Sensory Learning, Part 1

Do you remember when you learned to ride a bike without training wheels? Did you read about it or sit through a lecture? (no)  Did someone demonstrate what to do? (not really) Or did you get on the bike, get a push and figure it out for yourself? If this is what you did (and I would bet most people learned this way), you probably crashed. Maybe you crashed once or twice and then found the knack, or maybe it took dozens of tries, but eventually you were riding! I bet that whoever was helping you was shouting helpful suggestions, and I also bet that you were not listening!

Why do we learn to ride a bike this way? Because it is a complex mixture of movement and balance that (by necessity) we do not learn with our conscious mind. We need to feel it and experience the feedback from our senses and our movements. Once we are experienced riders, the task of pedaling and balancing is handled by our motor cortex*, and we don't think much about it at all. But it is such a clearly memorable skill that it becomes a metaphor for similar experiences. We say "it is like riding a bicycle" when we want to capture that feeling, that knack, of doing a learned activity that sticks with us, no matter how many years have passed since the last time we did it.

Now, notice what we did not do to learn the skill. We did not analyze, introspect, critique our technique, receive (much) instruction. In short, we did not think! The skill of riding a bicycle is held in a kind of memory called procedural memory (if you get amnesia, you won't forget it!) which is different from our memory for facts or personal experiences. The process for forming strong procedural memories is based on repetition, and of course, every skill we do without thinking uses it. But why do some skills become so ingrained, so quickly,(riding a bike, learning a language as a child) while others take years of effort to get to a similar** result (playing the cello, learning a language as an adult)?

Setting aside the natural plasticity of a young brain for the moment, I believe that it has to do with the way we approach the learning process. A complicated skill, such as a language, or playing an instrument, has to be thought about and broken down into many sub-tasks. We spend most of our early learning time in a very conscious state, filled with top down, executive effort***. We force our hands to do tasks according to rules we learn from our teacher, we memorize words and grammar purposefully. The nature of the skills themselves create many opportunities for thinking; the learning takes place with no external constraints on the time to acquire, there is a great freedom in how we can use our minds as we go about the task of learning. Contrast this with the urgency of skill acquisition when learning to ride - there is no room for thinking, adrenaline is flooding our system, the task takes place in a "do or die" environment! In other words, we are forced to leave the realm of conscious thought and learn at the root level, something much closer to a pure sensory/motor experience.

Now, it seems impractical to suggest that we somehow contrive to add this urgency to our instrumental practice (although it does point to the value of immersive experiences that contain urgency, such as moving to a country where you do not speak the language, or playing in an orchestra of more accomplished musicians). However, we can certainly learn from the results of that urgency, and construct learning experiences that contain as little conscious effort as possible, learning that focuses on the senses and the goal, that places a greater emphasis on feeling (both sensory and emotional) rather than thinking. I will explore how to do this in part two....


  • Wouldn't it be nice if we could learn the cello like we learned to ride a bike? (i.e. quickly and deeply)
  • Executive learning (top down, conscious) is powerful, but slow and effortful.
  • When we learned to ride, the situation forced us to think less and feel more.
  • Procedural skills are done without thought (implicitly), and are best learned that way as well.


*Ok, technically the part of the brain doing the most work is called the putamen.
and really, the result is never as natural or facile.
***Sometimes called the cognitive state, or verbal state