Thinking Of Things, Season 1, Episode 4:

Understanding Understanding

Understanding is guessing and discarding. Understanding is forgetting and disregarding. And understanding is often faux. Understanding is a feeling. Do you understand? Not if I don’t make sense, since then I deny you the feeling that you do. Let me start again.

Understandings are aplenty; from the most mundane grasp of a new device, to the most life changing of epiphanies; from the profoundest personal experience, to a mindless conforming to a social and cultural truth. It could simply be to suddenly see what is in front of one’s nose, or it could be like arriving at an open meadow after an arduous walk through dense woods. Some things can never be understood, despite the best explanations, metaphors, and analogies; the colours unseen, the emotions unfelt will elude full comprehension until experienced. Can one truly understand how it feels to lose a loved one before one has loved and lost?

When we are in the process of learning something new, we struggle to understand. We make assumptions, we test the assumptions, when they fail we revise the assumptions. This is reiterated until the assumptions are found to be correct. How long this takes depends on the complexity of the problem, be it a physical or a mental task, the process remains the same. But learning is not the same as understanding, for hear this: Understanding is an emotion. Understanding is a process in the brain which connects a problem with its solution, emotionally. It gives the memory a short-cut to the solution. And we feel that we understand. 

This short-cut enables us to forget about what led to the solution. Throughout the human experience, this has been a very efficient method of learning and knowledge using. Without this feeling of understanding, solving tasks would be much more time and energy demanding, having to re-derivate what led up to the solution over and over again. Instead, we have a feeling of understanding. An intuition. Understanding is to forget.

This emotional short-cut also enables us to ignore all factors which do not contribute to our understanding of a complex problem, it enables us to stop questioning and go on with a newly found insight. Understanding is disregarding.

An unfortunate side-effect of this emotion is that the assumptions leading up to the understanding may be false and incomplete. When something has been understood for a long time, it is very hard to un-understand, to re-understand. Throughout life we collect a whole set of intertwined understandings, and it is a numerous and vast set that defines us as cultural beings. If we are then exposed to something new, which contradicts some of our previous, perhaps false understandings, this becomes very hard to take in. Sometimes it should not be taken in, oftentimes what is new is false. But since we no longer remember what led us to understand what it is that contradicts the new concepts, we are not even able to understand why we cannot understand what is new to us. So we discard it. A new understanding cannot contradict those already achieved. So if previous ones are wrong, the new one will be hard to take in, regardless of its merits. Hence the expression “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks”. 

As all emotional responses we carry with us, this one is prone to manipulation, and as often is the case, we do it to ourselves. Most matters in the world are too complex for a simple explanation to suffice, yet, simple explanations for complex issues are nonetheless in abundance. If well argued and well-presented they instill in us a false feeling of understanding. False, in that it is an oversimplification. At the same time, a true understanding of a complex matter is unobtainable. We can only handle so many pieces of information at once (5-8), so in order to reach the emotional state of understanding, vast simplifications are necessary. And then, what has been understood may be used as a single piece of information to understand something new and more complex. 1And understanding is forgetting, we forget the assumption leading to the simplified explanation and start seeing our understanding of a phenomenon as its whole truth. It feels right, in the gut. Intuitively. Do you understand?

However, most of the time intuitions do not even appear at all; we mistake them for reality. In this sense, an intuition may be obscuring reality, making reality subjective. (The comic has been modified here for ToT purposes. Full unmodified comic “Monstrous Discrepancies”:

However, most of the time intuitions do not even appear at all; we mistake them for reality. In this sense, an intuition may be obscuring reality, making reality subjective. (The comic has been modified here for ToT purposes. Full unmodified comic “Monstrous Discrepancies”:

Truths make a spectrum between the objective and the subjective. What we have been led to understand as true is often vastly affected by other things we have been led to understand to be true. And so on. And so forth. So our understanding of a complex phenomenon rests on a whole nested intertwined set of previous understandings that makes us up as complete cultural beings. Cultural, in the sense that many matters we believe we understand are merely a cultural bias we have inherited from our surroundings without much critical thought of our own. These things are just how things are, they appear normal2, they are natural3–to us. The understanding of a mathematical theorem could be said to lie close to the objective side of the truth-spectrum, 7×8=58. That can be understood with only a little bit of previous preunderstanding (therefore, an error may be easy to spot). The perceived understanding of a historical event on the other hand, lies much further towards the subjective side of the spectrum. To understand it, many previous and completely different pre-understandings are necessary. For the perceived understanding of society too. Of a person, an emotion, what is true?

In the book “Phantoms in the brain”, Vilayanur Ramachandran describes how different parts of the brain work together to make sense of the world. There are areas that simulate reality, in a way these areas are guessing what reality might be. These areas in the brain rapidly shoot guesses to another area that has the possibility to veto the guess based on sensory input or previous experience, i.e. previous understandings. Ramachandran calls the guessers ‘Phantoms’. The book is made up of examples of patients for whom something has gone wrong in the interaction between these guessers and vetoers. 

The main examples are of people who have undergone amputations of limbs. In those cases, the guess about the reality of the limb is not countered by a veto any longer, since there are no sensory inputs coming from the severed body part. Therefore, the guessed sensation becomes the perceived sensation in the patient. To these patients, the phantom limb is a very real part of their body.
Vilayanur Ramachandran: “Perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input”

It turns out that sometimes, seizures in the region of the brain which is responsible for emotions may cause a pronounced feeling of clarity and understanding. A brief moment of feeling that “it all makes sense”. Understanding is an emotion.  

So when the brain makes sense of the world, when one is trying to understand something, one part of the brain is coming up with guesses, and another is vetoing. Guess! Veto! Guess! Veto! Guess! Not quite right–veto! Guess! That’s it; we have reached a state of ‘Good Enough’! Involve the emotional system, create a feeling of understanding! This is something I have experienced profoundly as a student. After struggling for a while to understand a concept, it becomes clear. And the clarity is quite clearly an emotion arrived at by repeated exposure to what is hard to comprehend. When that has happened, I no longer need to remember what led to the understanding, it transforms into intuition. I do not need to prove what I have learned every time I use it, however I am not very efficient, nor very quick, in using it unless I understand what I am doing.

Another powerful understanding tool (to comprehend something entirely new), is to realize something really cool: that we already do have many a clue. Because understanding never starts from scratch, we connect the new with what we knew before. We make it fit with the old, we make it match. And if found similar we create a metaphor. A metaphor makes us feel comprehension, a metaphor saves energy and time. It stresses similarity, disregarding the tension–the metaphor is like a conceptual rhyme.

This text, including its sciency explanations, may serve as an example of an attempt to provide a sensation of understanding in you, the reader, about a complex subject such as that of understanding. This may make the text deceptive or even manipulative, over-simplified as it is by necessity. This text has therefore provided a totalitarian view on knowledge, in that I have taken the premises on which I reason seriously, without acknowledging the fact that they are incomplete. And how can they be complete, when it comes to any subject of some complexity? Does that mean that you should just disregard what you have just read? Or is it just a cause for caution for seemingly coherent and comprehensible explanations of complex matters, as well as for our own sense of understanding?

That is then a temptation everytime one wants to produce a didactic text or lecture: to take the short-cut to the feeling of understanding instead of actually acknowledging the complexity of the subject, and explaining it with that in mind. Sometimes, by denying the reader the feeling of understanding, the complexity of what is being explained may be much better appreciated by the reader, while a simplified explanation may be more gratifying in the moment. Is this understandable?

Next Episode: Time, memory, and the pursuit of meaningness–Wherein, during a conversation in the park, something starts to melt

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.

  • Axel

    Nice read again 🙂
    On your first footnote: reductionism means to explain properties of systems by properties of their parts: you forget about water and only describe its pressure as the sum of the forces of H2O molecules bouncing off of a surface. As opposed to that holism states that systems can exhibit features not depending on the properties of its parts: you forget about molecules and only marvel at the diffraction of various colours. But in both cases you forget, you disregard information. So I don’t think the features of understanding you describe here are at the roots of reductionism.

    • ToT

      Hmmm… I may need to think more on this. You may be right, at least when it comes to strict scientific reductionism in physics and chemistry. Could there be a weaker form of reductionism, or of reductionistic thinking which applies more to our attempts to understand more complex systems, such as society, or the economy, or psychology? More of a reductionistic stance, than actual sciency reductionism? Or perhaps I am just wrong and the answer to the question is simply “no”… Does anyone else have a thought on this?

  • Axel

    On vacuonyms: I don’t get if your serious or ironic. If you’re serious: the definition of word is that as the smallest element that can be uttered in isolation and still carries meaning. So there are no meaningless words. There might be meaningnessless words, though, and “normal” might be one 🙂

    • ToT

      Oh, I meant no irony, I really do think “normal” is an empty word.

  • mcarefully

    I continue to enjoy your posts very much! I hadn’t spent much attention reflecting on understanding as a feeling before. Can you elaborate on the assertion of footnote 3? This is the second time you’ve footnoted the assertion that the opposite of natural is not unnatural, but supernatural, so I feel it is non-trivial for me to seek understanding ( 😉 ) of what you mean by it. & Since you’ve noted it twice without elaboration (of the kind we got with ‘normal’ for example.. although come to think of it, maybe similar applies (eg there is no unnatural, only a different natural)), I thought maybe it was a more commonly held philosophical known, so I briefly googled. I came upon another’s post which was interesting in some way, tangentially, from yours, especially as it articulated multiple meanings for natural, relating one of which to ‘normal’ and emphasizing definitional(?) agreement as prerequisite to deeper examination, as you have. I can link it here or elsewhere if you’re interested.

    a second thing that your post made me think of in the observation of the short-cut & discard nature of understanding is some observations I’ve made before about the act of remembering. an excerpt of an old blog post of my own here (sorry it’s lacking a bit of context but I didn’t want to digress too far from your post… too late, maybe, ha!):
    “I guess the striking part about this sort of minor epiphany was that it occurred in the dream space, and not the waking. The idea that memory degrades over time is hardly worth a mention. But that the very act of recall contributes to that degradation is something else altogether. On the one hand we are inclined to think it is sound practice to actively recall those memories we hope to preserve. But that’s only so for the hard line bits. Those fuzzier details are subject to drop out splotchy-like, and when they do, we’re likely to try and mend them. So we kind of guess, we make assumptions, we sew these little star-shaped patches into our memories like we did to our favorite blue jeans in the free years. And each time we recall again we add more patches, patches on patches; it becomes a(n accidental) creative process, ultimately. And we want to go back; in the name of preservation we go back. But maybe we oughtn’t. Maybe the approximations warp more than they mend. And I just hadn’t thought about that before the other night. Or, not in the name of preservation anyhow.”

    our minds really are pretty remarkable orchestrations.

    • ToT

      Yes, what I want to highlight and remind myself of is that both ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ are constructions, and when used by people often refer to what existed around them until the age of 17. Anything new after that appears unnatural and abnormal. But how can anything be unnatural and also be in the world? Therefore I think it is important to remind myself that the opposite of natural is not unnatural, but supernatural. It is also connected with the so called “naturalistic fallacy”, notion that anything which is natural is also good, and vice versa. I think both the normal and the natural are excluding and oppressive concepts. Sure, post the link here!

      And while you’re at it, post the link to your blog 😉 That excerpt resonates really well with this post, and it also works as a perfect segue into next episode “Time, memory, and the pursuit of meaningness.” !

      • mcarefully

        re: natural, that makes sense. Here is the link for the post I stumbled upon whilst goggling, & it mentions the naturalistic fallacy too:

        alas, I can’t post the link to my blog, as it’s a combination of private & obsoletely-hosted. I did migrate it into an as-yet-unpublished blog-book though, and I can share it with you by email..

        • ToT

          Ah, I see. I think from the definitions in the link, the second one is definitely another formulation, or a subversion of the naturalistic fallacy, which makes their arguments later a bit circular. The first definition I think is false, since people seldom refer to mundane human-made objects as unnatural, especially if they have a long tradition. So I’m still left with the third definition…

          Email please!

          • Axel

            I agree with ToT: by definition what exists in nature is natural. Therefore every man made thing is natural, as artificial it may seem. And the same is true for any depraved being, for it still has to exist in nature.

          • ToT

            Already the word ‘depraved’ is giving that definition away as being a part of the naturalistic fallacy, defining nature=good, and nature=what evolution produces (which would then include all that is alive). There are so many problems with that definition, to mention one: How would one know what is depraved and what isn’t? I can e.g. come up with perfectly viable arguments for why suicide makes evolutionary sense, but that wouldn’t matter.

            I like ‘extranatural’!

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