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Pursuing Passive Learning

cassidoo profile image Cassidy Williams ・2 min read

I wrote this post originally in 2016 when I first started to passively learn Morse code. I added a bunch of custom vibrations for each letter of the alphabet to my phone, and when I add someone to my contact book, I assign them the custom vibration. So, as people text or call me, I'm slowly but surely learning Morse code because of their names. So my husband Joe has a J name, so it's the .--- vibration, my sister Cami has a C name, so it's the -.-. vibration, and so on.

5 years later, it's going pretty well! I admit there are some letters that I simply don't know from this method (I do not know a lot of people with Q and X names), but I've learned a decent amount of Morse code this way and can spell some words out.

We're all exposed to subliminal messages. Due to the massive amounts of information we're exposed to every single day, and our limited capacity to actively, consciously register it, there's always small changes in our minds. But, if you're exposed to the same information again and again over time, there's more lasting changes. So, like in my example above, I've been constantly hearing vibrations for people every day, and the repetition has led to my learning without my having to think about it.

When a person is stressed, they use both their conscious memory and their subconscious memory to compensate for all of the stress. The switch from totally conscious learning to conscious+subconscious learning is triggered by mineralocorticoid receptors, which are released in response to stress. The switches are controlled by the amygdala, the part of the brain that's responsible for both memory and emotional reactions. There's a really interesting study by Schwabe, Tegenthoff, and Hoffken that talks about this, and you can read it here. Long story short: it turns out that when I said that I "operate well under stress" in college, I wasn't actually making that up!

I often wonder what else I could try to learn passively. Over the years I've had a binary watch to try and be able to more quickly read binary, I've written down quotes on a post-it here and there for me to occasionally skim and eventually memorize... but I haven't done anything particularly technical with this kind of learning, yet. I would like to try, but I'm not really sure how.

There's probably a lot more to learn about subconscious and passive learning. Please feel free to send me anything you've found on the subject, anything you've tried, or something you're planning on trying!

Discussion (4)

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ertankara profile image
Ertan Kara

This technique is so natural to me. If I want to learn a new framework, I go through docs every night before I sleep, reading random topics not necessarily expecting to understand every bit. A few days after this process, I start to feel pretty confident with my knowledge.

paulasantamaria profile image
Paula Santamaría

Interesting! I haven't thought about it like that, but I did something similar years ago when I decided to get better at English. I changed the language on all my devices (phone, laptop, pc, etc) and started reading only in English and watching Netflix with English subtitles, and so on.

Thanks for this article! I'll try to keep an eye out to use this more often.

evanfuture profile image
Evan Payne

Very cool. I found this technique for language learning over the weekend, which isn't fully passive, but does embrace the idea that you can't learn by active study alone:

batibot323 profile image
Hani Herbert Ho

This is very inherent in learning a new language. Listening to news in that language instead of listening to music, improves your listening without really wasting time. I share your sentiment on trying to do this for tech.