Learning without trying

This post is also available in Dutch.

When we want to learn a new skill, we usually try very hard. We stare at a page that we want to remember, or practice the same movement over and over again in sports. But we also learn incredibly much without even trying to do so. How important is this type of learning? And what happens if we are not able do this?


Picture by Wan Mohd (License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Implicit learning
Learning without consciously trying to learn is called ‘implicit learning’. Usually, implicit learning results in knowledge or skills that we find hard to describe in words. One of the most striking examples of implicit learning, is how you acquired grammar of your mother language as an infant. When you learned how to speak, you applied an amazing set of complex rules, such as past tenses and adverbs. But your parents did not explain each and every grammar rule, nor were you able to explain how you applied them. You simply just learned it. Implicitly.
What do we learn implicitly?
And there are even more skills that we learn implicitly. Motor skills are learned largely implicit; you might be able to explain how you steer to the left for a turn when riding your bike, but you might not be aware of the small, but crucial movement to the right that you make just before you make the left turn. Implicit learning is also thought to play a major role in social skills. There are social rules we are aware of, such as to say ‘thank you’ after receiving a gift. But other social rules are quite complex and we apply them naturally. For example, your answer to the question ‘how was your day?’ is probably different when your friend asks it compared to when your boss asks it. But it would be hard to describe how you decide what details you would or would not give to your boss. That depends on many things and the rules how to judge all these factors are infinite. Yet, you implicitly feel what to say and what not to say.
What happens if we cannot learn implicitly?
When we are unable to learn implicitly, the development of skills such as language, motor and social skills during childhood is endangered. Researchers have therefore suggested that a deficit in implicit learning plays a role in developmental disorders such as autism, dyslexia and ‘Specific Language Impairment’ (SLI). Autism is characterized by social and communication problems. Although researchers used to think that a deficit in implicit learning was causing these problems, the latest research indicates that implicit learning is intact in autism. Now, researchers think that people with autism can learn implicitly, but that they like explicit learning better in everyday life. More research is still needed to confirm this. Dyslexia and SLI are characterized with impairments in language. Scientific evidence indeed shows a deficit in implicit learning in both dyslexia and SLI. But the research still continues to give more precise answers to what is altered and how treatments can be targeted at a deficit in implicit learning.
Thus, relax, do not try too hard and you might learn something beautiful without even knowing!

More information

Implicit learning in autism.

This blog was written by Fenny Zwart. Fenny is working on her PhD on the topic of learning in autism, you can read more about it hier. She also likes to learn herself, especially about drawing, painting and sports.

Edited by Kasia

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