The experience of applying new knowledge to your usual routine

June 6, 2023 at 2:41 PM
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The experience of applying new knowledge to your usual routine

Rachel Orenstein UA’24 and Jim Stellar

This is an unusual title for a blog that you developed. Let’s take a moment to expand on what it means. After all, the last blog we wrote almost a year ago was about how your internship last summer altered the way you saw your academic classes.

Yes, and that continues to be true (especially in my current entrepreneurship class – with every new chapter, I come across something relevant to that internship).

After my internship last summer, which was immediately followed by a semester abroad in Dublin, I have returned to my classroom routine exactly as it was before either experience. I was left a bit disheartened at first because I felt I had not learned anything new or grown as a person all that much. I couldn’t see the immediate effects anymore. I feared they were gone. However, I took a trip with a friend over spring break (to Salem and Boston) and unexpectedly applied all sorts of new skills with ease (navigation, professionalism, confidence despite unfamiliarity, and so on). It was a great reminder that even if you are not actively employing new skills, they are still there when needed.

This is fascinating. What about the Salem/Boston experience brought out these new skills? Was it traveling again? Was it the discovery of a new kind of maturity that was not called out in your classes?

The Salem/Boston trip was the first time I traveled since returning from Ireland. I definitely think a big part of this self-rediscovery was the independence of being out on my own again. I currently live with my parents, and while I am still independent, I find many skills to be most prevalent when you are more centrally relying on yourself. While traversing these cities, I was responsible for safely getting myself wherever I needed to be. This required a lot of confidence and awareness. I doubt I could have done it prior to my experiences as an intern and as an international student, simply because I had not developed these traits enough.

Maturity is a complicated trait to define. My family used to tease me for having loads of “book smarts” but not a lick of “street smarts,” or common sense. And they were right, though I begrudgingly admit it. I always did well in school. But school is a simulation, a controlled environment. My confidence in academic exams – though beneficial – did not translate to confidence in dealing with hotels or public transportation or dark city streets. My experiences abroad and in a practical work environment taught me how to handle these things with maturity. As you said, it is just a type of maturity never brought out in the classroom.

The fact that you had to re-experience travel to become aware of your competencies developed previously in your Dublin trip makes the key point of this blog about implicit learning from experiences. It suggests that learning occurred in the limbic system that may not be so accessible to the neocortex or the conscious-explicit-planning mind. William Wordsworth said, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” So, as a final question for you, how do you think the conscious, symbolic mind gets to know its own implicit knowledge without reliving the experience?

You have explained to me before how we do not think about our feet while we walk. We just walk. But if we were to turn around we would realize how far we have traveled. I think this anecdote is also applicable to understanding our own implicit knowledge. We never stop learning, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. But as we continue to do and make and learn, we can turn around and realize how far we’ve come. Our implicit knowledge and hidden skills are reflected in these paths. On this recent trip my friend and I were able to travel to unfamiliar cities alone and manage by ourselves. Afterwards, I realized that I could do this with ease because I had done similar things before in prior experiential learning.

To go back to the question, I might re-phrase it as follows: How do you learn what you already know? However you go about it, significant self-awareness seems to be required.

My first reaction is that life moves on, and then it changes. You find a routine, and then it changes. Life ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, and change is the only constant. But you will notice, because your implicit knowledge is always expanding behind the scenes, that your new knowledge and skills are reflected in the things you continue to do and make and learn from. Practicing adjacent skills/seeing what transfers over, developing new skills that build upon existing ones you may not have realized were already there. Is this professional wisdom?

Finally, I have to comment on the quote. (Side note: Wordsworth is a fantastic name for a poet.) Growing up, like many young writers, I wrote poetry to make sense of my emotions. Very little of it is any good, of course, but at the time it was perfect to me. It was linguistic validation. Although I did not understand what I felt, I could catch the overflow of those emotions on paper. Containing those feelings in words gave me peace about them, just as Wordsworth describes. Similarly, noticing new skills utilized in your usual routine is validating. Although we may not understand the makings of our implicit knowledge, we can see its existence in the things we do and make. Most importantly, we can see it in our continued learning.

We wanted to add a bit of neuroscience here about how the brain changes everywhere all the time and we call that neuroplasticity. While the limbic-emotional system is also learning (implicit knowledge) from experience along with the neocortical-cognitive system (explicit knowledge), it still seems not to communicate with the neocortical system. That remains the challenge about which we continue to write in this blog series.

Anterior cingulate cortex and cortical re-representation of limbic processes of emotional conflict

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