Conscious learning and unconscious learning | Whats the Difference?

What is Conscious learning and Unconscious Learning?

Unconscious learning and conscious Learning are two ways that we learn. Conscious learning takes place when the conscious mind is participating in the learning process. When you are trying to figure out how to perform Complex mathematical calculations you are engaging in conscious learning.

The mind participates in the conscious learning process. When you are trying to figure out how to perform Complex mathematical calculations you are engaging in conscious learning.

Conscious learning and unconscious learning
Conscious learning and unconscious learning

What is unconscious learning?

Unconscious learning is difficult to explain since the whole process is unconscious, but it is easier to explain it using an example. Have you ever looked at someone’s behavior and promised yourself that you would never act like them? I know I have.


A familiar example

When someone close to you hurts your feelings by using certain language patterns in combination with a certain tone of voice and body language you vow never to do that to another person.

Years go by and one day something happens and you find yourself doing the exact same thing you vowed not to. You got the expression right along with the body language and the tone of voice. How is it that you have replicated the other person’s behavior perfectly. This is unconscious learning.

This is how children end up doing the same thing that their parents did even though they hated it at the time.

Example of unconscious learning
Example of unconscious learning

What is the difference between conscious learning and unconscious learning?

We actively engage in the conscious learning process while unconscious learning happens in the background. Our brain is busy learning things while we engage in other things.

Which one is more powerful?

If we refer back to the example we can see that unconscious learning is more powerful. That is why we ended up learning a bad behavior, even though we consciously vowed not to do it.

An Experiment on unconscious learning.

James Bursley explains an interesting experiment in his Ted Talk speech.

Three groups of test subjects participated in this experiment. The first group took a quiz right after learning while the second group had some time to consciously learn the material before the quiz. The researchers gave the third group an unrelated task before giving the quiz.


Results of the experiment

The third group which engaged in an unrelated task performed significantly better than the other groups.

What happened here?

The third group had unconsciously learned the subject while they were distracted by doing an unrelated task. Unconscious learning is powerful. This was later confirmed by experiments done using Functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques to measure brain activity.

Other findings

Unconscious learning takes place only when we consider something significant. If you hear something that wasn’t significant to you the brain will not engage in any unconscious learning. That is why students who are not interested in the subject don’t perform in exams, no matter how much free time they have on their hands.

How can we use unconscious learning to our advantage?

  1. Take frequent breaks between study sessions.
  2. If you can’t understand something after having spent quite a lot of time on it go do something totally unrelated.
  3. Take at least a few hours before an exam to relax.
  4. Study for your exams months in advance. This way the mind has a lot of time for unconscious learning. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to read again before the exam. It means it will take less effort the second time around.

Story 01

When I was doing my Advanced level exam I remember trying to figure out a physics lesson called electric fields. It was quite difficult and it didn’t make any sense at all.

So I gave up and never looked back until a few days before the term test. That was months later.


The next time I looked at it, the whole lesson seemed easy. It was so obvious that I couldn’t understand why I was not able to understand it the first time around. This is unconscious learning in action.

Story 02

When I was studying for my diploma in counseling, we learned General Psychology and abnormal psychology months before bio‐psychology and Child Psychology.

So I was able to study general and abnormal psychology beforehand, but for child and Biopsychology, I had only a few weeks.

Having just learned the 2 subjects I spent two weeks entirely studying these two subjects without even looking at the other two.

I only read general and abnormal once before the exam and that was the day before. Because of that, I had more confidence in Bio and Child Psychology while I felt I didn’t work hard enough for general and abnormal psychology.


However, when the results came, I was surprised that it was general and abnormal psychology that I had A’s for. I guess, I did a lot of unconscious learning on these subjects while I did not have much time to unconsciously learn the other two.

Disadvantages of unconscious learning

  1. Anything you hold significant, you risk learning even if it is bad and you hate it. Yes, the things you hate are significant.
    • How to fix this: Stay detached from what you don’t want to learn. Remember both hate and love are forms of attachment.
  2. If you associate with someone long enough, you learn their bad habits.
    • How to fix this: Stay away from bad influences. You may think you have things under control, but you can’t control what you learn unconsciously.

For More Information watch this Ted Talk video by James Bursley.



1 thought on “Conscious learning and unconscious learning | Whats the Difference?”

  1. Pingback: Study Tips For Exams |12 Super Effective Psychology Tricks for Students - InsightBook

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