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OP-ED: Learn to unlearn

  • Published at 08:17 pm January 26th, 2021
Mental Health Mind

In a rapidly changing world, we must remain flexible in our thinking

We learn many things since our childhood. Everything we do, from waking up till we go to sleep -- brushing teeth, greeting people, organizing our homes, office, work -- are learned activities. We become accustomed to practices that we believe will keep us healthy, productive, and happy. This plain logic transmits our (sometimes) age-old practices to future generations. And owing to these learning or cultural developments, we become human from being a mere animal. 

When we were children, we were taught by our parents. As an effort to impart the socially approved “good” habits, our parents taught us to say “please,” “thank you,” to complete homework before we played, not to waste food. We even learned to talk, sit, and dress. The list continued, our social circle broadened, and we learned from different contexts and people. As such, we have become habituated in following a particular routine in managing ourselves. We also developed a mental schema through which we evaluate others and ourselves.

What we learn while growing up structures our personalities. Every one of us has a unique personality and a pattern of conducting ourselves. Nonetheless, in our society, there are certain expected behaviour patterns that we share, for instance, being a man or being a woman. 

In our society, certain behaviours and actions are associated with a particular gender. The existence of this common attitude is made clear by the fact that we still do not feel comfortable when a woman drives a car or bike or smokes in public. 

Sometimes when circumstances require/force us to act and think otherwise, our rigidity is revealed, and we find it tough to change ourselves. Before the pandemic hit the world, we were habituated to a particular morning routine. We showered, got our children ready for school, and had breakfast before heading off to work. But the pandemic overwhelmingly changed our everyday life. We were forced to manage everything within the confines of our homes. 

The practice of home office compelled us to change ourselves in many ways and hence, we realized how hard it is to unlearn a habit. Many of us struggled to work paperless, keep work-life balance, engage into children’s education, etc. While many aspects of our lives changed, some aspects appeared harder to overcome. Especially, the gender roles that we expect to be associated with men and women have become contentious issues during the pandemic. 

While Covid-19 did not severely affect many physically, it has revealed how being the “man” of the household and expecting particular roles for “women” jeopardize the lives of women.

During the pandemic, the burden of unpaid care and domestic work became a malicious issue besides direct violence against women. When we were not going outside and spent most of our time inside our homes, it disproportionately affected women. Due to our learned gender behaviours, the responsibility of household work was shifted to the women when the pandemic stalled services of “housemaids.” 

Even though many men take part in housework more than pre-coronavirus times, a survey by Brac revealed, during early pandemic days, women working in both formal and informal sectors had to perform more unpaid care work in the household, resulting in almost no leisure at all.

These issues direct us to a problem: We have learned ways of being in the world, but how do we cope with the rapidly changing world? How can we learn a new habit and unlearn an old one? This is important, as rapid change causes us stress. Futurist Alvin Toffler in the book Future Shock highlighted that we experience physical and psychological distress because of being unable to cope with the rapid social and technological changes.

To get accustomed to a changing social environment and a new routine of life is not as simple as it sounds. Once we learn a behaviour, it is ingrained in us, and we can repeat the routine without much thinking. These habitual behaviours usually occur in chains of activities. And we stop noticing our behaviour. Thereby, it is also difficult to unlearn a particular practice. So, how can we change ourselves or learn a particular behaviour? Or, what do we need to do to make an old habit or action extinct? 

Theories of extinction claim, one needs to make a behaviour/action non-existent before one can learn anything new as a replacement. But a better approach towards unlearning is simply starting to learn something that would replace the old behaviour/action. If we can overwhelm ourselves with a new pattern, it will slowly replace the old actions. 

This approach is like full immersion -- it is undisputed that we can learn a new language much better if we can practice it with the locals in the natural social environment, rather than learning grammar in schools.

Obviously, this approach may seem a bit intimidating, but slowly, we can master the new actions and behaviours as our focus stays entirely on learning the new behaviour rather than forgetting past ones. For instance, if men stop thinking about gendered behaviour and start to do things that we learned to be tasks of women, for instance, helping our kids in daily activities or preparing one meal for the family, it will change our personal relations for the better. By flooding our brain with what we want, we will get habituated quicker with less effort. 

This ability to unlearn and re-learn is important, because the world is changing rapidly. Many of the things that we learned as kids or adolescents are not relevant today. Living in the 21st century requires different skills. The apps, websites, and technologies that we use today did not exist a few years ago. More changes are to come our way, and we must remain flexible to change in our actions and thinking, if we are to remain relevant and to make the world a better place.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist, and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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