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Learning and Unlearning Habits

When people learn a new computer game, what happens? Especially a pretty good gamer and a pretty fast paced game. He forms some habits. He learns to press certain combos of buttons. He learns to react in X way to Y situation. He learns some pattern recognition – for various patterns, start shooting. For various other patterns, start blocking. Stuff like that.

So he’s creating, in a matter of minutes, new habits, new automatic reactions, new intuitions, new things that are now second nature or intuitive and he can do them without much thought. You have to get the basics of the game to be like that so you can think about more advanced strategy. Just as we automate walking around in real life, we also need to automate walking around in video games so we can focus on other parts of the games. (btw sometimes ppl automate video game controls so much that they forget what the controls are. like you ask them how they did that, and they are like “uhhhh i hit the button, idk i didn’t think about it”. sometimes they have to like look at their hand to see what buttons they are pressing, or stop and remember the buttons, or something. it’s so automatic they aren’t thinking about it. it’s a little like asking a person which muscles he uses when walking, except less hard.)

ok so this video game player is creating habits/automazations/etc. and what always happens is: some are mistakes. so he has to unlearn some. he has to change some. some of his first guesses about how to play the game turn out wrong.

and that isn’t that big a deal. that’s just part of learning. you gotta do some unlearning too. video game players do that all the time. it’s so common.

sometimes you have to relearn things even if you didn’t make a mistake, btw. like you learn to beat a boss, then later there is a similar boss with some changes. so you take your old habits for the first boss and you make adjustments so they can work on the second boss. so in some situation, with the new boss, you have to stop yourself from doing Y after X, as you were in the habit of doing. you dismantle the habit that was automating that.

when people can’t dismantle or change automated habits it’s commonly an indication of irrationality, dishonesty, etc. it can also be an indication that the habit is used by a hundred other habits which rely on it, so it’s hard to mess with because of its complex involvement in lots of other stuff you don’t want to break. and ppl forget how habits work that they made long ago, especially in early childhood, which is what’s going on with some sexual orientation stuff (that’s in addition to the other things from earlier in this paragraph, it doesn’t have to be just one).

Mastery typically comes from practicing to the point that encountering new errors is rare, and you figured out solutions to all the errors you’ve seen before (except maybe a few rare ones that you decided to ignore). When nothing is gonna go wrong then you can go faster and it starts getting boring consciously (cuz there’s nothing left for your conscious mind to do, no changes are needed, no additional creativity is needed) and you stop paying conscious attention to it. (people often stop paying conscious attention way too early, btw, which prevents them actually getting good at stuff.)

The above were two sections of a Fallible Ideas email I wrote in 2019. I edited the term "workstation" to "habit" in a few places. I talked about mental workstations in this post, but "habit" is clearer for people who haven't read that. I was answering a question about firing workers at one's mental workstations (aka automatized ideas, aka habits) or dismantling/retiring the workstations. I like the metaphor of the mind as a factory with many workstations (with machines, robots or low-skill workers) and the conscious mind as a manager, inspector or leader who can go around and look at workstations, review what people are doing, make changes, build new workstations, etc., and when the manager isn't present the workstations keep running without him (the unconscious mind). You can only look at one part of your mind at a time (or maybe fewer than ten parts at once), and the only way to get much done is with automation so stuff works without your manager/conscious-attention being there. Your mind is like a powerful factory that's mostly automated and whenever you need to do manual labor (conscious/manager attention) that's really inefficient and slow. Conscious/manager attention is best used for fixing workstations or creating new workstations, not for doing work that could be done by a workstation. (It's OK for the manager to do work a few times when you're new to it, to figure out how to do it, but then he needs to delegate. Practice should involve figuring out how to delegate and set up automated workstations to do something and get those working right, not your conscious mind doing everything itself. Practice should primarily be a process of automating, not a process of your consciousness/manager practicing stuff himself. Once you figure out how to do something initially, then further practice should be kinda like doing job-training for subordinates (the subordinates being cheap, plentiful mental resources that require little to no conscious attention once they're set up). The conscious mind tells them what to do then watches them try doing the work and gives corrections.)

Elliot Temple on June 16, 2021


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