Science Questions

Can I unlearn something?

Mon, 22nd Aug 2016

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Question

Robert asked:

Can I unlearn something?

Answer

To get to the bottom of it, Claire Armstrong spoke to Cambridge University Thinking apeneuroscientist, Laura Ford…

Laura - So to start to answer this question it’s important to think about what learning is at the neuronal level. We have two nerve cells that are talking to each other really; there’s a message that's sent from one cell and it’s received to the other neuron and this is a reinforced connection because we use it very often, and we’re learning, and recalling information.

So what we need to do is try and encourage that neuron to talk to another neuron, and that’s the process of unlearning.

Claire - So by changing which neurons talk to one another it is possible to unlearn something?

Laura - Absolutely! It is essential that we are able to unlearn things. If we think of an example; we have a baby crying and we want to comfort that baby in the middle of the night to allow them to go back to sleep. And so the baby will learn, it will associate that when it cries then it will have a cuddle so, for the sake of our sanity, we want the child to unlearn this behaviour. So we’ll undertake a process which is called extinction, which is this idea of just slowly creeping away and letting your child know that you're there but allowing them to learn how to self-sooth.

Claire - So what exactly is going on in a baby’s brain when this is happening?

Laura - Neurons - they form network, they talk to each other. The more they talk to each other, the better friends they become. Put it this way - it almost becomes a hardwired in the system when we learn something and this happens very heavily throughout the process when we’re growing up and we’re learning and acquiring new information, and incorporating it in our networks. But we can, with a lot of encouragement, persuade that neuron to talk to a different neuron and make friends with them instead, and this is a process of unlearning. And the way that you’re doing that is it’s a lot more effortful in the first instance but then that itself can also become habitual.

So it’s just this idea of asking your networks to be recruited in a different way and neurons to speak to a different one than they might be used to.  And that may be harder than acquiring information just when you're learning off pat, but it certainly can be done and, in some cases, it is essential!

Claire - Thanks Laura - I’ll bear that in mind next time I notice a bad habit! I guess this means there’s hope that one day I can shake them off. Next time on question of the week we’ll be squeezing out the answer to this question.

Kevin - Why does linedrying make clothes rough?

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