Most of us have had the experience that somehow we “knew” something that we did not have specific prior knowledge of. It’s tempting to start indulging in magical thinking but the science-minded therapist knows that’s not how it works. So how does it happen? One obvious answer is pure coincidence. Another less obvious answer is unconscious learning.
Todd Hargrove wrote one of my favorite articles on the subject, “Why Massage is Like Chicken Sexing.” In it he describes how unconscious learning can lead us to believe in magical thinking. I’d never really thought about it but he had a good point.
In fact, I came to realize that probably most of our learning is unconscious. We learn to talk by being immersed in language and, little by little, learning to decipher what is being said by those around us without applying conscious effort. While our parents may try to help us learn to walk, the fine points of balance and running and adapting to varying terrain are learned by experience rather than specific attention to them.
The placement of buildings and trees in our environment is something we may not purposely attend to but our brain is still taking in this information. If something in our environment changes it catches our eye, even though we may not have paid much attention before.
Intuition Vs. Experiential Knowledge
About five or six years into my professional life I reached an uncomfortable plateau.
Until then, it seemed I was constantly learning new things, always progressing, but I started to feel as if I were stagnating, even going backwards. One day, while giving a massage to a more experienced massage therapist I voiced this. She said to me, “You must be learning something because you keep stopping in all the right places.” I had no idea I was doing this.
It occurred to me that my brain, through my hands, must have been picking up subtle cues that my conscious mind did not notice.
Years later there were other experiences, one with a competitive skier. About ten minutes into a massage he commented that he could tell I was very experienced. I asked him exactly what made him say that since I was just warming up and not yet doing anything specific. He he told me, “I can feel you adjusting and changing your pressure in the places that are tight and sore.” Again, I did not realize I was doing this.
The occasion that particularly stood out was with a dancer. He was the oldest member of his dance troupe and had been with them the longest. He was taciturn and clearly tired. I asked him how he felt. “Tired. Sore. Too much jumping,” he said in his Slavic accent. He pointed to a few places and lay down on the table. As I was massaging the back of his upper leg, I felt something that got my attention and the thought popped into my mind, “Old injury.” I’m cautious about what I say to athletes and performing artists prior to their performance, I don’t want to undermine their confidence in any way. Although I would never say it anyway, one should never say, “Wow! You’re really tight!” shortly before a performer is going onstage. I asked him, rather casually and neutrally, “How does this feel?” “Hurts,” he said, then added that he’d pulled a hamstring jumping. “When was that?” I asked. “Two years ago.” Wow, I thought, did I nail that or what?
Of course, it doesn’t always work like that but it was a cool moment. Later, when I told another massage therapist about it, they asked, “How did you know that?” I started thinking, exactly how did I know? Intuition? But what is intuition? Is it some sort of magic or is there a plausible explanation for it?
Then an answer came to me: my hands have been on thousands of bodies for tens of thousands of hours in varying states of injury and pain and no pain. Without my conscious awareness, my brain is paying attention at every moment. There is a large body of experiential knowledge. Probably something felt similar to other old hamstring injuries I’d felt many, many times before.
Or maybe it was pure coincidence.
Unconscious Learning And Accumulated Massage Experience
Unconscious learning probably plays a much larger role in our lives than we realize.
Is this any less awesome than thinking some sort of magic is at play? I don’t think so. It’s incredible that our brain can do that and very useful, too. If we had to put conscious effort into every single thing we learned, we wouldn’t learn very much at all.
All of these intuitive moments came about as a result of years of accumulated experience. In the beginning, sometimes someone more experienced would palpate something and point it out to me. “Here, feel this?” I would have no idea what I was supposed to feel. I had no body of experience (or enough experience of bodies) that allowed me to interpret what I was palpating. It’s important for beginning massage therapists to understand this and not become frustrated if they feel lost. It’s also important that one should not be overeager to jump to conclusions prematurely.
Too often, massage therapists are quite certain they feel things that are simply a product of their imagination, what has been called “palpatory pareidolia.” (Pareidolia is seeing patterns where none exist, such as seeing a face in a rock or a horse in a cloud.) Palpatory pareidolia can lead a therapist to pathologize normal tissues, causing unnecessary worry to the client or making themselves look ill-informed.
We want to avoid making assumptions so they don’t get in the way of seeing what is, rather than what we imagine. We want to be fully open to the client as they are, not as what we project onto them. However, as we gain many hours of experience with many, many clients, we can develop a kind of knowledge which we think of as intuitive that is probably a result of many years of unconscious learning.
In practice, when an idea comes from that intuitive place, I always check with the client, asking in a neutral manner so as not to alarm them or lead them to an answer. After all, I could easily be wrong.
The next time you have a moment where you seem to sense something without knowing why, take a few minutes to think about what past experiences or cues may have led to that. It may not be immediately apparent, but if you contemplate it for awhile you may get some clues. It will help you appreciate the role unconscious learning plays in your life. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?