There’s an important factor in learning and practicing that I’d like to bring to your attention. The scientific description is called state-specific learning. What that means is the content of what gets learned will be tied to the literal circumstance where you learn it. Context is important.

State-Specific learning is so effective that it’s actually used in animal training to solve behavior problems. If your dog is digging holes in your garden, you would deliberately train the behavior of digging on purpose while you’re located somewhere else (such as at the beach.) Then don’t give the command for the dog to dig at your house. The dog gets the idea that it’s only in sand that digging gets your approval, so there’s no use in making holes in the garden at home anymore because that results in your disapproval. You would turn the unwanted action into a command and then it has meaning when you don’t give the cue.

Most teachers assume that if you are an adult learner, you have the capacity to abstract what you are learning in their classroom or lessons in order to apply it to other instances that importantly similar. The factor of State-Specific learning works against this possibility. It’s a leap to abstract what has been learned; just because people can abstract, WILL they abstract? It’s an act of intelligence to notice the possibility to apply what was learned elsewhere exactly when this similarity of knowledge could be quite useful in this specific circumstance that’s a bit different. The ability to abstract takes observation, lateral thinking skills, memory and presence of mind. That’s why it’s important to directly consider the ability to abstract and apply what just was learned and to discuss the capacity to do so with your students if you’re a teacher.

For instance, I just published a story on my blog about how thinking about the lengthening phase of a motion while riding a bike helped me to refresh my range of motion in my leg strength while riding uphill. The comment of a reader who didn’t understand the abstract generalization of my message was, “I’ll do that the next time I ride a bike.”

“But that idea of using the lag in a phase is useful generally during any routine!!” I declared. “If you choose a ‘slack’ moment when you are gathering your energy to focus on in a cyclical phase, the other part (when you’re applying effort) will take care of itself in an easier and less stressed way.”

Unless you point to that concept specifically, it’s not a guarantee that people will make the abstract connection on their own.

So to do that now – (let’s say you’re reading stuff on the computer, right?)  You would observe routines that you do while in that activity, and choose one that isn’t imperative – so you can design a ‘resting’ moment into it that could offer a slight renewal for increased stamina over the long term. For instance, how about when you move your hands from the keyboard to the mouse or touchpad? (Or if you’re on another device, the time when you pick up your hand to use your finger to interact with the screen.) Why not use that moment to look away from the screen for a moment, perhaps look up and blink and momentarily rest your eyes and slightly turn your head. This only takes a moment, right?

By doing something like this, you’ll begin to be able to apply whatever you learn in one situation to other situations that do matter to you personally. Now that you understand whatever you experience can be applied elsewhere abstractly, you will be providing for the  limitations of State-Specific concerning anything you already know.

Can you think now of an insight or significant discovery you made that would be handy if it could be applied elsewhere?



2 thoughts on “State-Specific

  1. A part of the conversation about this post from FB, written by Luis…
    Dennis made an excellent point when he rephrased your understanding of ‘state-specific’ learning. What both he and I did was to take what we understood of your ‘vision’ of this amorphous ‘thing’ and tried to map it onto our understanding of this ‘thing’. States of mind are somewhat difficult to peg down. Words try but the truth is that the classification also hides much … the fuzzy edges and invisible internals of the thing.

    The great danger in rephrasing what you said is that we may lose the differences between what you meant and what we have mapped out in our minds. The similarities really aren’t the key… it is the differences in what you said and what I have mapped out under that general thought that will bring me more understanding.

    I know this. I did want to make this explicit, at least for me, so that you understand that I know that you are seeing something ‘different’ than I. A piece of it was covered by my ‘map’ but in fact, if I change but one point, your ‘state-specific’ post gains entirely new meanings.

    For example, I came out it from an external point of view and thinking in terms of curriculum planning, and allowing for teaching points when the external environment called for it. But if I pause and consider that you are a Alexander Technique instructor, it strikes me that you also mean that ‘gestalt’ of being of the individual. That is to say that as an instructor you attend to the student’s internal gestalt and work with that. Looking at it from that point of view adds layers of meaning and extension to how I was speaking of it.

    I’m focusing on understanding your ‘state-specific’ and did not speak of Dennis’ mapping. I haven’t yet had time to consider it sufficiently to understand it in his own terms rather than mine.
    It’s a delicate thing to do to first merge mental maps and then pull them apart so as to reach new understandings. We can only imagine what the other person means, so a lot of guessing is involved.

    You might like to look into the word ‘realia’ and it’s use in teaching abstract thoughts and in training in schools. Different words but similar concepts. One may even call it ‘hands on’ training with the extension of the ‘hands’ into the environment … the context.

  2. I like this blog.

    An insight that occurs is in what I personally call the “Pause to Remember”.

    This is an important thinking function that can be applied for instance while driving (PR = Remember to Focus on All-Round Traffic; What’s the Rush? Etc.)

    The PR is also applied whenever there is an anxiety situation, pressure, boredom, or confusion. The PR gently guides our mind back into our most important thinking objective at that moment.

    There may be an objective to write a list interrupted by the phone then forgotten until the PR activates us to: “Pause to Remember”.

    it’s not so much a matter of intelligence in that the higher the intelligence the better the “abstraction”, but a matter of applying a remembered focus in order to achieve an objective.

    Also, this is not “saying the same” as your blog but a simplification attempt.

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