What is learning?


My personal definition is the following:

Learning is the memorization of relationships between things in a context, enabling us to simulate things in our minds to generate predictable behavior.

When we learn, we enable ourselves to not only observe, but imagine how something works in our minds. We imagine and play with how different scenarios unfold through a model in our heads.  These mental models are our minds best guesses about how things work based on our previous experience and observations of how things worked in the past.

There are two fundamental ways to learn things:

Analytical / Dissectional

  • What does it contain?
  • What is it made of?
  • What is its sub parts?

Systemic / Relational

  • What is it connected to?
  • How is it affected by other things?
  • How does it affect other things?
  • How is it different from other things?


I’ve talked about Black boxes briefly in an earlier post. But if you are unfamiliar I’ll describe it briefly: A Black box is a mental model about something with only systemic / relational information. What makes the box “Black” is that it’s content is not observed.


There are 4 stages of human learning:

  • Stage 1“Unconscious” Incompetence.
    • This is when you don’t know what it is you don’t know.
    • This is practically what creates the Dunning Kruger effect.
    • In relation with the term black box, this is equivalent of not knowing about a certain Black box.
  • Stage 2Conscious Incompetence.
    • This is when you know that there is something specific that you can’t understand or can’t do.
    • Example: “Oh people can solve Rubik’s cube. But I can’t.”
    • In relation with the term Black box, this is equivalent of noticing or identifying a certain Black box.
  • Stage 3Conscious Competence.
    • This is when you are able to understand or do something, but it requires your full attention.
    • Example: “I can solve Rubik’s cube when focusing with a lot of effort and with help from instructions.”
    • In relation with the term Black box, this is equivalent of being aware of the inner workings of a Black box.
  • Stage 4Unconscious Competence.
    • This is when you are able to understand or do something without having to think about it consciously.
    • “I don’t have to think about what I do to solve Rubik’s cube.”
    • This is equivalent of knowing a black box by heart. In the book theory of fun this would be refereed to as grokking.



The two fundamentals of psychology:

Association and dissociation

The brain is a pattern matching machine. When we are repeatedly presented with a pattern we starts to see what relates and what doesn’t. This is what, in psychology terms, is called association and dissociation.


There is a rather common heuristic used within the field of psychology that brain cells “that fire together wire together.” The meaning of that statement is that, as learners, we put meaning onto things that occur together in the same context or time. The classical psychological experiments by Pavlov showed how stimuli that is presented together “associates”. What this means is that meaning itself is transferred to the things that something is presented together with. The most famous example is Pavlov’s bell, that for his dogs got so associated with food that the dogs started to drool simply from hearing the sound of the bell.


Dissociation is created when we observe that something no longer happens within a context. It is when we learn that we thought was true really isn’t or that maybe it is more nuanced than it first seemed.

Dissociation is also when we choose not to acknowledge things. It is the brains way of filtering out the information that is not relevant in the current context. When we are really focused on something our minds keeps track of and associates things within a specific context, but tries to ignore and dissociate everything else. Dissociation is the brain’s way of creating relevancy.

Learning as a reader


Information is more commonly formatted for the writer and not for the reader. What might seem logical and educational from the writers perspective, usually either lacks the right contexts to be useful for the reader or repeats information for the reader that they already know.

If it is too wordy it gets boring, but if it contains conclusions without it being evident how, the information is hard to follow.

Diagram of the balance between challenge and skill level and how it corresponds to different emotions.

Making something informative is a constant balance between introducing new information, and presenting the new information in relation to information that the reader already knows.

What is a Black Box?

A Black Box is a system or process where all you see is:

  • Input – The things that affects the black box.
  • Output – The things that the black box produces or affects.Blackbox3D-withGraphs.png

This implies two things:

  • That you sometimes don’t know what happen within a system, even though you know what effects it produces.
  • That you sometimes don’t need to know how something works on the inside to interact with it on a meaningful level.

Whether used with intention or not, a black box symbolizes and represents hidden knowledge and the unmeasured parts of systems. Everything that is unmeasured or uncertain but happens anyways can thus be thought of as a Black Box.