Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How Language Interferes With Learning

We usually think of language as a facilitator of learning. Through language, humans are able to represent things and ideas symbolically in their thoughts, and create novel solutions or responses to something in their environment without any prior exposure to it. We can perform mental operations to develop accurate predictions, and develop complex systems of meaning based solely on language (e.g., philosophy or mathematics. Therefore, it may sound crazy to say that language can actually interfere with learning.

And yet, researchers have demonstrated that verbal language can block our ability to learn from experience. Steven Hayes and his colleages, who developed Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), first did extensive research on the role of language in behavioral functioning. In the 1980's, they conducted studies using a computer game where people earned points based on how quickly or slowly they pushed a button. There was a trick in the game, though: pushing the button quickly earned more points early in the game, but then the rules changed so that pushing the button slowly earned more points. When people were not given any instructions, they developed their strategy based on what was working for them (i.e., based on experience), and were able to adapt quickly to the change in rules. However, when they were given a verbal instruction - to push the button quickly to earn more points - they did not adapt their strategy even when it stopped working (i.e., when the rules changed and pushing the button slowly would earn more points).

This phenomenon has been dubbed "rule-based insensitivity" - in other words, verbal "rules" we develop or are told to help us function effectively can also stop us from registering contradictory information from actual experience. As a result, we may persist in ineffective behavior because our language interferes with our ability to learn from experience. This seems to be especially true for people who tend to be rigid in general - a category that includes many people with various mental health problems.

An important target for treatment, then, for people whose verbal "rules" are interfering with their ability to learn from their experience and adapt to their environment, is to increase people's flexibility. The goal is for verbal rules to be only one of a range of data informing behavior, along with information from our moment-to-moment experiences (observations, sensations, emotions, thoughts), and the results of our interaction with our environments (i.e., noticing whether or not our interactions produce the desired resutls).

Mindfulness is the best way to develop this skill, because it helps people become more aware of their thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges, and memories (all aspects of one's inner experience), as well as the environmental context and response. Once people have this information at their disposal, the task becomes helping them make choices based on all of the information, such that they are moving in the direction of their goals rather than continuing self-defeating patterns.

What do you think about this research? How might it affect how you think about therapy and mental health problems?

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