3 Brains and Why We Resist Learning Something New
Learning something new is difficult, we all know this. But why? What is actually happening in our brain, scientifically, when we learn something new? What makes it so uncomfortable or annoying, or even terrifying?
Of course, the answer is complicated, but also pretty simple if we understand how our brain works. Our brain is a complex system of neural networks. Our deepest patterns, tendencies and hardwired responses connect to the deepest levels of our brain, to the reptile brain. That reptile level of brain governs responses such as survival, aggression, fear and anger, and other primal instincts to keep us alive. It is also wired to our nervous system and physiology directly – including our heartbeat, respiration and autonomic functions.
When we learn something new, something that will hopefully inspire us, we are looking to activate the “human” part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, the abstract-thinking brain. We use this brain to derive meaning in life, to ponder our purpose and to evolve beyond just the conditioned responses of the reptile.
Between the reptile and human brain is the mammal brain, the brain of stimulation and socialization and curiosity about all things. In many ways, it is this brain that does the learning and the information gathering. Eventually, the learning and gathering of data (much like our hunter/gatherer past) leads to wisdom, purpose and meaning.
Inner Brains and Inner Conflicts and Giving Up
Along the way, our more primal and instinctive brains resist. We experience frustration and stress on the primal level, when our preconceived ideas clash with the new information we are learning. We compare new information and data, with our existing beliefs and see they either support and expand them, or perhaps are in conflict with them.
When we find the information and teachings we agree with and believe in, the brain is getting rewired. The neural pathways are getting reformed. This process of reforming these neural networks can be exhilarating, as if we are being cast into the unknown for a while. But even in the best case there is difficulty, and at times we need a break. This is why it is often encouraged to “get away from it” for a while when we are learning something new, so our values can catch up with the new information, and certain pathways can be reset.
However, there is also a danger when we are learning something new, when we “get away from it” for a while, that we never return – and instead we return to our previous tendencies. As these neural pathways are getting redirected toward the new knowledge, they are still very fragile, and if they are neglected we will simply snap back into our old ways.
Repetition and Staying on the Path
It is like a group of people walking through the woods. If they all follow each other, their footsteps will cumulatively create a path on the ground. If we have five people following each other, the path will not be as noticeable. If we have 100 people following each other, the path is much deeper and ingrained. If we have thousands of people, all following each other, a path is automatically created.
Eventually, if someone wanted to pave a cement road through that same section of the woods, they would already have a path through which to pave the road. But they would need act while the path is still fresh. Let’s say 100 people walk through that path everyday for weeks, then never return again or pave over the path, then what will happen? The path that was once clear and noticeable will eventually disappear and be overtaken again by nature’s course, weeds and inertia.
This is how the neural networks operate in your brain. There are stages of neural responses. Some are very new paths, others have been walked over for a few weeks or months, and others are hardwired, with decades of conditioning behind them.
Those decades long hardwired pathways are instinctive, but not necessarily beneficial. Again, when we learn something new, it is usually because were trying to shift some of the difficult instincts and responses, to something more enlightened.
Teachings That Stick – The role of Teachers and “Satsang”
This is why it is crucial when we are learning transformative information to be aware of simply returning to our comfort zone after a stage of learning and transformation is finished. What do we do once we return home from the Yoga retreat or the time spent with our Guru? Although we may “need a break from it” sometimes, we always need to be careful not to revert back to the negative tendencies we were trying to overcome with the new teaching. We need to examine our fears and frustrations during this transition process, to make sure we are not simply reverting back to our comfort zone.
As we are learning something new, especially “life-changing, transformative information” we often need more than the information itself; we need emotional support. This support can come in many forms. Of course, a good teacher understands the need for both information and support. Hopefully he or she knows when to push the student forward and when to comfort them as the student and their worldview changes. But in addition to the teacher, the community of fellow students is also invaluable in offering the necessary support as we integrate life-changing information and teachings.