The common understanding is that with each new skill we learn, our brains grow synapses between neurons. In fact, we might say that learning and synaptic growth are the same things. As described in the essay Primordial Learning, no cognitive activity is required to trigger synaptic growth. The brain has a natural ability to learn from the experience. Just an observation of the world is enough to initiate the growth of new synapses.
However, learning from experience is not exactly what we think when speaking of learning. Rather it is the thinking, the intentional and conscious activity we commonly associate with learning. We understand learning as a cognitive - intellectual effort.
So there are these two approaches to learning. The first one is primordial learning, an unconscious activity, and the second one is cognitive learning. These two systems are not exclusive. It is not one or the other approach. Even though primordial learning and conscious thinking look like two separate and competing systems, they work in cooperation, with one supporting the other.
The crucial part of understanding the interaction between the two systems is the mind. In an essay Why the Brain Creates the Mind, the mind is described as an interface between the unconsciousness and the consciousness, between the unknown world of shadows and the world of perception and awareness. A mind is a plane of projection between the two. Our unconsciousness, our warehouse of unstructured knowledge, talks to our minds using emotions, feelings, interpretations, opinions, and stories.
We are not aware of anything up until it appears in our minds. The touch of consciousness in our minds makes us aware. All the content of our unconsciousness is reduced to a simple set of feelings. All of our past experiences, coupled with our natural instincts, are mixed into a cocktail of emotions. Most of the time, these emotions or feelings are all we are aware of.
The journey of knowledge starts just after the interpretation of sensory inputs by our unconsciousness. Our unconsciousness interprets a set of colors and lines on a painting as shapes, objects, or complex scenes. Our unconsciousness explains the actions of people and associates them with intentions so we can have a certain sense or feel about people and what they do. The intentions we associate with activities help us predict future events.
Right after the mix of messages from unconsciousness comes into contact with the consciousness, the content of our minds can be observed. We start to create fantasies—simulations. We set up scenes with the largest possible number of facts we can hold in our conscious - operational memory. We simulate the world or the situation as realistically as we can and want. We stop time, review the scene, or create alternative outcomes. We can hold ideas in our minds for as long as we need them. Then, within these simulations, we search for relations; we look for the most probable connections between facts.
Fantasies of consciousness have no limits. We can imagine flying elephants, or we can spend endless hours analyzing failed relationships.
However, we can also do something useful, like science. Science is heavily dependent on imagination—the structured and organized way of imagination. After scientists set up an extensive scene in their minds, full of scientific, known facts, they start to work actively with the content of scientific fantasy. They follow logical paths in their minds and look for meaningful conclusions. And this is, in fact, the main reason for thinking and conscious learning. Conscious thinking creates hints, or soft facts, for the primordial learning system by omitting the least probable solutions of problems and giving preference to solutions with high probability.
During conscious thinking, the brain is not structurally altered. The rate of speed used to create and playback fantasies are way too fast to create new connections between neurons. Our brains are restructured when the conclusions of conscious thinking are back-integrated into our unconsciousness. To let knowledge, as a product of our conscious thinking, become part of our personality, the brain has to grow new synapses. After new synapses are grown, the knowledge becomes alive, active, and effortless. And the part of the brain responsible for this backward integration is our primordial learning system. The only system in our brain able to trigger synaptic growth.
While sensory organs feed the primordial learning system with real-world events and facts, conscious thinking provides intellectual, made-up inputs. The primordial learning system does not differentiate between the two. Most probably, conscious thinking takes advantage of the neural pathways like a visual pathway, so knowledge travels the same neural paths as in the case of sensory stimulation.
Our primordial learning system then tries its best to integrate cognitive knowledge into the physical structure of the brain in the form of new synapses. For effortless integration, the new experience must be compatible with the old brain structures. If this is the case, we experience a sort of intellectual orgasm—those big "Aha!" moments. Things just click together in a meaningful way.
There is also a case when new knowledge is not compatible with our actual brain structure. This is the state of cognitive dissonance. Based on the level of incompatibility, we can feel confused, depressed, or in the case of extreme, tragic events, such as car accidents, unable to integrate new experiences at all. We have a powerful intellectual, cognitive understanding of a situation, but the actual situation is not compatible with the knowledge represented by the brain structure, which is represented by unconsciousness.
The flowing of knowledge from unconsciousness to consciousness and back is called the cognitive loop. During the cognitive loop, our unconscious knowledge is presented to our minds and processed by our consciousness. Thinking is intentional imagination, and it stimulates neural pathways that create additional inputs for our primordial learning system. This way, the results of our intellectual efforts are integrated back into our brains by creating new neural structures.