Unconscious Competence and the Brain

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I recently read Marco Iacoboni’s book Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with People. I would highly recommend it, despite a couple of reservations about its style.* It came out shortly after I had finished my book on choral conducting, and I think it’s fair to say that had it come out 8 months earlier there would have been more mirror neuron talk in my book. On the other hand, several of the other key theoretical sources I drew on also feature heavily in the Iacoboni, and I am very relieved to say that I find this book develops and deepens my understanding of the neurological processes that underlie the practices I discuss rather than fundamentally changing them.

One small corner of the Iacoboni that I found interesting from a general perspective of teaching and learning was his assertion that we use different parts of the brain for newly-learned and well-practised tasks. He says:

The activations for the novel tasks suggested that they are performed (because they have to be) with a high level of cognitive effort, specifically with enhanced activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area known for its role in the so-called executive functions. On the other hand, well-practiced tasks seem to be performed mostly using information retrieved from memory, using areas in the temporal lobe, an important brain structure for memory. (p. 251)

Now, many of us who spend our time not only learning new skills but helping others learn them too are familiar with a model of learning that looks like this:


I actually spend quite a lot of my time shunting people from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – that is, raising their awareness that there are things that they can’t currently do that are available to be learned. Iacoboni’s statement is more concerned with the other end, from the transition from conscious competence (you can do it if think about it) to unconscious competence (you can do it on autopilot).

This is a key moment not only for teachers but also for conductors – and relates to the notion of re-freezing I wrote about earlier in the year. It is also a key moment for clinicians like me who go around helping people acquire new skills, but will often leave before they have become embedded.

The thing that Iacoboni shows us here is that people need to go through a process of handing over responsibility from the executive parts of the brain to the memory if skills are going to be retained. It’s all very well being able to do something with lots of cognitive intervention, but if you’re asked then to add a new task, this will hijack the executive functions of the brain and the first new skill will fall out before it gets to memory.

This is another way of saying: practice is good. (Which I believe is not a new notion in the teaching of musical skills.) But understanding that our well-rehearsed observations about how people learn (or don’t learn) have a basis in how different activities use specific parts of the brain can sharpen our observations and diagnoses of how the learning process is going, and can focus our attention onto devising learning activities that will aid the transition from conscious operation to adeptness.

*It’s essentially a popular science book written by someone deeply involved in the science, and as such is certainly authoritative and informative. The narrative structure is rather too heavily shaped by the standard approach to writing up experiments, however. He tries to develop narrative drive by asking questions that will be answered later, but these tend to read: ‘We hypothesised that A would happen. So we designed this experiment. And did A happen? Yes, it did!’ See what I mean? Makes perfect sense for scientific reporting, but doesn’t quite pull you through the story with a sense of mystery and adventure. But I’m happy to overlook this because the content of the book is not to be missed.

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