning to have been of three central kinds, the learning of signals, skills, and solutions. Let us take up each in turn, asking the question, is consciousness necessary?

Signal learning (or classical or Pavlovian conditioning) is the simplest example. If a light signal immediately followed by a puff of air through a rubber tube is directed at a person’s eye about ten times, the eyelid, which previously blinked only to the puff of air, will begin to blink to the light signal alone, and this becomes more and more frequent as trials proceed.[9] Subjects who have undergone this well-known procedure of signal learning report that it has no conscious component whatever. Indeed, consciousness, in this example the intrusion of voluntary eye blinks to try to assist the signal learning, blocks it from occurring.

In more everyday situations, the same simple associative learning can be shown to go on without any consciousness that it has occurred. If a distinct kind of music is played while you are eating a particularly delicious lunch, the next time you hear the music you will like its sounds slightly more and even have a little more saliva in your mouth. The music has become a signal for pleasure which mixes with your judgment. And the same is true for paintings.[10] Subjects who have gone through this kind of test in the laboratory, when asked why they liked the music or paintings better after lunch, could not say. They were not conscious they had learned anything. But the really interesting thing here is that if you know about the phenomenon beforehand and are conscious of the contingency between food and the music or painting, the learning does not occur. Again, consciousness actually reduces our earning abilities of this type, let alone not being necessary for them.

As we saw earlier in the performance of skills, so in the learning of skills, consciousness is indeed like a helpless spectator, having little to do. A simple experiment will demonstrate this fact. Take a coin in each hand and toss them both, crossing them in the air in such a way that each coin is caught by the opposite hand. This you can learn in a dozen trials. As you do, ask, are you conscious of everything you do? Is consciousness necessary at all? I think you will find that learning is much better described as being ‘organic’ rather than conscious. Consciousness takes you into the task, giving you the goal to be reached. But from then on, apart perhaps from fleeting neurotic concerns about your abilities at such tasks, it is as if the learning is done for you. Yet the nineteenth century, taking consciousness to be the whole architect of behavior, would have tried to explain such a task as consciously recognizing the good and bad motions, and by free choice repeating the former and dropping out the latter!

The learning of complex skills is no different in this respect. Typewriting has been extensively studied, it generally being agreed in the words of one experimenter “that all adaptations and short cuts in methods were unconsciously made, that is, fallen into by the learners quite unintentionally. The learners suddenly noticed that they were doing certain parts of the work in a new and better way.” [11]

In the coin-tossing experiment, you may have even discovered that consciousness if present impeded your learning. This is a very common finding in the learning of skills, just as we saw it was in their performance. Let the learning go on without your being too conscious of it, and it is all done more smoothly and efficiently. Sometimes too much so, for, in complex skills like typing, one may learn to consistently type ‘hte’ for ‘the’. The remedy is to reverse the process by consciously practicing the mistake ‘hte’, whereupon contrary to the usual idea of ‘practice makes perfect’, the mistake drops away - a phenomenon called negative practice.

In the common motor skills studied in the laboratory as well, such as complex pursuit-rotor systems or mirror-tracing, the subjects who are asked to be very conscious of their movements do worse. [12] And athletic trainers whom I have interviewed are unwittingly following such laboratory-proven principles when they urge their trainees not to think so much about what they are doing. The Zen exercise of learning archery is extremely explicit on this, advising the archer not to think of himself as drawing the bow and releasing the arrow, but releasing himself from the consciousness of what he is doing by letting the bow stretch itself and the arrow release itself from the fingers at the proper time.

Solution learning (or instrumental learning or operant conditioning) is a more complex case. Usually when one is acquiring some solution to a problem or some path to a goal, consciousness plays a very considerable role in setting up the problem in a certain way. But consciousness is not necessary. Instances can be shown in which a person has no consciousness whatever of either the goal he is seeking or the solution he is finding to achieve that goal.

Another simple experiment can demonstrate this. Ask someone to sit opposite you and to say words, as many words as he can think of, pausing two or three seconds after each of them for you to write them down. If after every plural noun (or adjective, or abstract word, or whatever you choose) you say “good” or “right” as you write it down, or simply “mmm-hmm” or smile, or repeat the plural word pleasantly, the frequency of plural nouns (or whatever) will increase significantly as he goes on saying words. The important thing here is that the subject is not aware that he is learning anything at all. [13] He is not conscious that he is trying to find a way to make you increase your encouraging remarks, or even of his solution to that problem. Every day, in all our conversations, we are constantly training and being trained by each other in this manner, and yet we are never conscious of it.

Such unconscious learning is not confined to verbal behavior. Members of a psychology class were asked to compliment any girl at the college wearing red. Within a week the cafeteria was a blaze of red (and friendliness), and none of the girls was aware of being influenced. Another class, a week after being told about unconscious learning and training, tried it on the professor. Every time he moved toward the right side of the lecture hall, they paid rapt attention and roared at his jokes. It is reported that they were almost able to train him right out the door, he remaining unaware of anything unusual. [14]

The critical problem with most of these studies is that if the subject decided beforehand to look for such contingencies, he would of course be conscious of what he was learning to do. One way to get around this is to use a behavioral response which is imperceptible to the subject. And this has been done, using a very small muscle in the thumb whose movements are imperceptible to us and can only be detected by an electrical recording apparatus. The subjects were told that the experiments were concerned with the effect of intermittent unpleasant noise combined with music upon muscle tension. Four electrodes were placed on their bodies, the only real one being the one over the small thumb muscle, the other three being dummy electrodes. The apparatus was so arranged that whenever the imperceptible thumb-muscle twitch was electrically detected, the unpleasant noise was stopped for 15 seconds if it was already sounding, or delayed for 15 seconds if was not turned on at the time of the twitch. In all subjects, the imperceptible thumb twitch that turned off the distressing noise increased in rate without the subjects’ being the slightest bit conscious that they were learning to turn off the unpleasant noise.

Thus, consciousness is not a necessary part of the learning process, and this is true whether it be the learning of signals, skills, or solutions. There is, of course, much more to say on this fascinating subject, for the whole thrust of contemporary research in behavior modification is along these lines. But, for the present, we have simply established that the older doctrine that conscious experience is the substrate of all learning is clearly and absolutely false. At this point, we can at least conclude that it is possible - possible I say - to conceive of human beings who are not conscious and yet can learn and solve problems
9. G. A. Kimble, “Conditioning as a function of the time between conditioned and unconditioned stimuli,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1947, 37: 1-15.

10. These studies are those of Gregory Razran and are discussed on page 232 of his Mind in Evolution (Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1971). They are discussed critically in relation to the whole problem of unintentional learning by T. A. Ryan, Intentional Behavior (New York: Ronald Press, 1970), pp. 235-236.

11. W.F. Book, The Psychology of Skill, (New York: Gregg, 1925).

12. H.L. Waskom, “An experimental analysis of incentive and forced application and their effect upon learning,” Journal of Psychology, 1936, 2: 393-408.

13. J. Greenspoon, “The reinforcing effect of two spoken sounds on the frequency of two responses,” American Journal of Psychology, 1955, 68: 409-416. But there is considerable controversy here, particularly in the order and wording of postexperimental questions. There may even be a kind of tacit contract between subject and experimenter. See Robert Rosenthal, Experimenter Effects in Behavioral Research (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966). In this controversy, I presently agree with Postman that the learning occurs before the subject becomes conscious of the reinforcement contingency, and indeed that consciousness would not occur unless this had been so. L. Postman and L. Sassenrath, “The automatic action of verbal rewards and punishment,” Journal of General Psychology, 1961, 65: 109-136.

14. W. Lamnbert Gardiner, Psychology: A Story of a Search (Belmont, California:Brooks/Cole, 5970), p. 76.


Tom said...

 This is extremely important stuff, but I cringe a little at the use of the word 'learning.'   People who try to learn things they want to master, but without respecting the conscious part of the process ... they are giving up a lot.  

CNu said...

Tom, please give me an example of the specific types of competencies you have in mind. 

nanakwame said...

Subjects who have undergone this well-known procedure of signal learning report that it has no conscious component whatever. Indeed, consciousness, in this example the intrusion of voluntary eye blinks to try to assist the signal learning, blocks it from occurring.
·         Claim: Thought is conscious. But neuroscience shows that is about 98 percent unconscious. George Lakoff
There is no debate on the core, the question is this, no matter what % of consciousness there is, what is it. The learning experience is when something new is learned, it changes the dendrites it is  thicken  - one of the problems with

It is now shown in Live Science that self-compassion is a necessary tool to help Autism
Is this psrt of consciousness, I had a autist patient in my ward once.

We must stop separating these bases of knowledge, since the time of this book, truth is complex:
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. Einstein on Occam's RazorThank you for the review

Tom said...

CNu, sure, take engineering.  Doing a whole lot of problems and kind of picking up a subconscious idea of the lay of the land is key.  Gotta do it.  But people who only do that, and don't keep revising their conscious picture of the territory, end up being kind of passive and getting stuck much more often. I could almost compare them--in their field of study only--to cats who have learned how to inhabit a person's house and how to get the door opened for them, but don't really get it.  Everybody goes through that stage of learning, but we're supposed to move on up.

Another example is chess.  For several years I've been trying to improve dog-training style, by solving thousands of problems.  Plateau city.  Not improving.  Then recently I started writing down every move in my trial solutions, forcing the process out into the open where I can see it. Very quickly I started getting better, and also I've started feeling like an 'owner' of the material, not like a rat hoping for another pellet of understanding from the dispenser.  Maybe Feynman talked about this.  You've probably read, Feynman talked about college students who had learned that the lowest point of a curve has a horizontal tangent, and who were presumably 'good at calculus.'  But then he got out a French curve and told them a special property of that curve was that if you hold it up just kissing a straight line, the curve will be parallel to the line at that point.  And they got out their French curves from their drawing kits and spent a bunch of time seeing whether that was true.  Which is a good activity, but Feynman's complaint was that none of the other students realized they had just learned that same point in calculus class.  He said 'their knowledge was so fragile.'I say they didn't exactly have knowledge yet.  They had allowed themselves to be trained like beasts.This is also part of why I basically don't read mainstream* blogs.  They're barnyards pretending to be a seminars.------*Folks who want to read that word as "white" can do so.  Fine.  Ya, there's a correlation. 

Tom said...

 Argh.  Somehow my last 3 or 4 paragraphs got smerged into one.

tomas said...

I know it will be just pigeons flying very far from me and NOT into my mouth, but....
what is consciousness? in plain words, without any reference to anything? if there is some consensus, it should be able to clear up these questions.....anyone?
1) is bee conscious?
2) is dog conscious?
3) is 30 months old child conscious?
4) am I conscious when saying prayer and falling asleep?
5) am I conscious when my finger was just cut off with hamer?
thx for all. 

CNu said...

Doing a whole lot of problems and kind of picking up a subconscious idea of the lay of the land is key.  Gotta do it.

Cause the development of metaphors, metaphiers, and metaphrands is what it stimergically do; the arch metaphor, the personal pronoun...., which itself can be further developed via revision of the conscious picture of the territory in which it is operated?

CNu said...


1) is bee conscious? - NO
2) is dog conscious? - NO
3) is 30 months old child conscious? - SOME ARE SOMETIMES
4) am I conscious when saying prayer and falling asleep?  - POSSIBLY
5) am I conscious when my finger was just cut off with hamer? - ACUTELY IN THAT MOMENT OF SHOCK - before its excitation falls back to normal levels and you're once again happily dreaming along in your very own sphexish formatory sleep...,

nanakwame said...

Before I leave

Although the metaphor of the blank mind had been used in the writings ascribed to Aristotle, it is really only since John Locke thought of the mind as a tabula rasa in the seventeenth century that we have emphasized this recording aspect of consciousness, and thus see it crowded with memories that can be read over again in introspection. If Locke had lived in our time, he would have used the metaphor of a camera rather than a slate. 

The idea of a blank slate has been proven a fallacy today dear Doc. The working theory is that we are born with even knowing some right and wrong, and quite active mind, ready to learn. There are even moods, preponsities inborn, it still has much mysteries. Have a good night  Sir.

Tom said...

 am I conscious when my finger was just cut off with hamer? - ACUTELY IN THAT MOMENT OF SHOCK
This reminds me of a lot of things Walker Percy wrote about.  He had his problems, but leaving those aside, he described consciousness as having to do with a pair of "triads:" (1) speaker, listener, referent and (2) speaker, listener, word.   (Can't seem to find a decent link to his ideas on the web right now.)    Percy made a huge deal out of the difference between these "triads" and the "dyadic" causal links that he said made up our reductionist physical picture of the world, and that dominated Skinner's theories as well.

Percy also wrote almost obsessively about people being more alive/awake immediately after sudden/violent/frightening events than at any other time. 

arnach said...

 While consciousness may not be a requirement for learning at the lowest level(s), it is in order to achieve understanding at the level required to effectively teach those who would learn in one's footsteps and beyond.  To say that Feynman was a conscious master of understanding would be to compare the 2011 Japanese tsunami to the biggest wave you've ever created by throwing a rock in a pond.

CNu said...

Umm.., er, ah..., ok then Nana. (What any of that has to do with what Jaynes was talking about in this chapter - in the context in which and for the purpose for which it was written - COMPLETELY escapes me)

You have mechanically responded to a fragment that wasn't even remotely central to the point about learning that this chapter makes

CNu said...

For any information/knowledge/understanding transmittedand received linguistically which is consistent with Jaynes theory that "consciousness" is itself fundamentally and demonstrably a language construct.

nanakwame said...

Really are you that much of a reductionist? In studying psychology you have to read this man theory, as well as the finding since him and Skinner. As a matter of fact those who believe in an Almighty g_d as I stated reference Jaynes, as some proof that humans longed for g_d before consciousness grew?  For the question is what was it that our ancestors was calling g_d. What was the longing they reflected?
To reference Aristotle and Locke is a joke at this point in, even Baruch Spinoza has been vindicated.  Why I re: George Lakoff
Science as I know has build up the working theory from the time of this man, you have yet to agree, though I agree, his theory had merit. Folks of learning should thank you for your review.

God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things. Baruch Spinoza

CNu said...

Yes, I am a ruthlessly and insatiably reductionist materialist. Why, my singular goal in life and fundamental being-obligation is to make my religion more materialist than materialism.

Everything else is merely conversation....,

Tom said...

Yeah, I'm not sure I need to claim much more of a role for consciousness than that.  It's good for getting out of blind alleys sometimes, though. 

CNu said...

I agree with you and I understand what you're pointing at with the importance of correctly "loading" problems for the purpose of subsequently solving them. At the risk of sounding flip, (which is not my intention at all) I think of generative grammar and the metaphor, metaphier, metaphrand  tokens over which our grammar operates as being produced by unconscious processes.

Stated parsimoniously, as best I can reckon, applying this model and approach, what we experience as subjective self-awareness - is a kind of biological reward system for monitoring and ensuring compliance with a rules based construct with built in constraints for ensuring its own clean and efficient operation.  Subjectivity based on the personal pronoun is not a necessary condition for the effective and complex operation of the system, inclusive of language, however, it improves the operational effectiveness of the same, and has thus been selected for because of the biological advantages it confers.

Tom said...

Since I've been ignoring that side of things, I should probably put here that Percy sounded deeply religious (or at least desperate for belief).   So he had a particular axe to grind, and I tend to think he was right, against theories that try to make people into automatons.  

Tom said...

So I guess Percy seems to fit in somewhere in this Jaynes/Penrose tradition.  I have to find some Percy stuff (and CS Peirce who Percy kind of started with) and post it.  I think you've touched on Peirce here before.  

CNu said...

He sounds downright Gurdjieffian to me, what with sacred triads and such

Which is why I figure things rather trail off when you arrive at the Penrose/Hameroff proposition about the underlying physicality of a biological system giving rise to non-computable generative grammars and mathematical thinking and such...,

Tom said...

:) Yeah, you spotted that.  And when he had to junk the triads for a tetrad, he kinda laid that out cruciform.  But so is the Shirley book a good one?  I really have to 'load' some Gurdjieff I guess.

Trail off ... I mean, in all good sense I'd have to agree with you.  These aren't thesis problems you'd assign to students you cared about.   Penrose knocking down the Turing Machine shibboleth, that is maybe not a blind alley.  But then ...?  But then ... ?

If we really understood this stuff thoroughly ... well, my definition is you understand something to the extent that you can make it work.  Ok, repair it some, at least.   I don't know.  It may be right on the edge of what we're capable of, but not completely outside.  

CNu said...

 You won't get much out of Gurdjieff without contact with a working group Tom. However, you can understand how one might come to Gurdjieff by reading Ouspensky's account of his pre-Gurdjieff loading;

Then a dense overview of Gurdjieff's systematization after Ouspensky became steeped in the same;

And of course any of the other related literature you might care to peruse;

One of the very best of which is Ouspensky's concise pamphlet on the organization of the ordinary waking state - The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution - which may in fact be a better initial read than In Search of the Miraculous and which is much more consistent with Jaynes.

CNu said...

As I reflected on this further, it occurred to me that correct loading is the indispensable prerequisite for getting on and staying on the path of ruthless empirical pursuit of the material basis of consciousness. We are surrounded on all sides by the broken machinery of superstitious magical thinking, suggestibility, confusion, and permanent error. The ultimate blind-alleys, as it were...,