Basal ganglia to the rescue (or how to walk in Paris)

In France this summer, I had an illustrative experience re:information-integration learning.”

Information-integration” learning is unconscious or implicit learning (heavily reliant on the basal ganglia). It’s the opposite, more or less, of book learning. 

I say “more or less” because I’m not sure the two systems are ever completely separate.

They seem to specialize in different jobs; that much, I think, is clear.

They seem also to compete: when one is “turned on,” the other is “turned off” or at least “turned down.” (I think that’s right–I remember reading it–but I don’t remember my source. So take it with a grain of salt.)

UPDATE 1/21/2019: Yes. They compete.

In any event, it appears that people really can be better at one than the other, as folk psychology would have it. There are intuitive types, and there are cerebral types. 

But the two systems seem to support each other as well, though I don’t think anyone knows how that works. I’m not sure anyone even has a proper theory, though I could have missed it.

Anyway, back to my summer.

You do a lot of walking in Paris. Obviously. (Sidebar: that new study finding that exercise, in the form of brisk walking, does produce weight loss if you do enough of it certainly holds true for me.)

The problem with walking a lot in Paris is that there are no flat surfaces anywhere, ever. Every sidewalk is a zillion years old, and no sidewalk has ever been re-finished or re-poured or whatever it is people do to ancient sidewalks to make them walkable and safe.

Not to mention all the Parisian dual mini-curbs. You’ll be walking along, and, all of a sudden and out of the blue: CURB.

CURB, and not where you’d expect it, either, i.e. not at a discernible corner, where a proper curb ought to be.

Then, 1 step further along, SECOND CURB. Double curbs in the middle of a block!


Early in our stay, walking down a broad sidewalk in the 14th, I think it was, staring at my Google map trying to figure out where the h-e-double-hockey-sticks I was, I took a really bad fall–straight onto my knee, hard, then onto my wrist. Bam, then bam again. 1

My hikes through Paris amounted to a succession of near-falls: step, step, trip, lurch, catchmybalancestep, step, trip, lurch, catchmy-balance, repeat, repeat, repeat. Incredibly not fun. I wasn’t having fun anyway (that’s another story–and, yes, it is a Life Failure not to have fun in Paris) and the constant trip-lurch-balance-catching hassle added to the woe.

I was beginning to think the problem was that I’m old, and was pondering the question of how old people manage to walk in Paris, or whether they all just drop dead of broken hips at age 70 or 80, when I remembered that the one and only time I’ve ever sprained an ankle happened in Paris, as I stepped off a curb, at age 30.

Which of course raised the question of why I wasn’t seeing 30-year old French people falling off curbs, but never mind. 

Point is, I was not enjoying my foot treks across the city or even my shorter expeditions around the neighborhood (which was fantastic, by the way. Rue Daguerre. If you’re going to Paris, stay in the 14th!)

I’d had one bad fall, and the constant close calls were driving me crazy.

Then one day I looked up from my Google map and realized I had been sailing down Boulevard Raspail for blocks and blocks without having once checked the sidewalk for potholes, bulges, or double-curbs in the middle of nowhere. I was just walking, and walking fast to boot, without looking down at my feet. 

I was walking like I lived there–which, by then, I basically did. 

That has to have been information-integration learning. My weeks (two or maybe three weeks?) of trial-and-error walking taught my unconscious brain how to walk in Paris and not fall down

I couldn’t begin to tell you what I was doing differently.

Was I lifting my feet higher than I do in New York?

But then wouldn’t that make the potholes more of a problem? 

Was I visually checking the sidewalk without realizing it?

I have no idea.

It was pretty great, though.

Information-integration learning Rule-based learning 
“Life” learning “School” learning
Unconscious Conscious
Implicit learning: you can’t necessarily put what you’ve learned in words (& if you can, words come to you later) Explicit learning: you can put what you’ve learned in words
Intuition, everyday categories (good versus bad, dog versus cat), social rules, habit Formal concepts, theories, disciplines, etc.
Grammar Vocabulary
Learns relatively slowly Learns quickly
Can’t learn “offline” (learning stops after a “lesson” is over) Can learn “offline” (learning continues after a lesson is over)
Must have immediate feedback – students must know whether their answer was right or wrong after each answer or no learning occurs Can learn with delayed feedback – students can get their tests back days later and still learn from their mistakes)
Can learn several things at the same time (e.g.: can learn the orientation and the width of a stimulus) Can learn just one thing at a time (can learn the orientation or the width of a stimulus, but not both at the same time)

Source: Deferred Feedback Sharply Dissociates Implicit and Explicit Category Learning
J. David Smith, Joseph Boomer, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Jessica L. Roeder, Barbara A. Church, and F. Gregory Ashby  Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 447-457

And see:
The most important research on learning I’ve ever read 

1. For the record, this is why I don’t get bone scans. Every 3 or 4 years I take a really hard fall, usually dog-related. I land full-weight on one kneecap or the other–or, alternatively, half-weight on one kneecap & half-weight on one wrist–then I get up dazed but intact. Dazed-but-intact after a headlong fall onto a hard surface is diagnostic enough for me. 

3 thoughts on “Basal ganglia to the rescue (or how to walk in Paris)

  1. By a funny coincidence, I also visited Paris this summer. My Fitbit says I averaged about 17,000 steps per day. No one got mugged or pickpocketed, and no one fell off a curb. I don’t remember seeing the dual curbs, though. We stayed out in La Defense just off the M1 line, and took the Metro into town, and all over town, every day. Maybe your falls had something to do with walking while engrossed in Google maps?


  2. Re implicit vs. intentional learning, this is similar to what I’ve recently learned about the Marchionini information seeking model, which holds that there are four types of knowledge:
    – general knowledge, the stuff you pick up unconsciously from daily life, reading, watching TV, driving through your city
    – domain knowledge, the stuff you learned because you intentionally studied it
    – system knowledge, knowledge about how systems work in general, e.g. noticing patterns of highway numbering schemes or Dewey Decimal or etc.
    – information seeking knowledge, how you know how to seek for stuff. Some people don’t know how to ask the right questions or how to find anything, while others are natural finders.

    It’s about 20 years old, but available here:
    Apparently the author is on Twitter as @marchionini.


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