I love learning as do most of us, whether we realise it or not. We are learning all the time both passively and actively. If we are alive we are learning - even when we are sleeping - because all the stimuli of the day of what we have seen, heard, touched, tasted, smelt, and experienced emotionally are being processed by our brain in some way, non stop. No time for a neuroscience discussion now, but this is actually what’s happening.
In this blog I am sharing what I am learning about learning. In particular I am learning about our emotions and decision making.
Did you know that the emotional response to something we experience (regulated by the amygdala, part of the lambic system) reacts about a fifth of a second faster than our cognitive response (controlled in the prefrontal cortex, the bit of the brain that really distinguishes us as humans). When I heard this it made so much sense. We experience emotions - positive and negative - so much quicker than we have time to think. I like so many of us react out of emotion so often “before I have time to think” - a familiar phrase for all of us I’d guess. We do not take a breath in response to a situation and react out of our emotions not giving our cognitive/executive function time to exercise some rationality. And I’m sure all of us can readily think of numerous examples of this, the pain and hurt it can cause and the hours it can take to process and recover personally, along with the effort it can take to heal the hurt caused to others.
First off, everyone realise this is normal and this is how we are literally wired. The emotions kick in a fraction of a second before our thinking and that tiny head start can mean game over if we do not grab back control, which we can!
Learning to take a breath is key.
First, learning to a breath is key - other than in genuine life or death situations, when the instant fight, flight or freeze of adrenaline takes over (thank goodness). Before you say something you may well want to take back later, take a breath. When put on the spot to make a decision, take a breath. Before making that impulse purchase, take a breath, and so on. That great gives your cognition that extra second to catch up and speak some sense to us.
In today’s toxic social media, instant news, cancel culture, where there is extreme pressure to look and be perfect - to say the right thing, do the right thing, have the right body, hair, lips, clothes etc. etc. - the rhetoric of right and wrong is so very toxic and best avoided completely. Research is clear, these pressures are a significant factor in anxiety, depression, self harm, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation. And it’s heartbreaking that this is the case.
My learning suggests a fairly simple adjustment of mindset can be really helpful - it’s certainly helping me for sure. The language we use can make this difference and help us adjust this mindset.
When faced with a choice of A or B, try not think of the options as a right or wrong choice, putting yourself under the pressure of “getting it right”, rather think of A and B as of equal value and different. You may have a desired outcome (A) in that moment and choice A may lead you through a process A to outcome A. Does that make A the right choice? Alternatively you may choose option B that leads you through a different process B to a different outcome B. Does that make B the wrong choice?
I have changed my language and do not label them or think of them as either right or wrong choices. Instead I choose to think of both choices as possible learning experiences and both have value. Choice A may lead me through a process that I expected would lead to my original desired outcome A. In this case I have learned/confirmed that process A leads to the desired outcome A. Great. Choice B will lead me through a different process B and generate a different outcome B. From this I have learned that this process leads somewhere else, and this is also valuable information. Also Great!
Now, some of you may be thinking, but I did not want to get to outcome B - maybe. However, you have learned that process B leads to outcome B and this may be useful now, in the future, for you or for someone else.
Some of you may choose to use the language that describes A as a success and B as a failure. I contend that failure is simply a construct that does not need to exist! I have “failed” many times and learned something in the process, and that is how I used to describe it. Now I am grateful for each of those learning events, resulting from different choices.
And consider this: people that followed choice B through process B to option B are people that gave us the pacemaker, microwave oven, penicillin, ink-jet printers, X-Rays, Post-It notes, crisps, Coca Cola, chocolate chip cookies, cellophane and many others.
In the rhetoric of right and wrong all of these outcomes were made from wrong choices. In my view:
In the language of learning there is no place for the rhetoric of right and wrong.
This is a mindset change, and it is taking me time to make it habitual. However it is so freeing and positive to think this way. I am no longer bound in any way by failure - because it does not exist in my vocabulary. Rather, I am free to make different choices, enjoy the process and learn from the outcomes.