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Chinese philosophy teaches us about learning processes

ConfuciusAccording to one Eastern philosopher, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” Um, what? If that reaction sounds familiar, you’re not alone. This perplexing quotation refers to the concept of wuwei (pronounced woo-way), often defined as “action without action” or “effortless action.” Understood in a Confucian context, however, wuwei can only be achieved after a lifetime of arduous training. But this raises the question: how is it that “effortless action” can take so much effort to learn? Recent research in the field of cognitive psychology sheds light on the issue, suggesting that this notion, though counterintuitive, may accurately describe the mental processes involved in learning.

Rolf Reber (University of Norway) and Edward Slingerland (University of British Columbia) reviewed some of the literature emerging from cognitive psychology to consider the adequacy of this suggestion. They analyzed wuwei in terms of three distinct paradoxes internal to the concept — how to expend effort to reach an effortless state; how to love something one doesn’t yet love; and how to be a good person when “trying” to be good is incompatible with actually being good. They concluded that cognitive psychology is helpful in providing solutions for the first two of these paradoxes. As for the third, the researchers argue that recent research lends support to the idea that this last element simply represents a reality of human cognition.

The first paradox, as mentioned above, has to do with the problem of expending effort to attain a state of effortless living. Seems contradictory, right? In their review of the research, Reber and Slingerland point to evidence that suggests a correlation between the level of difficulty associated with learning something and our ability to remember it later. The easier it is to learn something, in other words, the harder it is to subsequently remember. In the context of Confucianism, the more effort that’s required to learn wuwei, the easier it is to implement wuwei in the future.

The authors also drew insight from the field of neuroscience and its notion of automization. Automization occurs when the brain habituates to an activity through repetition, and research has shown that a habituated brain exhibits significantly less activity in the neocortical areas associated with effortful processing. Significantly, Confucianism often speaks of the “internalization” of cultural behaviors and concepts that occurs after a lifetime of devoted practice. So “effortless action” happens when you’ve practiced it so much that it truly is effortless!

The second paradox deals with the possibility of loving something that one does not already love. Confucius tells us that the learner must already possess an incipient love for their goal before that person can ever hope to attain it. Helpfully, research in cognitive psychology suggests a link between perceptual fluency (how easy it is to mentally process a concept) and positive affect. Evidence indicates that a concept’s level of fluency is correlated with an individual’s tendency to view it as both positive and true. The easier it is to mentally process a concept, in other words, the more inclined we are to perceive it as truthful. Moreover, fluency can be influenced by a number of factors, including exposure repetition, presentation time, and contrast with background. From this, Reber and Slingerland conclude that a repetition of Confucian practices can transform how one feels about the associated concepts.

Finally, the third paradoxical element involves the task of leading a virtuous life. The problem lies in the notion that any conscious intention to attain virtue actually undermines what is typically considered true virtue. That is, an action seems to be more virtuous if it is done without any ulterior motives, even if those motives are merely to increase one’s own virtuousness. Here, the authors mention research on strategies for pursuing happiness, which also seem to fail when the pursuit is carried out consciously. This may be due to the inaccessibility of experience, making accurate assessments of our own happiness tremendously difficult. Or the very act of analysis might transform the feeling of happiness into something fundamentally different. Evidence suggests that moral intuitions operate in a similar manner, however, and some have argued that this is because both happiness and virtue are actually by-products of behavior. Thus, Reber and Slingerland recall the concept of fluency and its ability to increase the truth and positivity perceived in beliefs. When these beliefs happen to embody cultural norms, this will have importance consequences for virtue.

Reber and Slingerland advocate strongly for a more congenial relationship between contemporary science and the ancient lineages of wisdom embodied by world religions. Their use of insights derived from cognitive psychology to shed light upon paradoxical statements made in religious literature is a bold demonstration of the potential benefits that stem from this approach. Now, if for having done all this, everything has been left undone, was it at least somewhat difficult to learn?

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