March 29

Unlearning: Why Dropping Brain Baggage Is Harder Than Packing It In

In a world that constantly emphasizes the importance of acquiring new knowledge and skills, the concept of unlearning might seem counterintuitive, if not outright perplexing. After all, why would we want to let go of what we’ve spent so much time and effort learning?

You must unlearn what you have learned. Yoda, Star Wars.

What is unlearning?

Imagine you’ve spent years building up a treasure trove of beliefs, habits, and bits of knowledge. That’s your go-to toolkit for life. But here’s the twist – not everything in that toolkit will be useful forever. The world changes, we change, and sometimes, those tools don’t cut it anymore. That’s where unlearning steps in. It’s about sifting through that toolkit and being brave enough to toss out the stuff that’s more of a hindrance than a help.

Hard, isn’t it? Unlearning is not about discarding knowledge indiscriminately but about letting go of outdated, incorrect, or limiting beliefs and practices to make room for new, more accurate, and empowering ones. 

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Alvin Toffler

Why do we need to unlearn?

We see examples all the time for why we need to unlearn.

Barely a century ago, cigarettes were promoted as a cure for hay fever and asthma, and wait for it, shortness of breath! It took decades of effort and eventually a surgeon general’s warning about smoking’s disastrous health consequences before nicotine and tobacco use started to diminish.

Or, take the case of antibiotics: most of you will probably remember a time when every cough or ear infection “required” an antibiotic. Now, we live in an era of drug-resistant superbugs and have to painfully realize that we shouldn’t have loved antibiotics so much after all.

Why is unlearning difficult?

Change is hard. Most of us don’t like change, especially in areas that have worked well for us in the past. But change, as they say, is the only constant. And the first step to change is unlearning — a process that’s often more challenging than learning something new.

Here are some key reasons why we struggle with unlearning:

Familiarity and emotional attachment

We are products of our environment, and many habits, beliefs, and ways of thinking are deeply ingrained over time. As a result, we often develop emotional attachments to our identities that make it difficult to let go.

Ego Protection

Our ego plays a significant role in how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. Admitting that we need to unlearn something can feel like a blow to our ego, as it may imply that we were wrong or ignorant.

Social Pressure

Our social environment significantly shapes our beliefs and behaviors. Peer pressure, societal norms, and cultural expectations can influence our willingness to unlearn certain beliefs or habits, especially if they are deeply ingrained in our social identity.

Time and Effort

Unlearning is not a quick or easy process. The time, effort, and commitment required to challenge our existing beliefs and behaviors and explore new perspectives can be daunting and intimidating, often enough to keep us in our current lane.

How to unlearn?

Now, for the hard part. How do we begin the process of unlearning?

Listen. Don’t just hear.
Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence. Robert Frost

When we hear new ideas, especially ones that challenge our existing beliefs, we’re prone to go into defense mode. We construct arguments in our heads to defend our beliefs instead of actually listening to the alternate point of view.

Unlearning requires us to listen to an alternate idea without judgment. The analysis can come later.

Self-reflect
In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer

That thing you’ve always believed? Poke it with a stick. See if it still holds up. Kick back and have a heart-to-heart with yourself. What beliefs are you holding onto that might not serve you anymore?

Question your assumptions and beliefs. Ask yourself whether they are based on evidence or inherited from past experiences.

No one says it’ll be easy. But it’s a start and a step in the right direction.

Finally

Dr. Burwell, a cardiologist, in an address to the Harvard Medical School, once said,

Half of what we are going to teach you is wrong, and half of it is right. Our problem is that we don't know which half is which.

The importance of remaining open-minded, adaptable, and willing to challenge our existing beliefs and assumptions cannot be overstated. The world is constantly changing, and what worked in the past may not be relevant today.

Our world is like a speeding train—we’ll lose our way if we insist on navigating with an old map.

Unlearning allows us to adapt to new circumstances, technologies, and ways of thinking. And it requires us to step out of our comfort zones and endure the discomfort of letting go of familiar patterns.

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already, but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him. Leo Tolstoy

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