Unlearning What You Learned in School Isn’t So Easy

Unlearning What You Learned in School Can Be ChallengingIt has not been easy to let go my cherished beliefs that has been the mantra of my previous personal training practice for almost seven years. Even though a plethora of scientific evidence show weak or no correlation between posture, leg-length discrepancy, and most structural “abnormalities” with pain or “movement dysfunction,” I sometimes fall back into the old way of thinking when I observe my clients’ movements or when my clients tell me about their pain or discomfort. While I watch and listen, sometimes I refrain myself from spewing out all kinds of “syndromes” and or blurt out a body part — piriformis! — like an angry Chinese waiter with Tourette’s. Thus, unlearning what I had learned in school, books, or workshops can be quite challenging.

Why do some people continue to believe in something when valid evidence and logic show otherwise? Why is overcoming old beliefs so hard? A 2012 psychology paper that was published in Cognition explains that old beliefs and intuition do not get deleted like negative and critical comments on Food Babe’s Facebook page when more accurate scientific information is introduced. Instead, the brain suppresses old information (naive theories), not supplanting them.

This is shown in a test where 150 undergraduate psychology students were presented a series of statements from different fields of science, including astronomy, evolution, genetics, and thermodynamics, and were asked if these statements are true or false. The students had to answer the statements as fast as they could, and the researchers timed their responses. Some of these statements are both true in naive theory and scientific theory, while some are false in both categories. The tricky statements are the ones that are counter-intuitive; they may sound right or wrong intuitively, but the truth-value is reversed in the scientific perspective.

For example, “The moon revolves around the Earth” is true both intuitively and scientifically, yet “The Earth revolves around the Sun” is false intuitively and true scientifically. Based on our observation and experience on this planet, it would be hard for us to imagine the Earth revolving around the Sun when it looks like the Sun is moving across the sky. In statements that challenges intuitive thinking, the students had a slower response time than statements that has the same truth-value in both theories. The researchers speculated that their naive theory gets extracted first before the scientific rationality kicked in.

So what does this have to do with fitness and massage?

Old beliefs that we once learned —  and sometimes cherished — in workshops, in schools, or from our favorite instructors or gurus can be challenging to overcome and unlearn. It is similar to beliefs and ideas that we held as children that kept us feel secure, and the world was literally a “magical” place, like Santa Claus and luck dragons. In reality, some of the things we learn are based more on appeal to the false authority, tradition, and emotions rather than valid and sound evidence and critical thinking. Just because one or a few individuals say so on a pedestal does not automatically mean that the information they present are credible, sound, and valid.

Unlearning What You Learned in School Can Be ChallengingHowever, a mob of followers can be hard to persuade otherwise even with facts and data presented — hence the backfire effect. I used to believe in many things in the fitness and massage field without or with little question, such as massage can remove “toxins,” the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) can help predict the risk of injury, and stretching the chest muscles can “fix” the upper-cross syndrome. Even with evidence presented that showed these beliefs are not that true, I resisted to change my thoughts and held tighter to my beliefs. Eventually, it took about six months in 2013 to gradually shift my viewpoints to evidence-based practice. It makes more sense.

Spewing facts and data alone would not likely change someone’s mind immediately, no more likely than persuading a creationist that dinosaurs did not coexist with humans. Perhaps a number of ways can change people’s viewpoints. Stories and anecdotes can convey the message and connect with the audience better than raw information. By tying evidence with stories, people are more likely to change their minds and supplant their pre-existing beliefs. An example would be how Lorimer Moseley, a researcher and physiotherapist from Adelaide, Australia, talk about the biopsychosocial model of pain by using his anecdote of walking in the bush while wearing a sarong.

Of course, his teachings and research are not taught in school or workshops much since most of the teachings are still based heavily on the biomechanical/biomedical model. In order for people to make that transition, new information must be provided with tact and creativity.

After having spent thousands of dollars on workshops, school, and books since 2002 to learn about exercise, movement, and massage therapy, it is quite challenging to unlearn what I have learned because of my monetary investments. Attachments to teachers, leaders in the profession, and beliefs can make accepting that what we had learned is false can cause severe cognitive dissonance. Therefore, falling back and defending our old beliefs rather than questioning what we believe and were taught is much easier and more comforting.

By Nick Ng


Dartmouth University


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