Volume VII - 2002-03

Organic Learning: Crossing the Threshold from Conscious and Unconscious
     by Grethe Hooper Hansen

          Grethe Hooper Hansen is an independent scholar and researcher presently living in Bath, England. Her writings and presentations are recognized internationally.

     Life since September 11, 2001, will never be the same again. The implication for education is that the mode of thinking which focuses more or less exclusively on Aristotelian logic has failed us. Concentrating on the trees, we have lost sight of the wood. Logic can help us to set up a world-wide police force to help protect us from more of the same, but it cannot open up those aspects of mind, which bring balance and wisdom to modify its enthusiasms.

      There have been many wake-up calls: from Carl Rogers, Ivan Ilich, Paolo Freire; more recently from Howard Gardner, Herbert Benson, Daniel Golemen, Parker Palmer, Tobin Hart, and Alan Block, to name just a few. The quantum revolution, now nearly a century old, spelled out in great detail the changes that needed to be made to balance yang with yin. But in the absence of a theoretical framework with which such change could be understood and justified, the snowball of education rolled on down its steep slope, increasing its load of tests and examinations. Education is slow to change for the Newtonian reason that we do not teach something until we fully understand it.

      This article offers a glimpse of such a framework, one which is not new, but whose relevance was not clear at the time when it appeared. First we review the differences between old and new scientific paradigms, and then consider how this can be applied at a mental rather than physical level. The chart below was presented at the Blaker conference on education, UK, April 2000, by physicist Chris Clarke, author of Reality Through the Looking Glass: Science and Awareness in the Postmodern World (1996) and Chairman of the Council of the Scientific & Medical Network.



Separate units

Exact quantities
Freedom is illusory




Articulated structure


Each present moment is open to new opportunity.
My relation to the world is modeled on myrelation to living creatures.

Empathy, for people and other-than-humans, is physically real.

Each of my actions propagates infinite effects.
My sensitivity to patterns is a key to understanding.
I accept being changed by what I encounter.
I am committed to engagement with the world.
I look for mutual benefit.
I am willing to shift to new ways of perceiving

Dixon 's Reversal

     The translation of principles that apply to the physical world into principles that apply to the mental world has been available to us since 1981. Then, a quantum leap in psychology was made with the publication of Preconscious Processing by Dr. Norman F. Dixon, MBE, at that time Professor of Psychology at University College, London. It seems to be the case that once technology was able to measure the microscopically small which lies beyond the power of perception of the five physical senses, we crossed a threshold into another dimension of reality in which the rules of manifestation are reversed. What Dixon revealed is that when we focus our attention beyond the level of the conscious mind, crossing the threshold from conscious to non-conscious awareness, we are doing the same thing at a mental level, and the rules of psychological manifestation are also reversed.

     Unfortunately, Dr. Dixon 's work appeared at just the wrong moment, when universities were seeking a paradigm for the development of Artificial Intelligence. Thus it was eclipsed by the emergence of Cognitive NeuroScience (CNS), which regards thinking as rational and logical, a perfect basis for AI. This brought funding, new jobs and a rich field for research to cash-strapped universities. But its premise of rationality was famously demolished by neuro-scientist Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes ' Error (1994).

     A few years before Dixon 's book appeared, Bulgarian psychiatrist Georgi Lozanov 's Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy (1978)was published, an unwieldy title for a book whose claims of prodigious learning did not seem possible and were not believed. In fact, Lozanov was applying exactly the same science to the classroom, and his results depended on maintaining “quantum ” conditions. . His work was later watered down to produce Accelerated Learning, which translates a quantum phenomenon into Newtonian parameters with only occasional success. This article offers an understanding of Dixon 's science combined with Lozanov 's know-how in applying it to classrooms.

A Confusion of Logical Levels

     It will show that our mistake in education has been a confusion of logical levels . In the Newtonian way, we focused on only one level of reality, the material, because it can be statistically measured and tested. The quantum revolution revealed that there are many different levels of reality, and our thinking and discussion must acknowledge those levels. For example, competition “works ” at the material level, , creating an elite class, who achieve high results. It does not work at the more subtle levels, disempowering the majority and breeding hatred. These differences will be made clear by reference to Dixon and Lozanov's work.

      Along with Dixon ' s discovery go other unsettling truths. The old view that “Seeing is believing ” gives way to the new view that “Believing is seeing ”: we see only those things that we already have a concept for, and which we are prepared to see. We now need to recognise the power of our thought to affect the world, and take responsibility for it. We must also recognise that in the classroom, the context that we create determines the results that we get. No twenty-first century educator would deny the existence of the unconscious mind and its vast influence on learning and behaviour. But in the absence of a science that could delineate it in a systematic and practically usable way, we continued to teach from conscious mind to conscious mind as if the learner were a learning machine, which is to say always operating in a predictable and uniform state of consciousness and devoid of needs, emotions, individual perceptual differences and other neurological distractions. In a CNS context, learners learn more or less in the way we expect them to, but there are other possibilities that can be evoked by setting up a different context. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message. ”

Pre-Conscious Processing, PCP

     Think of the mind as an iceberg, of which only the small tip appears above the water —to give some sense of the proportions involved. (The iceberg is not a new idea, but will be to some people. )The tip is the part that carries conscious awareness; it is like a tiny, misted window through which we can look into the vast complexity of the non-conscious. The major task of the brain, apart from overseeing the running of the human organism and intervening when things go wrong, is to take in information on the environment, sort it out and act on it. Millions of impressions are registered through our senses simultaneously and without conscious awareness: all that we see, hear, feel, smell and taste. These impressions have to be stored in memory so that they are available for regular scanning and selection for conscious attention. Below the threshold of awareness seethes a perpetual frenetic activity, a continuous pouring in of information matched by the turmoil of items seeking for selection by endless kaleidoscoping into new patterns from which meaning can emerge.

     Conscious awareness evolved to perform several functions, among them:

• To give us access to the end products of extensive pre--conscious activity;
• To prioritise information, , plan and prepare for action;
• To monitor the automated system, , taking over the action in situations of danger and intervening
         when things go wrong;
• To allow us to suppress information that might upset us or distract us from action.

(This is the basis for defence mechanisms such as projection and denial, whose existence was part of the complex lesson of September 11 th . There is not space in this article to explore these, but Dixon 's model makes them easy to understand and identify. )

     Because we are conscious only of that of which we are conscious , we tend to assume that conscious awareness is all there is. Whereas, in fact the conscious mind has severe limitations. It is a low-content, short-term buffer aimed at stimuli with action potential . Specialised for making quick judgements about the world it perceives, and acting on them immediately, it likes to focus on one thing at a time. Prediction, generalisation, classification and simplification are major strengths. It seeks certainty and tends to be uncomfortable with ambiguity —but it can also teach itself to override its natural attitudes, and this is what counselling and facilitation training are all about. This is the mind developed by our ancestors, hunter-gatherers whose survival depended on such things as identifying the right plants to eat and defending against attack. Its skill in reduction preserves our sanity, protecting us from cognitive overload.

     Only a tiny fraction of our mental activity becomes conscious. There are many layers in the unconscious mind. We use the term subconscious to indicate that which is always in action just below the surface, influencing thought, holding everything in memory, running the automated systems, potentially but not actually accessible. Unconscious indicates that which is much less accessible or firmly hidden; this includes memories from a whole lifetime, atavistic traces of our ancestors ' lives, the collective unconscious, archetypes, all the mental residue of the species. Psycho-therapy has shown that the unconscious also harbours disturbing memories suppressed by the action of the defence mechanisms, mentioned earlier, that we have deliberately concealed from awareness but which nevertheless may continue to influence every waking moment. Influences in the unconscious can be highly active while still firmly inaccessible.

     Lozanov in his method of learning aims at what he calls the para-conscious. This is the field of potential awareness that exists when the mind is only lightly focussed so that it still remains receptive to other possibilities. This is our state of normal awareness when we are doing something that does not require careful thought: for Lozanov, games, drama and activities of all kinds. He ensures that the target information is close to the surface, things that we are vaguely aware of and could focus on if we wanted to, but do not. At the same time we remain open to influences from the most profound depths of the psyche, which is why Lozanov uses games from childhood that can help recall powerful states of mind from the distant past. He deliberately avoids precision and focus in learning so as to keep the mind open to these richer, more voluminous and still ambiguous fields of information below awareness.


     As in all threshold experience (an important concept in psychology), progress from one world, or dimension, to another tends to bring a reversal of rules. This is a particularly important point for educators to understand: in a situation of paradigm change. Operating on the basis of a Newtonian set of assumptions that we automatically employ in making decisions, we now need to be more conscious of what we are doing in a new-paradigm environment. The table of paradigm change, shown earlier, reveals some of the reversals of the ways in which objects are seen to interact. We have all been trained to assume the “old, ” not the new.

     To give just one example of mental principles of operation in reverse, while reason and the conscious mind tend to select information on the basis of what makes logical sense, the major criterion at the non- conscious level, shared by the rest of the animal world and the plant world, is that which gives pleasure. At an unconscious level, we respond to everything in terms of the pleasure it offers us, and then translate that response into the terms of the dimension that is prominent in the interaction. Thus, if the lesson is unpleasant, the child may resist it, albeit unconsciously by going to sleep or “failing to understand. ” Failure to understand succeeds as a bid for attention within the language of lessons. It is well known in the world of remedial education that hearing problems are often due to a habit of tuning out the voice of a nagging parent. Lozanov usually responds to learning difficulties by giving more attention to the student and finding an activity in which he or she can excel.

     Here is a chart to show the general reversals in crossing the threshold from conscious to unconscious. The intention is not, of course, to say that we must do everything as if for the unconscious; obviously the mind is always working in both modes. But if we are to engage in a holistic mode of learning and teaching and to deal at an appropriate level with issues such as motivation and learner autonomy, which have very little to do with the conscious mind, we need to be aware of both sides of the coin. Brackets are used to show the relation to Chris' chart.


Active &controlling
Part analysis: build from part to whole
(focus on atoms, separate units)
Low volume, reductive
Specificity (determinism/exact quantities)
Recoding: interpretation/consistency
Right/wrong; obsession with correctness
Fixity (machine); preservation of concepts Analytical: deeper into detail
Criterion for acceptance: Does it make sense? Working mode: high focus, concentration Interaction: competitive (separating/ranking)Focus: mental dominant Viewpoint: objective Serial function predominates


Receptive, spontaneous, participatory
Whole comes first: from whole to part
(interconnection, patterns, fields)
High volume
Ambiguity -(indeterminism/pattern)
No recoding: infiltration of the new
Errors are learning material
Organic plasticity: let it emerge
Creative: looking for new relationships
Criterion: Does it give pleasure?
Working mode: relaxation
Interaction: bonding is the first impulse
Holistic: feeling, sensation, intuition dominant
Viewpoint: subjective
Parallel function predominates

     If our aim is that learning will take place at a non-conscious level, and that information will rise to awareness (by self selection)only when appropriate for the learner, we turn the classroom inside out and up- side down:

• Give students what they like, not just what is considered good for them,
• Move desks from rows to clusters, • Allow constant movement and interaction, and much more self-direction;
• Reduce testing, telling, prescribing, correcting, even praising,
• Add creative/artistic/musical activity, which calls upon the unconscious mind to make its best possible effort, allows for the expression of dammed-up emotion (Art every day, Keeps the doctor away), gives incubation time for unconscious learning work in progress, and above all, engages the bottom-up processes of organic unfoldment.

Top Down, Bottom Up

     The idea behind organic learning is that every living organism contains within it a principle for its own natural growth or unfoldment, and that will happen provided there is no impediment. This process produces emergent properties, which are not universal or foreseeable; each individual will achieve what is appropriate for him or her. Lozanov creates a friendly, supportive, relaxed, non-competitive classroom with a range of activities that everyone can enjoy; he also provides opportunities for emotional expression through the arts so that learners can offload otherwise obstructive emotion. Individuals can work at the text in their own way at their own speed and learn what is appropriate for them; there is no fixed menu.

      The most important concept to grasp in of all of this is understanding the flow of learning in the head, which means replacing our top-down classroom assumption with a bottom-up model. The best description I know of the different ways in which the conscious and unconscious minds arrive at conceptualization is given by Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By (1980). Meanwhile, here is a general idea of their theme combined with Lozanov 's view of classrooms:

     Our minds have evolved to take in a specific narrow band of information that pertains to physical survival in a material world, and we naturally do this by walking about using eyes, ears and other senses to respond to what is around us. We take in information unconsciously, as shown in Dixon ' s model, allowing the most useful and relevant to float into awareness and also using the conscious mind to assist this process. But this is not what happens in classrooms. In the majority of classrooms we have to sit still, focus hearing and vision only on the teacher and write down or try to remember all that is said. This involves actively suppressing information from the unconscious (through senses other than ears)that is trying to make its way into awareness, often spending more energy in closing the mind than in receiving. It takes effort, especially if the talk is uninteresting, in which case the mind automatically fishes for more entertaining material in memory.

Natural Learning

      This shows the normal flow of information from outside into the unconscious, and by selection up into conscious awareness. Selection in a natural state is largely bottom-up: items cluster together until by virtue of their collective volume and strength of signal, they self-select into conscious awareness. There is also a top-down process of semi-conscious scanning for relevance set off by conscious or unconscious intention to find particular meanings; the brain is a compulsive problem solver and pattern maker, and likes to be busy looking for something. The point is that the mind does all this of its own accord and in its own way. Teaching can either dovetail with this process, in which case learning is exhilarating and does not cause tiredness, or it can oppose it, in which case it is true to say that “One must suffer to learn. ”Traditional education favours opposition and suffering, which we often learn to enjoy, but in the process loses the natural motivation that can be seen in small children ecstatically crashing among the saucepans. Whereas Montessori 's self-appropriated learning from physical activity is a good example of dovetailing with the natural process.

Classroom Learning

     When we choose opposition, information is “pre-digested ”, divided into elements, which are then “spoon-fed ” from the teachers conscious mind to the learner 's conscious mind. The information transmitted is low-volume and is a part of a greater whole, which will be arrived at by accumulation. By contrast, Lozanov always shows the whole picture first, bombarding the brain with a high volume of information. What he does not demand is the ability to parrot back what was transmitted, an unspoken requirement of traditional teaching —which has the effect of holding the mind on constant alert. He also organises the presentation of information in such a way that the learner 's conscious mind is lightly distracted from the target learning material, eg. , concentrating on the thread or story of the text rather than the syntactic details targeted) in order to engage the para-conscious dimension of learning —just as it would be in the natural world. I walk along a mountain path focusing lightly on getting from A to B and in the process I absorb the information I need to respond to the conditions around me.

     Montessori and Steiner would do more or less the same, and many other innovators. Their difference from Lozanov is simply that he has planned what he is doing for neurological reasons and can explain in those terms why he does it. This enables other people to understand and correctly apply different pedagogical approaches, which might otherwise seem blurred or not much different from the traditional. Lozanov has an ingenious formula for asking questions in such a way that the mind remains in para-conscious mode until the very last moment (again, space does not allow a description of this). We could say that he makes every effort to maintain the wave form as long as possible before collapsing it into particle form.
By doing this, he achieves several different things:

• Allows initial plasticity, which means ultimately greater precision in learning;
• Facilitates bottom-up process, or self-appropriated learning, which is both more efficient and more autonomous, and leads to         better long-term memorisation;
• Reduces stress and tension, which also keeps the mind open.

This is the kernel of his amazing “super-learning ” effect, , easily lost when the detail is not in place.

     Of course, much excellent education used to be like this. What happened is that size of institutions increased (We closed the small schools), as did the number of examinations (According to the Independent newspaper, children in UK who leave school at 18 will now have taken 75 public tests or examinations!), we relied on science to verify what we were doing and dropped those subjects it could not justify. Progress back to excellence will take a combination of understanding new science and careful adjustment of method in accordance with it, plus emphasis on Emotional Quotient (EQ), establishing a heart connection and ultimately letting the children lead us into a new methodology.


     Control is something that the conscious mind does automatically since it has to select and reduce information; meditation teaches us how to let go, consciously, of that control. In response to threat or demand, the mind steps up controlling activity; stress mounts quickly in competitive environments. Teachers who feel insecure control children, and governments who feel insecure impose assessment to control both teachers and children. In the brain, control has the effect of focusing down the lens of the mind, which reduces peripheral receptivity, and with it creativity and learning —with the exception of rote learning. A c ertain amount of control is normal and healthy, but the tendency to control comes from having a lot of repressed emotional material, such as fear or anger, which has never been allowed expression. The only way, ultimately, to reduce controlling is by developing EQ both for teachers and learners.

     Competition, as noted earlier, “works ” in highly controlled environments, , which rely on top-down process. It does not work for organic approaches relying more on the bottom-up. One person 's success is everyone else 's failure, sowing resentment and defensiveness, in effect closing the mind. Organic unfoldment relies on sensitive response and wide peripheral awareness, both achieved through a lowering of defences. In the new medicine, to quote an example from Deepak Chopra (1989), when the body produces cascades of biochemicals in fractions of a second too small to count, our interventions through drugs are never more than clumsy and inadequate and very often harmful; a better solution is to learn how to harness the body 's own exquisite self-healing processes, but this requires relaxation, the parasympathetic response. On the emotional front, the Newtonian approach is to give valium and prozac to suppress the tension or depression caused by emotional concealment; the quantum alternative is development of EQ, making self a resource to be tapped, not a danger to be suppressed in the words of Parker Palmer. The long-term consequences for self and society are immense. Lozanov believes that if the classroom is sufficiently protective, nurturing and stimulating, each human organism will find what it needs for its own growth —and he notes that different learners grow in different ways, at different times and speeds.

     This is not at all the same as the nineteenth century notion of “laisser faire, ” which had no psychological basis or concept of direction. It negated the whole educational process, leaving everything to biology. There is plenty of evidence now (particularly from the Russian research of A. R. Luria and L. Vygotsky)that conceptual thinking has to be taught or evoked in children by appropriate stimulation and does not emerge of its own accord.

     Lozanov acknowledges and uses the advances and discoveries of science (particularly chaos theory) and neurological research, bombarding the brain with a high volume of information to ensure that processing occurs at non-conscious levels. He also provides the protection, nurture and an intricately conceived informational input (material presented specifically for predominantly right-brain pattern recognition)that will allow the organic process to work optimally towards excellence, and including ways of discharging emotions built up through the normal action of defence mechanisms, which otherwise block or distort the learning process. This involves the use of games, activities, music, song, drama, dance, a large-scale return of the arts to the classroom. Paradoxically, when emotions are formally engaged in the learning process, the teacher has to be far more rigorous in behaviour than in the exclusively intellectual classroom because the learner has become more sensitive and vulnerable. The openness and spontaneity of the learner is maintained by fastidious emotional modelling, careful planning and tight organisation on the part of the teacher/facilitator.

     An inspiring description of teaching in this way, albeit through intuition rather than science, can be found in Sylvia Ashton-Warner 's book Teacher, recently reprinted by Turnstone. Sylvia Ashton-Warner was an Englishwoman who taught Maori five year-olds in New Zealand in the nineteen thirties. She described these children as small volcanoes with two principal vents, one of destructiveness and the other of creativity; when the creative aspect was developed, the destructive would atrophy. All the classroom projects were based on language and concepts from the children 's own life, that which deeply engaged them, and all was elaborated using their own extraordinary abilities in such things as song and dance; learning drew deeply on the organic process. This eventually produced skilled and disciplined as well as passionate adults. New paradigm science would fully support the work that she arrived at through her own personal sensitivity and wisdom.


Ashton-Warner, 5 (1999), Teacher, new edition by Turnstone.

Benson, H (1996), Timeless Healing, Scribner.

Block, AA (1997, 2001), I 'm Only Bleeding: Education as the Practice of Social Violence Against Children, Peter Lang.

Chopra, D (1989), Quantum Healing. Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine, NewYork, Bantam.

Clarke, C (1996), Reality Through the Looking Glass, Science and Awareness in the Postmodern World, Edinburgh, Floris

Damasio, A (1994), Descartes ' Error, Picador.

Dixon, NE (1981), Preconscious Processing, J Wiley.

Gardner, H (1983)Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, Peter Lang.

Hart, Tobin (2001), From Information to Transformation, Peter Lang.

Lakoff, G &Johnson, M (1980), Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press.

Lozanov, G (1978), Suggestology and Outlines of Suggestopedy, Gordon &Breach.

Palmer, P (1998), The Courage to Teach, San Francisco, Jossey-Bowes.

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