14 June 2017 by Rachel Paling

I am always fascinated by the interaction between the conscious and the subconscious brain. Fascinated when learning a language, how when we get the learner into a “flow” state, which I call the “perfect learning state” with the “alpha” and “low beta” brainwaves interplaying and the non-aroused limbic system allowing the free flow of thought/recall through the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex and the learner in a positive frame of mind with the right “positive chemicals” being produced. And I am always reminded of Timothy Gallwey in his book The Inner Game of Tennis and his wonderful denominations of “thinking brain” and performing brain”; the conscious brain and subconscious brain respectively. And we know that often when we are performing “skill activities”, which are embedded in the subconscious brain – meaning we have practiced and performed the skill enough for it to be an automatic programme – as soon as we start to “think through” that activity, we find to our horror it actually becomes harder to do it. So, in fact, if we shift into the thinking brain and think it through step by step, the whole activity goes to “pot”.

Fascinated by this interplay, I have been observing my own thinking and performing brain and testing out what happens when I start to shift from one to the other. Some months ago, while swimming, I started to observe when and how I was performing “breaststroke”, so when exactly did my arms move forwards and outwards and my legs forwards and outwards and as soon as I started to question the timing and observe the actions, I started to lose the rhythm completely and was more and more out of sync. Another example was in Zumba. I am constantly fascinated how people just come into a Zumba class and just do it. As a trained dancer, I was always used to being shown and taught slowly each dance move and how to piece steps together into a routine. In Zumba, they do nothing of the sort. You arrive and you just have to “do it”, as no-one shows you and you just have to pick it up somehow. Amazingly when I see new people coming in, somehow, they muddle through and they DO in fact DO IT! And equally amazingly is that when I stop thinking and just do it, it flows naturally, but when I start to think what is coming next and where/how to move then I lose the flow.

Even more interestingly is when I am with my boxing trainer. Most weeks I am with my trainer and we practice punch combinations with me punching his flat gloves in varied, fast combinations. It is fascinating to notice that when he tells me the combination he wants, my brain gets it really quite quickly, so he can tell me “jab – jab – hook – uppercut” and I instantly register it and do it. Normally we repeat the sequence various times, always trying to be faster and stronger with the punch. When my brain is free from interference, the punches flow naturally and quickly and I come into a consistent rhythm. The fascinating thing is when my mind starts to get interference from my “mind chatter”, for example I start to think about work or things that have happened and my thinking brain distracts me away from the punches. Immediately my timing starts to slow down; my punches go to pot and concentration starts to fail. Honestly it is amazing, how the distracting brain slows down and even blocks the flow from the performing brain. My trainer always knows when I am “clouding” over because it is so obvious in my flailing performance and I have to immediately shake myself back into concentration, block out those interfering thoughts and get back into the punches fast, otherwise I find my trainer´s glove in my face! And this leads me to my next question? What is in fact concentration? Actually, from my boxing example, does concentration mean focused attention on the task at hand, allowing the performing brain to flow naturally and without distractions? How can we match the thinking brain and performing brain theory with the “distracting thought intereference” ?

Considering this, I do believe it strongly depends on “what” we are doing at the time.

1)     Learning something totally new – means that we have to concentrate fully on the new information and that means the conscious thinking brain/working memory has to be absolutely engaged. We have to do enough repetitions of the new to embed it deeper. Theoretically, the focus here is more on the thinking than the performing as we do not know it well enough to “just perform” and we have to fully concentrate on the new input.

2)     Something new, but similar/same as previously done. With training we learn “different aspects” of an activity. Take tennis, dance or boxing for example. There are various moves and combinations, which we train and prepare our brain to “react”. So, looking at Zumba. How come people arrive and just “do it”? Well I do believe that if the activity is similar to something we have done before, the brain starts to relate to what it knows and then applies prior knowledge to the new task at hand, so in fact we have an interplay of “thinking” plus “past performing”. Concentration here means “not allowing the distractions, so that the subconscious can apply the similar or the previously learnt and just getting on with the performance”.

3)     Performing without thinking – that mastery state, where we perform and we mostly we perform with the thinking brain actually “thinking” about something else! In this case the activity is so deeply engrained that it is becomes “automatic” and seemingly we lose all “concentration”. The danger here is that it becomes so automated that we lose awareness and this may lead to “glitches”. Over the years I have coached some technicians from an Electricity Grid company and we have often talked about the fact that some of the fatal accidents repairing the grid or transmission stations have probably occurred because the technicians were operating in such an automatic mode that they did not take enough care and ended up losing their lives. Pilots also have to regularly go through the simulator to ensure that they refresh their “subconscious training” and re-stimulate their reaction senses. So, could it be good to actually, now and then, bring consciousness and awareness into our subconscious programmes to ensure that those programmes are running without glitches?

What about language learning? Interestingly I believe we do go through all stages 1, 2, and 3, but in a spiral build-up of the language. When we start to learn from scratch (1), we need to use the thinking brain and concentrate on the new information. However, I strongly believe that if we can help the learner to connect to already known native language structures and vocabulary, then we can bring in some “previous knowledge” (2) to assist the learning process. An interplay between (1) and (2) will ensure a faster learning effect. This has in fact been beautifully justified in the research 2016 of Kirsten Weber, Morten H. Christiansen, Karl Magnus Petersson, Peter Indefrey, and Peter Hagoort. fMRI Syntactic and Lexical Repetition Effects Reveal the Initial Stages of Learning a New Language. Journal of Neuroscience, June 2016 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3180-15.2016. In this research, it has been shown that it helps the brain “if it can reuse characteristics of our mother tongue when learning a new language”.

Once a learner consolidates the new information, assisted by bridging with native language structures and connections, this goes more and more into long term memory and mastery (3), but then we add more language, new areas, new tenses, new vocabulary and in this way we are continuously building and building the language knowledge. Quite intriguing how the brain step by step gets deeper and deeper into the language with constant interplay between conscious and subconscious.

Looking forward to some of your comments and your thoughts on the subconscious and conscious interaction throughout the language learning process. 😊