Learning How to "Unlearn" the Beliefs & Behaviors That Hold Us Back

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The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. - Alvin Toffler

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. - Albert Einstein (Maybe)

Believe it or not, the idea for my last two essays — both this one, and the one on midlife crises and changing work — came from an article exploring some of the research being done on psychedelic drugs and their use in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness.

It’s weird, I know. But it’s also fascinating.

The research, which appears to show some real promise, is predicated on the idea of using hallucinogenic substances like psilocybin and LSD in a controlled setting to break down existing mental blocks, thought patterns, and frameworks to find healing. The first case study mentioned is that of Kirk Rutter, who was battling depression:

Rutter had lived with the condition off and on for years, but the burden had grown since the death of his mother in 2011, followed by a relationship break-up and a car accident the year after. It felt as if his brain was stuck on what he describes as “an automatic circuit”, repeating the same negative thoughts like a mantra: “‘Everything I do turns to crap.’ I actually believed that,” he recalls.

Though the article doesn’t mention it, my own experience has taught me that these negative though mantras are not just self-limiting, they’re often also self-soothing, which deepens our dependency on them. To give you an example, when communication in my marriage had broken down to the point where I was constantly feeling frustrated and rejected, I would tell myself, “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” Of course, it all mattered very much to me, which was why I was so upset. But I was, in a sense, trying to numb myself by means of this mantra — a sort of anti-affirmation that helped me to lower my expectations to the point where I thought it might hurt less. Breaking that cycle of thought meant unlearning both the belief and the habit that formed around it; it meant recognizing that I really was loved and that my thoughts and feelings did matter - not just to me, but to my wife.

I was able to do that without the aid of drugs, but the way they work is intriguing:

The drugs “activate a therapeutic, dreamlike state, intensifying sensory perception, and memories pop up like little films”, says Franz Vollenweider, a psychiatrist and neurochemist at the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Zurich, Switzerland, and one of the pioneers of the modern era of psychedelic research. He thinks that this receptive state of mind provides an opportunity to help people escape from rigid patterns of thought, not unlike Rutter’s automatic circuit.

“People get locked into disorders like depression because they develop this system of thinking which is efficient, but wrong,” says David Nutt, a psychopharmacologist at Imperial College London and an outspoken supporter of evidence-based reforms to government policies concerning illegal drugs. Psychiatry has a term for such thinking: rumination. The idea behind psychedelic therapy is that the receptive state that the drug confers opens the door to fresh ideas about how to think about the past and future, which the therapist can reinforce.

For Rutter, at least, the treatment was helpful. The treatment made him “look at grief differently,” he says. “It was a realization that actually it wasn’t helping, and letting go wasn’t a betrayal.” He also realized, following the treatment, in the midst of fearing whether his old patterns of thinking would return, that he had more control over his mind than he thought.

The notion that our minds become locked in inefficient or even destructive patterns of thought resonates with me. I’ve battled anxiety for my whole life, with bouts of depression and obsessive compulsive disorder thrown in for flavor. But while breaking down old, unhelpful ways of thinking and replacing them with something new is very appealing to me, psychadelics, on the other hand, are decidedly less so.

But what if there’s another way?

That’s where the notion of intentional unlearning comes in.

“You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned!” - Yoda

At Further, Brian Clark cites a book by Barry O’Reilly called Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results:

While certain methods of thinking and doing may have brought you success in the past, it’s almost certain they won’t reliably bring you success in the future. The key is to recognize the signals and break through before it’s too late.

According to O’Reilly, Clark says, this “paradox of success” can only be overcome by unlearning, then re-learning. Accomplishing this, however, can be rather tricky:

What’s needed is not an additional layer of knowledge. What’s needed is a system that allows for a “reset” in both thinking and behavior to truly move forward.

Just like your cable modem needs a hard reset to start working again and even improve performance, you need a system of letting go of what used to work in order to adapt to the reality of the present and the impending future. In other words, you need to disrupt yourself before external forces do the disrupting to you.

Yes, you need to continue learning for life. But to make that learning stick and translate into positive change, you need to concurrently unlearn the ideas, habits, and processes that worked for you in the past but no longer do.

Hit the search engines with a query about “unlearning” and you’ll find it’s a very popular concept indeed. Google returns nearly 9 million results for the word.

But figuring out how to unlearn things is a bit of a sticky wicket.

Writing at Harvard Business Review, business leader Mark Boncheck reflects on the challenge unlearning presents:

Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.

As an example, last summer I rented a car to travel around Great Britain. I had never driven this kind of car before, so I had to learn the placement of the various controls. I also had to learn how to drive on the left side of the road. All of that was relatively easy. The hard part was unlearning how to drive on the right. I had to keep telling myself to “stay left.” It’s the reason crosswalks in London have reminders for pedestrians to “look right.” It’s not easy to unlearn the mental habits that no longer serve us.

Boncheck takes the driving on the wrong side of the road motif even further, linking to a video by Destin Sandler of the popular YouTube channel, Smarter Every Day. In that video, Sandler is challenged by some welder friends to see if he can ride a bicycle they’ve cobbled together with an unusual gearing structure installed. The gears, located on the handlebars, make the bike’s front wheel turn opposite the steering direction. Sandler thinks that just knowing this will make it easy enough to learn, but it turns out to be anything but. And then, after a ton of trial and error, he learns something really weird:

I’m hoping you took the time to watch the whole video, but if you didn’t: spoiler alert!

Sandler eventually manages to learn to ride his backwards bike, but only at the cost of remembering how to ride a normal bike. As he stands there at an impromptu meetup in Amsterdam where he can’t manage to ride a normal bike — something he’s been doing since he was six years old — Sandler says:

There’s a group of people here looking at me, looking at the strange American that can’t ride a bike. ‘Cause they think I’m dumb. But I’m actually two levels deep into this, ‘cause I’ve learned and unlearned…

After about 20 minutes of concerted effort, Sandler is finally able to switch back to his old mental model and ride the normal bike. It just pops back into place all of a sudden, which surprises even him.

Bike riding, as Sandler points out, is arguably the most cliché example of something we all take for granted: there are some things you learn that you can’t unlearn. But as Sandler aptly proves, that’s actually incorrect, even if it takes a concerted effort to make it happen when it comes to a deeply-ingrained “understanding.”

And that has ramifications for all of us.

One area of unlearning and relearning that I’ve really struggled to embrace is the use of neuro-linguistic programming by way of positive “affirmations.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I am a natural at negative affirmations. I tend to expect the worst — it was only today that I learned that this is known in psychological terms as “Catastrophizing” — and I tend to verbalize that expectation.

Now, I know people who swear by positive affirmations. I’ve had them suggested to me a number of times, particularly since I score so high on the negative emotion side of the scale.

But I have a couple of hang-ups about this practice.

First, I can’t seem to take it seriously. In my personal cultural milieu, affirmations were always treated as an obvious and absurd joke. I specifically associate them with Stuart Smalley, the ridiculous, affirmation-spouting SNL character played by Al Franken back when I was in high school:

I always thought this sketch was funny. Everyone I knew thought it was funny. To this day, I (and people I know) still quote it at certain moments for a laugh. But if the sketch is funny, it’s because we detect something absurd or uncomfortable about the practice it lampoons. And if lots of people find the practice of affirmations funny, that means they’re going to laugh at us if we do affirmations in our own lives.

“They’re all going to laugh at you” is not an encouraging thought to someone caught up in negative thoughts and emotions. So there’s that.

But the second and more important reason why I struggle with affirmations is that I feel like I’m trying to trick myself. I’m telling myself something I don’t believe in, in the hopes that I can convince myself it’s actually true. Even moreso, I’m doing it with the intended effect of having that belief influence my subsequent behavior.

In the past, this has always felt like self-deception to me, or even self-brainwashing. I could see how it would be helpful in dealing with limiting beliefs and behaviors, but I couldn’t see how it could really work in the first place. How can I unlearn a lifetime of negative self-talk and belief? How can I convince myself that the positive is true when the opposite is what I naturally believe?

Watching Destin Sandler’s bike video above, I’m suddenly not so sure I’ve got this right. Maybe we really can unlearn what we know, and replace it with something new — if we’re willing to put in the time and effort. If we can learn, as Bruce Lee famously said, to be like water:


Maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe I crash too often and flow too infrequently. Maybe I need to be like Sandler and spend eight months (or more?) unlearning how to ride my particular mental bike so I can replace it with a new kind.

For that to happen, though, I may also have to embrace extinction.

Going Extinct

No, not extinction of ourselves, or of the species. Extinction of the behavior or thought pattern we’re trying to replace:

In psychology, extinction refers to the gradual weakening of a conditioned response that results in the behavior decreasing or disappearing. In other words, the conditioned behavior eventually stops.

For example, imagine that you taught your dog to shake hands. Over time, the trick became less interesting. You stop rewarding the behavior and eventually stop asking your dog to shake. Eventually, the response becomes extinct, and your dog no longer displays the behavior.

At Forbes, Author and business advisor John Hittler offers this:

Here’s the simple, ingenious approach to safely transform your old learning or habit super quickly: Simply “flood” or overwhelm the old action with the newly desired action or habit!

This approach works much like a full immersion approach to learning a foreign language. You can practice conjugating verbs and reading, writing and speaking in a language lab, but you'll only gain so much verbal skill before you have to order off a menu in Barcelona. If you lived in Spain, you could fully immerse yourself in the new language and flood your system with it rather than worrying about translating from Spanish to English.

It's a bit daunting at first, but you quickly improve since all of the learning is fresh and new. You’ll move from a rank beginner to minimally competent fairly quickly and then progress to proficient, simply because all your focus is on the newly desired learning rather than the old action.

If you want to overwhelm and evict your old way of thinking, you’re going to have to beat it into submission with the new.

These Thoughts Were Made For Walkin’, and That’s Just What They’ll Do

There’s another puzzle piece I want to tack on here when it comes to boosting creativity — a prerequisite of learning new mental models. It has to do with the simple act of walking.

I read a piece last week by Dartmouth anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, excerpted from his book, First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human. It’s about the connection between the physical act of walking and “great thinking.” After spending some time examining the noteworthy walking habit embraced by Charles Darwin, DeSilva asks:

But why? Why does walking help us think?

You are undoubtedly familiar with this situation: You’re struggling with a problem—a tough work or school assignment, a complicated relationship, the prospects of a career change—and you cannot figure out what to do. So you decide to take a walk, and somewhere along that trek, the answer comes to you.

The nineteenth-century English poet William Wordsworth is said to have walked 180,000 miles in his life. Surely on one of those walks he discovered his dancing daffodils. French philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau once said, “There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s walks in the New England woods inspired their writing, including “Walking,” Thoreau’s treatise on the subject. John Muir, Jonathan Swift, Immanuel Kant, Beethoven, and Friedrich Nietzsche were obsessive walkers. Nietzsche, who walked with his notebook every day between 11 am and 1 pm, said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Charles Dickens preferred to take long walks though London at night. “The road was so lonely in the night, that I fell asleep to the monotonous sound of my own feet, doing their regular four miles an hour,” Dickens wrote. “Mile after mile I walked, without the slightest sense of exertion, dozing heavily and dreaming constantly.” More recently, walks became an important part of the creative process of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs.

DeSilva explains that this isn’t just a question of preference or habit: it’s scientifically verifiable:

Marilyn Oppezzo, a Stanford University psychologist, used to walk around campus with her Ph.D. advisor to discuss lab results and brainstorm new projects. One day they came up with an experiment to look at the effects of walking on creative thinking. Was there something to the age-old idea that walking and thinking are linked?

Oppezzo designed an elegant experiment. A group of Stanford students were asked to list as many creative uses for common objects as they could. A Frisbee, for example, can be used as a dog toy, but it can also be used as a hat, a plate, a bird bath, or a small shovel. The more novel uses a student listed, the higher the creativity score. Half the students sat for an hour before they were given their test. The others walked on a treadmill.

The results were staggering. Creativity scores improved by 60 percent after a walk.

A few years earlier, Michelle Voss, a University of Iowa psychology professor, studied the effects of walking on brain connectivity. She recruited 65 couch-potato volunteers aged 55 to 80 and imaged their brains in an MRI machine. For the next year, half of her volunteers took 40-minute walks three times a week. The other participants kept spending their days watching Golden Girls reruns (no judgment here; I love Dorothy and Blanche) and only participated in stretching exercises as a control. After a year, Voss put everyone back in the MRI machine and imaged their brains again. Not much had happened to the control group, but the walkers had significantly improved connectivity in regions of the brain understood to play an important role in our ability to think creatively.

Walking changes our brains…

I’ve certainly experienced this, though there seems to be a magic formula you have to get just right in order to make the most of it. My brain is a noisy place, and walking in silence for too long tends to lead to a cacophony of thoughts I can’t sort out, or the mental equivalent of writer’s block, or both at the same time.

I find, though, that when my mind is occupied in an attempt to listen to an audiobook or podcast I’m not really all that interested in (and sometimes, even when I am), it spirals off into creative mode, pumping my imagination full of ideas and expediting my desire to finish my damn walk so I can go home and write them down. Admittedly, I was impressed with the expediency of Darwin’s method:

As a businesslike man, he would pile up a mound of flints at the turn of the path and knock one away every time he passed to ensure he made a predetermined number of circuits without having to interrupt his train of thought. Five turns around the path amounted to half a mile or so. The Sandwalk was where he pondered. In this soothing routine, a sense of place became preeminent in Darwin’s science. It shaped his identity as a thinker.

Sadly, I don’t have a bucolic path to walk on my country estate. I’m relegated to my subdivision, and the open desert by the street on the other side. The wrong music or the wrong book will hold my full attention, and when that happens, the ideas never quite come. The key is to find a way to let your mind drift just the right amount. I believe this is why the shower is arguably the greatest place to find ideas. Your brain and body are just sufficiently occupied with the repetitive, habitual tasks of washing and rinsing, and that means the subconscious mind is freed up to go meandering about the recesses of your thoughts and any recent information you’ve taken in but left unprocessed. If you’re stuck trying to work through an idea, a shower is a great place to see about getting unstuck. But walking is a very good thing to try, too.

Putting Unlearning Into Action

So let’s wrap it up: we all have models of thinking and behavior that get ossified over time. We get stuck in the same ruts, the same patterns we’ve been in for years, or even our whole lives. Often these thoughts and behaviors are limiting or even self-destructive, and the only way to overcome them is to practice the art of unlearning. We need to allow the old, obsolete ways of thinking to go extinct, and we can do that both by refusing to reinforce old habits and flooding our system with new ways of thinking and modes of acting. As Brian Clark writes:

In Unlearn, O’Reilly maintains that you don’t trigger a shift in mindset by simply thinking differently; you start by acting differently. When your actions change, you start to see and experience the world differently, which impacts your overall mindset as a result.

This essentially means stepping outside of your normal routine for a period of time and engaging in deliberate practice, which can be a challenge.

So what kind of deliberate practice does Clark recommend? He offers five actions to “jump-start the process”:

  1. Get Curious: Curiosity may seem like a state of mind, but it’s really an active pursuit of deeper knowledge. Always ask the next question, especially when a viewpoint is contrary to your own. Don’t try to be right; instead find the right answers when it comes to what works now.

  2. Start Small: You want to think big, but test small. Failure is nothing to be afraid of in this context, and yet the fear of failure often keeps us paralyzed. So instead, perform small experiments that are low risk if and when you make a mistake.

  3. Own the Problem: Unlearning begins with the accountability for a new approach, and transformation begins with you. You can’t count on leadership to make the right calls, but the people who answer to you need to see you as a role model for effective change.

  4. Get Uncomfortable: Even when starting small, you’re experimenting with new behaviors that will likely be difficult. This may feel uncomfortable, but by putting yourself in situations where you are outside of your comfort zone, new opportunities and personal growth will follow.

  5. Keep Going: The process of resetting your thinking and behavior is a continuous cycle of personal development. When most people think you should stop doing what you’re doing and just revert back to what’s comfortable, that’s when the breakthroughs begin to happen.

It’ll take time and effort, but given persistence, determination, and a focused pursuit, we can all learn how to unlearn the things we need to leave behind.

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