An often cited statistic is that most people are using about 10% of their brains. This is far from accurate as virtually all of the brain material is engaged in various processes from breathing to hunger. But, according to T.D. Wilson of the Harvard University Press, conscious processing is estimated to account for less than a thousandth of a percent of all sensory information processed. If you expect to learn through conscious thinking, utilizing 10% of your brainpower is actually aiming pretty high.
Most learning is unconscious. You won’t realize what you have learned when you learn it and you won’t be able to articulate it when you do. My recent posts on holistic learning, focus on conscious learning. But most learning outside the classroom isn’t in your awareness. Maximizing your ability for unconscious learning is the key to virtually all excellence from chess to charisma.
Conscious learning is a relatively new addition in the evolutionary venture of the brain. Since sea slugs began sliding out of the ocean with simple nervous systems, life has had the ability to learn. Even some worms with only a few dozen neurons can learn to associate a harmless puff of water with a painful shock. With a brain trillions of times more complex, you are capable of a lot more.
You might find it hard to believe that most the things you learn are outside your awareness. Seeing how often you think, it would seem that most the things you learned come from rational thought. You’ve never woken up one day finding you could automatically conduct a symphony or comprehend Einstein’s formula’s, so where is all this learning beneath the surface. Better yet, how can you use it?
A psychological study was conducted in which the participants were told to listen to a series of beeps and to press a clicker. If they pressed the clicker at the right time in the pattern, they would be awarded a small amount of money each time as a prize. Across from them was a small display with an indicator for whenever they were correct.
What the participants didn’t realize is that the clicker and beeps had nothing to do with winning the prize. Instead, they were set up to win every time they blinked. The participants tried repeatedly, but none figured it out. However, part of their brain figured out how the game worked without their awareness. Sure enough, participants began blinking more as it was being rewarded, even though they didn’t realize they were doing it.
Your ability to learn without realizing it extends far beyond blinking. Computers, athletics, business, charisma and virtually all skills are based largely on unconscious learning. This is why reading a book about golfing won’t improve your game. You are trying to shove a mountain of information through a tiny funnel.
Maximizing Unconscious Learning
Unconscious learning is done in a strict trial and error fashion. Feedback adjusts all behaviors. Reward some behaviors, like blinking, and they will increase. Punish certain behaviors and they will be reduced. You can maximize your ability to learn unconsciously by improving your ability to practice.
The practice method and environment will largely determine how fast you improve. The work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson  tracked what made the difference in building skills. From this research and my own experience I’ve found three simple steps can ensure that your practice environment facilitates learning.
Step One: Increase Repetitions
All practice is based on doing something repeatedly. The more often you can do a meaningful repetition of what you want to learn, the faster it gets ingrained into your subconscious mind. The simplest way to increase repetitions is simply to practice more, but this consumes more time and energy. The smartest way to increase repetitions is to engineer your practicing so it has a faster cycle.
Writing a blog article takes an hour or two. Writing a book can take a year or two. You can fill hundreds of repetitions for blog articles in the span of writing a book. Therefore if you want to improve your writing, many pieces that you can get feedback from will teach you faster than a single large piece.
Sometimes the default method of practicing for what you want to learn will be really slow. In these cases you need to be creative to speed up the number of repetitions. I have gotten a lot of value from Toastmasters for public speaking because, among other things, you can get in a number of small speaking roles every week which can give you quick feedback.
Step Two: Immediate Feedback
Amount of practice isn’t enough. Ericsson’s research helped to show why surgeons tend to gain skill much faster than general practitioners with the same amount of experience. The reason was that surgery tends to give feedback about it’s success immediately, whereas an incorrect diagnoses by a general practitioner could take years to manifest. Without immediate feedback, the unconscious areas of the brain devoted to learning won’t work.
Feedback time is crucial to learning. If it will take you weeks, months or years before you find out whether an attempt was successful, learning will be slow. A great way to do this is simply to join or form a group devoted to practicing and giving feedback for what you want to learn. Toastmasters evaluates every speaking role immediately after the event so that members can get feedback for their role.
The internet is also a fantastic place to test out many concepts and skills because of the access to immediate feedback. Writing this blog has drastically improved my writing skill more than any writing class I’ve taken. If I wanted to go into acting, comedy or music I’d start by immediately producing video’s and clips and releasing them on services like YouTube or forums. Getting creative is key to reducing feedback delay that kills your practice.
Step Three: Valid Feedback
Practice feedback needs to match real feedback. Practicing mini golf on your computer probably won’t improve your short game much on the green. Any practice sessions need to accurately mimic the environment you are actually going to be working in. This will never be perfect, but without valid feedback you won’t end up learning what is really important.
The best way to learn how to run a business is to run a business. The best way to learn how to speak to an audience is to get on stage. The best way to learn soccer is to start playing. Use the real world as your starting point for optimizing practice. Once you have the real situation, you can modify it slightly so that the feedback time and repetition time is reduced.
Although occasionally entry barriers exist that prevent you from practicing in the real world, not practicing your skill in a realistic setting is usually a sign of laziness then an actual barrier. With the internet as a powerful tool for connecting people you can probably just google a method to practice what you want to learn.
Learning Without Realizing It
You are sitting with the most powerful computing processor in the universe between your ears, but without effective practice it is going to waste. Your ability to think is valuable, but your ability to learn is priceless and the two don’t have to go together. If you don’t practice effectively you can spend months and years without learning anything.
Faster practice, less delays of feedback and results that mirror reality are the keys to practice. Whether you want to become a charismatic conversationalist or an intelligent investor, successful practice is critical. Utilize your subconscious and start using the other 99% of your brain.