Brain-Based Learning Secret: Implicit Learning

Brain-Based Learning Secret: Implicit Learning

Understanding that most of our learning is not obvious at all.  In fact, it is called The Nature of Implicit learning

Movement, dance, physical education, theater, recess, aerobics, energizers and sports all comprise a different kind of learning than lecture. To do them certainly requires knowledge and skill. We call this kind of learning implicit. While the more common, test-oriented, explicit learning (lecture, textbooks, research, video and discussion) is obvious and we’re aware we’re doing it, implicit is different. Implicit learning is the acquisition of knowledge that takes place primarily outside of conscious attempts to learn it. It takes place normally in the absence of knowing that it was learned, and how it was acquired. Many types of learning can be implicit including, but not limited to, movements (sports, games and play), trauma (emotional learning), stimulus-response learning (hand on the hot stove),  generalized  learning  (the  nonconscious  extraction  of patterns), procedural learning (riding a bike) and imitation learning (learning by demonstration). The focus here will be on the types of learning more typically found in an educational setting.

Brain based learning is knowing how our brain works, then using that to foster better student outcomes.

To Understand It Is To Love it

If you hadn’t changed a light bulb for five years, could you still do it? But if you hadn’t heard the name of the longest river in Europe for five years, would you still know it?  The likely answer is yes to the light bulb and no to the river question. When students learn, scientists often describe the kind of learning as either explicit (semantic and episodic) or implicit (reflexive or procedural). Researchers  believe  that  these  two  systems  operate  somewhat independently, with some overlap. This book will explore how and why learning by doing may be far more important than you thought.

Examples of explicit, semantic learning are what you are currently learning as you read this book. The explicit, episodic learning is the memories you’ll store of where you were when you read this book, what was around you, who did you talk to about it and other related context questions. So the explicit system works by gathering information about the world in “what” (semantic) and “where” (episodic)  pathways.  Whether  at  school  or  at  home,  you  learn content in a context. Both of these memory pathways are highly engaged in a school setting.

Explicit learning is information gathering
Implicit learning is organizing responses

The implicit system, in contrast,  work by organizing your responses to the world around you. This includes the “wow” responses (“knee- jerkers”)   like instant emotions, conditioned responses, trauma, reflexive behaviors)   and the more measured “how” responses (procedural, skill-based, operational, tactile). Both of these systems work well together– take in the information about our world, then organize your response to it. Could you use all four of these memory pathways? Yes, and we often do. Most commonly, we use the semantic learning pathways for so-called seatwork and the procedural learning pathways for skills-based learning, more typical in an arts or P.E. class. Brain based learning is knowing how our brain works, then using that to foster better student outcomes.

Before getting too deep into the understanding of implicit learning, and important caveat needs to be introduced here. While I’m making many distinctions between explicit (the more overt) and implicit (more covert) types of learning, there is, in fact no clean distinction. Learning that begins as explicit may become implicit over time (reading about how to do a task, then doing the task, then forgetting what you read). Or, learning may begin explicit (playing a sport), then become explicit (coaching the sport). It is helpful to think of them as complementary systems for navigating successfully in this world. They are being “separated” into distinct systems only for the purpose of getting some clarity about how they operate and what they can do your learners. It’s almost as if, once you have taken apart a clock and found out how it makes time (it’s now broken), then you can put it back together again so it can tell time. For a more thorough discussion on this topic, the reader may explore Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge by Arthur Reber.

10 Reasons to LOVE More Implicit Learning

Having said that, implicit learning is special for many reasons. It is in fact, much more reliable than the old-style classroom, text-book read  and  memorize  system  of  education.  As  compared  to  the “talking head” teacher in a traditional classroom, implicit learning, active learning, shows the following distinctions and advantages.

1.  Robustness. The effects are greater, with more duration. With implicit learning, we can take more of it in per day.  The length of time that implicit learning lasts is significantly  longer than that of explicit learning. There’s a large, unambiguous data base which supports  the  size  and  magnitude  of  in-the-body  learning (Greenwald 1992).

2.  Age independent. Students from pre-K to university level (and well into the senior years)   demonstrate the ability to learn and retain implicit knowledge. (Parkin and Streete 1988) It’s limitless.

3.  Ease of learning. A great deal of implicit learning can happen from role-modeling, nonconscious acquisition, trial and error, video, experimentation and peer demonstrations. (Reber 1993). Currently, neurophysiologists believe that our brain is forming very simple inputs that can be predicted, and over time, to become massively complex neural networks. These parallel systems have been computer modeled and applied to implicit learning with good success (Jennings and Keele 1991), suggesting that  the connectionist model may be responsible for easy, yet ultimately complex learning. There is also a better understanding of the cortical mechanisms for imitation learning, another form of implicit and one of the easiest of all learning types. (Iacoboni et al. 1999)

4.  Cross-cultural.  This  method  of  learning  shows  robust  effects across the entire range of human cultures. Implicit learning effects show low variability from one individual to the next. This argument is particularly easy to make. When you have traveled from urban to rural, from state to state and country to country, is there really much difference in how people learn? In a classroom or business context, maybe yes. In the hands-on, real-world of life itself, there are no differences.

5.  Intelligence independent. There are a surprisingly number of ways that we learn implicitly. In fact, most standard classroom explicit learning, implicit tasks show little concordance with measures of intelligence like an IQ test. (Reber et al. 1991). Dr. Frank Wilson, author of The Hand, discovered very little difference in the learning capacity or intelligence of a wide range of professions including juggling, neurosurgery, puppeteering and mountain climbing. (Wilson 1998)

6.  Efficiency. They take place outside of conscious awareness and require few attentional resources. One can, and often does, learn different information, both explicitly and implicitly at the same time. Go for a bike ride with a friend and you’ll learn content information, rules about bicycling, draw generalized conclusions about your friend and maybe learn about yourself, too. (see Reber 1991, page 16)

7.  Value. Virtually all complex behaviors are primarily implicit. The greater the skills or topic knowledge of an expert, the harder it becomes to explain it.  This one is quite intuitive, too. Ask a 10-year old how to hit a golf ball and you’ll get a simple straightforward answer (“Just swing at it!”). Ask a Tiger Woods and the answer becomes so complex, he’ll tell you it just has to “feel right.” To understand how to hit a ball right, he goes to his coach, Butch Harmon. To a mathematician or chess player, it’s no different. They often solve problems by “feel” but may not be able to explain it easily.

8.  Integrity. Implicit learning is less susceptible to brain insults, Alzheimer’s, dyslexia, aphasia, drug usage and memory decay. Patients who have no conscious memory of a word list can pick out the list from memory with stem completions (when given just the first three letters). There are far too many studies which support this assertion to mention here. (For a good review of the literature, see Reber, pages 18-21)

9.  Transfer. While there is limited transfer in explicit learning (does knowing  names  and  places,  formulas  and  theories  really  help outside of a test?), there is evidence of considerable transfer with implicit learning (Manza and Reber 1992)

10.  Integrative. Implicit learning is powerful because it is the bridge between the body and the mind. This enables us to enhance the learning. Dr. Robert Malmo at McGill University has researched the link between the two. His conclusion, after thirty years of study is that all thinking has a physical link. Malmo has used EEG monitors to record mental activity during a variety of experiments. He found that during cognitive activity, muscle tension varied dramatically depending on content and context. Listening to a story trigger muscular tension. Even telling stories engages muscular tension. Getting praised or criticized impacts muscle tension (Hanna, 1993). Bottom line here is that even when you think we’re doing something mental,  it’s   physical  too.   And   when   you   think   we’re   doing something physical, it’s mental, too.

Now that you’ve read the ten reasons behind explicit learning, tell me: can classroom lectures stand up to that kind of scrutiny or impact? Have you been using something that is more effective than what implicit learning can bring to your learners?  If so, you’ve got magic formula and ought to bottle it and sell it.

More Ways to Remember It

There’s a way of thinking about learning that might change how you view the power of activities. If one of our goals is better student performance, that means what is learned has to be available at test time. There is a hierarchy of remembered items in our brain, because nature has learned what preserves a species. When trauma is induced, we tend to remember it. We also remember places and situations of great pleasure and great pain. We know where good food sources are. We retain the most important numbers and may struggle with the lesser ones. But we also retain motor skills like walking, talking and activities that seem important. At test time, students are, unfortunately, less likely to  remember lectures that they heard. Those are typically pretty low on the survival scale. But there is a solution. That’s what brain based learning is all about: knowing how our brain works, then using that to foster better student outcomes.

By engaging the active pathways (the “how” and “wow”) of implicit learning, you add an additional “hook” to the material learned. The strength of the synaptic connection is enhanced with movement (the “how” pathway) and the emotive “binder” (the “wow” pathway) of shock,  fear,  surprise  or  excitement  attached  to  the  information (Cahill et al. 1994). In addition, you’re engaging many more parts of the brain than are engaged through simple seatwork. If you want your learners to remember what they are learning, there are many strategies you can use. Using more pathways is better than fewer pathways. Repetition is good. Emotional engagement is good. Rest or settling time is good. These are all things that play can do for your learners.

Take the Long view of Play

Too often, because of time pressures and high-stakes testing, we forget that we are part of the long view. Will a learner be better off on any given day if they played yesterday? That’s unlikely. But the long view takes the side of nature and says that we must respect the biological imperatives for our species survival. Why? What does movement, games and play do for us as a species? Surprisingly, some answers are fairly easy.

Cultures have engaged in play for countless generations. Is there genuine value of play among humans? In a nutshell, yes. The first reason for it is survival-oriented. We play because it is a activity that lets us learn without lethal feedback. Lion cubs play so that they may someday hunt. Fish play to practice avoiding predators. Our play, everything from Barbie Doll to jumprope, and Batman to army man,  all  have  the  same  elements.  Soon  they’re  playing  “let’s pretend” and although the first games are simple, they grow in complexity. This valuable exploration play has no end-product and children often have no goals or limitations (Wohlwill 1984). It let’s us act out scenarios in a way that we can learn from them without paying heavy penalties.

It’s low threat, high feedback and high fun. A perfect example of Brain based learning at work, then using that to foster better student outcomes. Many trials, many chances to learn, low risk and time to correct mistakes. Learners have heavy consequences for mistakes at test time (e.g. poor grades, embarrassment, loss of privileges, etc.). But play allows humans to learn quickly from mistakes (a poor throw, a missed social cue, a step too slow, a confused set of directions or inappropriate comment. etc.) without lethal consequences.

Learn fast, learn right, minimal downside risk. From the point of view of learning, you can’t beat play.   The inverted U-shaped distribution suggests that play maximizes the critical period during the selectively experience-dependent stage of synaptic elimination. This is occurring in all areas of the brain, but particularly in the neuron-packed cerebellum with the Purkinje cells, where fine motor output is delineated (Beyers 1998). Researchers say, “Playing animals, including humans, are motivated to repeat newly acquired skills in the absence of immediate external goals, thereby increasing the strength of neurological structures underlying these skills and opening opportunities for further learning (Byers and Walker 1995). In addition, there is clearly some imitation learning. If a child sees another child doing something and getting the teacher’s positive attention, it may encourage imitating that behavior (Bandura 1977).

Vygotsky understood that play was a leading factor in development (Vygotsky 1978). With play, children learn socially and culturally appropriate ways of behaving among peers in a low-threat context. It allows us to be influenced by cultural values while engaging in usually supportive actions by either adults or peers. By engaging in play, children can enlarge their own understanding of skills, people and knowledge that often furthers their own understanding of the world. Play continues throughout life. As we adults become parents and grandparents, the cycle begins anew. We make faces to our infants, play  peekaboo and  make  noise  games.    For  many,  play serves to enhance the mechanisms for both cooperation and compromise, which are clearly of benefit to our species (Boulton & Smith 1992).

Humans go to amusement parks, party with friends, dance the night away, dress up for Halloween and play games from cards to bingo to volleyball. Interestingly, it does not stop as we age, it just changes. Dogs play, monkeys play, dolphins, gorillas,   birds, and kids, all play. Adult dogs still chase Frisbees, adult cats still chase the ball of string. The same games that a four-year old is playing; jumping over a puddle, skipping rope and make believe are later turned into real world activities. The adolescent can now play a sport, or the adult dodge a skateboard left in the driveway, and mentally rehearse an upcoming conversation with the opposite sex (McCune 1998).

Play allows us to take charge of events in our lives, to be in control while still living in a frightening world. Activities like haunted houses, Marti Gras and Halloween are classic examples of this. We can interact with evil and feel in control. Especially for children, they can act on fantasies, wishes, fears about adults in their lives. This allows them to take charge of those fears and reduce those feelings of fear, anxiety and helplessness to those of control and calm (Levy 1978). The very pleasure of play becomes a vehicle by which life’s moments can be understood and played out in a safer more therapeutic way.

Brain development may be enhanced by play. In the early years, the complex interaction of social, physical, emotional factors contribute towards neural connectedness.    In fact, one researcher said, “Connectivity is a crucial feature of brain development, because the neural pathways formed during the early years carry signals and allow us to process information throughout our lives” (Shore 1997). Play provides the vehicle for the countless interactions necessary between child and caregiver. The close, emotional attunement play is critical to the healthy development of a  child’s brain (Gunnar 1996). In fact, one of the single most powerful aspects of play is its ability to unite the developing areas of the brain (van Hoorn et al. 1993) It helps orchestrate the intricate tuning of emotions, social skills, cognition and motor development. In brief, play can enhance the following learning:

1. Cognition

  • making predictions
  • organizing a project
  • developing symbolic capacity
  • practicing newly acquired skills
  • comparing and contrasting attempting novel or complex tasks enhancing literacy skills
  • developing a better understanding of time
  • solving problems drawing conclusions


2. Creativity extending ideas improvising ideas

  • use of new mediums for expression flexible thinking
  • using rhythm, singing, music experimenting with “make-do” items improvising


3. Healthy Lifestyle

  • improving large/gross motor skills
  • learning safety concerns
  • interpreting rules better use of outdoors developing fine motor skills learning nutrition concepts
  • improving self-trust and competence


4. Social Skills

  • making and being a friend
  • understanding feelings
  • sharing and taking turns
  • conflict resolution
  • cooperation
  • becoming sensitive to other’s feelings learning multiple roles


Brain based learning is knowing how our brain works, then using that  to  foster  better  student  outcomes.  Now  you  have  some examples of it.  Can you think of any other activity that does all of the things listed above? Probably not. Play has the capacity to integrate all of those social, cognitive and motor skills at once. From the constructivists view, which hold that the build and create our own realities, through a continuing spiral of mental construction, play is one of the best ways to do it. Researcher believe that play ought to be an essential part of teaching (Bredekamp and Copple 1997). It’s not only a way that children learn, but it’s an effective way to learn. Many teachers who have tried more play and given up on it did so because of the intricacies of this seemingly simple activity.

But why do some of us play more and others less? Clearly, it’s a case of both environment and genes. Nature has sprinkled humanity with a wide range of behaviors. it may be a vehicle to “get into shape” for youngsters and adolescents (Pellegrini and Smith 1998). Some play is assimilation (process oriented) while other play is more pursuit of an objective or aggressive (goal-directed). While the more rough and tumble play may be gender-related (Silverman and Eals 1992), there is value of some kind of play for most. In education and training contexts, play has some other important agendas, too. They include enhanced cognition, motivation, and memory.

Now, let’s use what you just learned.

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

1 Comment

  1. Implicit learning is highly important in my field because I am the Artistic Director of my school. This article comes as an eye opener in my work, more so because my school will be the host in march of a dance congress where we will receive at least 70 dance teachers, hoping to learn more about the benefits of teaching dance in schools. The name of the congress will be “Dancing to Learn”, and we will focus on the underlying elements of dance to unleash children’s cognitive, emotional and social skills in any subject.
    Thanks for this article which will be of use in this next congress!

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