The Intangibility of Learning and Change

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Published on 03-27-2016
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How many of us at one point or another in the lifespan of our musical training, have acknowledged to ourselves or others that we have hit an impasse in the educational process? How many of us have exclaimed that in no uncertain terms we have hit a plateau that we are unable to bypass? How many of us have walked away from our guitars declaring the end of our protracted acquaintance with the instrument because we were at a standstill? From personal experience, I will go out on a limb and proclaim that every musician that I know or have known has reached some sort of an obstacle that seems to prevent them from mastering a particular skill or skills on their instrument of choice. But why is this? Do we, as human beings reach developmental points where we no longer are capable of absorbing new material into our brains? Or are our hands simply limited when it comes to translating what our brains have already learned? Or, if I may take one step further into the unknown, are we actually learning during those periods of time when we're positive that have reached our limits?

Researchers in the field of Psychology have differentiated between two distinct types of learning:

1)Explicit Learning- external learning or learning that occurs on a conscious level; active learning.

2) Implicit Learning-learning that occurs without conscious knowledge of any tangible or noticeable change; acquiring knowledge without conscious awareness of that acquisition or passive acquisition of knowledge.

Based on a series of studies conducted in the 1980's, subjects were found to be able to "ingest" certain bits of information without conscious knowledge of it. Conclusions of one study in particular showed that participants in the study were in fact learning on an implicit level, but were unable to recall acquisition of that knowledge The study was conducted with subjects viewing circles on a computer screen and identifying where the circle would be appearing next, despite the fact that the circle was popping up in (seemingly) random locations. The subjects were not advised that the circle was actually appearing and re-appearing in a sequential form. Subjects, over time, were responding more and more quickly showing that despite the fact that they were not conscious of particular patterns appearing, they actually were learning the sequences on a subconscious level.

"... implicit learning is related to our non-conscious wanting and works towards attaining our non-conscious goals..." (March, Psychological Science). This study amongst others has brought to light the fact that learning is occurring on a subconscious level, and an unknown amount of human learning is likely occurring at this level.

So what does this have to do with music and the inevitable roadblocks that we all inevitably find ourselves up against? Well despite the preponderance of evidence that one finds in the archives of Psychological Journals and dusty textbooks concerning the implicit learning of shapes and their appearance on computer screens, musical research is still really in its infancy. But despite the lack of availability of salient research in this area, I believe it is of the utmost importance that one takes a leap of faith at least for the benefit of one's own sanity and the betterment of one's musical education. So I ask myself "do I acquire musical knowledge implicitly? Am I learning how to play an F#m9 chord on the fourteenth fret even when I'm not even holding the guitar? Am I acquiring the ability to strum when I'm sleeping? Am I composing lyrics to future songs while I explore the dark realm of unconscious slumber?"

To be quite honest, I am absolutely positive that I have learned, and continue to learn music on an implicit level. How do I know this you might be asking? I can't tell you how many times I have awoken from a deep sleep only to find a melody line plastered into my waking moments like an obnoxious and unrelenting commercial jingle. Or how many times I have opened my eyes in the crisp cold of the Colorado morning with lyrics in my head so profound that it was all I could do to keep myself from leaping out of bed to transcribe the poignant words. In fact, more than one of my songs contains words that I wrote in my sleep and later added the appropriate chords and melody. Did I actually compose those lyrics and melody in waking hours and then forget them only to rediscover them while counting sheep? I think not. I believe, as the quote from Psychological Science points out, that we are constantly working towards acquiring knowledge that will move us ever-closer to our goals. I believe that we are processing massive amounts of information in our sleep-state and a great deal of that information has to do with problem solving. And if some of the most prominent problems weighing upon our conscious mind have to do with how to form a B-chord without muting the high E-string, or how to play and sing simultaneously, then chances are we are working on those problems even at a subconscious level regardless of our conscious awareness of them.

So the question still looms ominously in the distance "how do I go beyond this plateau that seems to be holding me back and keeping me from progressing?" And the only answer that I have for anybody including myself, (since I have hit many plateaus and continue to do so) is to continue doing what you love. It's more than likely that you are still learning on an implicit level regardless of the fact that your conscious mind may not be aware of it. Practicing through the barrier with a smile on your face and a knowledge that you love music with all of your heart is always a good way to tackle an obstacle. And who knows, maybe you will awaken fresh with the knowledge that you have sought so passionately in the light of day.

Mark Lincoln M.A.
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