The brain is often seen—mostly incorrectly—as having a short period of learning ability that ends early in life, never to be revisited. Although this circumstance is functionally the case at the present time in our culture, in reality the human brain is an incredibly flexible piece of hardware. As such, it can unlearn previously learned information as easily as it learns new things. (Indeed, how is something truly “learned” if it can be replaced by more true or valid information in the future?).
To “learn” (whether the information learned is true or false) is to make neural connections in the brain and therefore to crystallize patterns of perception and thought. Learning to unlearn, as well as learn, might be the brain-exercise needed to ward off conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which seem to result from mental rigidity and crystallized neural connections.
In other words, being closed to new ideas or ways of thinking makes us at greater risk for such conditions, and learning to break free of old habitual patterns—learning to unlearn—can help us to reduce our risk of them.
We each have a mind that is expressed through its physical counterpart, the brain. The brain’s configuration, seen (in one way) as connections between brain cells, is the physical representation of the non-physical contents of our mind. When we are born, many of these neural connections aren’t there yet; they’re made as we encounter life experience, and reinforced when new experience jibes with old experience—or, more correctly, when we believe that the new experience jibes with the old experience, whether it really does or not!
If we allow it, fear produces in the mind an incorrect idea about the reality we encounter, solidifying this idea through new connections in our brain chemistry and making it part of our conception of the world and our place in it. As always, the power of the mind to cause our experience is demonstrated—for our own betterment or detriment.
This doesn’t make us quite a “blank slate” as psychology used to teach, though. Our physical container (genetic makeup) determines our tendencies, potentials, talents, and creative abilities, which are brought forth to a greater or lesser degree in our lives through the shaping-force of our experiences. We are “nature” plus “nurture”: biology plus experience, or brain plus neural connections.
When we say that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” we’re saying that an older person’s neurons are linked together in a certain way that keeps him or her from learning anything new or different. This old saying isn’t true, though, even if you can see evidence of it at every turn. Contrary to popular thought (“common sense”), information can also be unlearned. To unlearn is to undo these neural connections, making them available for use in a new and better way.
To unlearn is to allow the possibility that we are wrong in some way, and to explore other possible ways of looking at the world. Unlearning is the way to freedom! Through it, our misconceptions are identified and corrected. Unlearning frees the mind, breaking patterns of neural communication and therefore automatic thought.
Unlearning is what I call “revolutionary spirituality.” The more supple and flexible the body/brain is (by remaining open to new understanding and experience), the more open the link is between the body/brain and the mind/spirit. Thus, what we call the “spiritual path” naturally leads to a healthier brain! It leads to a reduced risk of unhealthy brain conditions that can result from the crystallization of these brain-connections.
To take care of your brain is to take care of the rest of you—in every way—and the best way to take care of your brain is to clear out any incorrect perceptions you have about yourself and the reality you encounter: to unlearn!