I was sitting in an office reception area yesterday. I don’t like doing this for some reason. It makes me uncomfortable; maybe because it was a doctor’s office and everyone coming in there has very personal reasons for being there. We all sit there sort of announcing in silence that we’re holding a secret. Part of the veneer of civilization.
I distracted myself by looking at a beautiful photo on the wall of mountains reflected in a lowland lake. I started wondering why I “understood” the elements of this image without putting words to the various pieces. I didn’t sit there thinking, “That’s a mountain, that’s a lake, those are reeds, etc.” I just know it.
I have a degree in psychology and I’ve never stopped having a deep interest in neuroscience and the mechanics of perception. Humans are wired for pattern recognition and the neurons that fired in response to that mountain photo are a well-worn pattern.
When we don’t understand something, our neurons fire in ways that attempt to fit recognizable patterns in the various elements of the object that we’re trying to understand. There’s a kind of tension attendant upon a lack of understanding. We want it bad.
In fact, we want it so bad (or at least the brain is wired so consistently to find patterns) that we make errors in perception all the time. We think we see things that aren’t really there or are different than reality because once something fits a neural pattern, the brain stops searching for a good fit.
This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. In terms of survival, it doesn’t much matter that our perception is flawed. It’s good enough in most cases.
But is that all that’s involved in understanding? What does it mean to understand something?