Unlearning and/or relearning?

The process of unlearning is about liberation or freedom from the conditioning or from the known. 

Affirmation Banners Made by Robert Molloy


So, which one is it, or is it both?

Unlearn’, defined as: ‘To put (something learned) out of the mind; forget. To undo the effect of; put aside the practice. With its synonyms as, disremember or to forget.

The verb to ‘unlearn’, has never really sat well with me. I remember hearing it for the first time a few years ago in a talk and thinking for a good half hour, (unable to listen to the rest of the actual talk at that point, also unable to even remember what the talk was about), what did this word mean and how does it come into action, was it even physiologically possible? And how? Are we literally erasing existing neural pathways? Is this like the scene in the MIB movie where my memory will be erased and replaced with what should be there by a bright light on a metal pod?

In reality, there is no erasure, we do not forget (at least not instantly), there is no undoing of what is learnt, especially if these are ingrained patterns, behaviours and/or belief systems. If anything, I have come to understand that the term merely alludes to a shift in one’s focus to the edge of what one knew and transitioning to instill a new belief system, skill, behaviour, etc, and most importantly, this transition of ‘unlearning’ is an active and conscious practice.

Or, metaphorically put:

‘It’s like stripping old paint. It lays the foundation for the new layer of fresh learning to be acquired and to stick. But like the painter who needs to prepare a surface, stripping the paint is 70% of the work while repainting is only 30%.’  (Warrell. M, 2014)

I think the language we use is very important. The language we use shapes and can limit how we communicate, how we think, how we break down our conditioned belief systems and how we express ourselves and how we relate to others. I’ve also seen how recently language and terminologies have become buzzwords, with the mass circulation of imagery, meme culture, gifs and the bridges between inaccessible academic language and public realm platforms and social media platforms breaking down more and more. Soon I predict all future education will be able to be done and accessed online. For example, terms such as: ‘Woke’, ‘Intersectional’ and ‘Trigger’, popular words used in the POC and social justice communities, could easily be this year’s top most used and circulated ‘feminist’ buzzwords,

with extensive essays, think pieces, events, panel discussions, podcasts, the list goes on.

[..] Unlearning is also about a mental construct. For example, In my experience, I found that people who have high cognitive focus do not like the word unlearning at all. They would rather find another word.[..] (Kaipa.P )

I came across this sentence whilst doing a light read on the act of unlearning. I smiled to myself at this point, wondering if this meant I had a ‘high cognitive focus’ because I was unsettled by this ‘unlearning’ term. Whatever that meant, I’m sure I’m not the only one that had questioned this term at some point.

‘Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.’ (Bonchek.M, 2016)



I began to think of the word ‘Relearn’ as an act of unlocking knowledge we already had, but didn’t know we had, in contrast to its initial meaning. Beliefs we perhaps had as children but we were conditioned to think otherwise and forget. I also began thinking about this in terms of objective and subjective function, upon introspection. I see these acts as layering, as adding new layers to old belief systems that we’ve consciously decided to overwrite.

But, what if these are new behaviours, knowledge, information never heard of before? Does the term ‘relearning’ still apply? This is where it gets interesting, as I don’t think it applies here. For now, the metaphorical term of ‘unlearning’ and the ‘relearning’ term would have to work in tangent in this context, but I guess, from habit and how the unlearning term has been so widely spread and understood my many, that people won’t bother with using Re-learning alongside unlearning and in many cases to replace the term altogether.

Yet, recently I openly asked about the use of ‘unlearning’ in a group discussion, which was accepted and considered, later conversations were altered and ‘relearning’ began to replace ‘unlearning’ amongst the group.

I think conversations and questions around language should always remain open and evolving. We are moving at a really fast pace in time, and I’m finding it harder to place and/or to find the relevance of old terminologies in today’s current climate.  




Relearn: The act of  learning something again, as after having forgotten or neglected it.


External References:

Kaipa.P – ‘What is Unlearning?’


Bonchek.M, 2016 – ‘Why the Problem with Learning Is Unlearning’ (https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-the-problem-with-learning-is-unlearning)

Warrell. M, 2014 – ‘Learn, Unlearn And Relearn: How To Stay Current And Get Ahead’



Leave a Reply