This week, I wanted to share this quote by Shakespeare:
The fool doth think he is wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.William Shakespeare
The quote is from Shakespeares famous play “As You Like It”, which I aspire to see in a theater someday. The meaning is pretty self-explanatory, yet I still wanted to write about it because I’d like to look at the quote in the psychological context. I asked myself the question: How are we able to know so much and yet so little?
What we can know
There is this myth in psychology, called the “Ten percent of the brain myth”, acoording to which, you guessed it, humans only use 10 % of their brain. It is a myth that has an unclear origin and is widely disproven today. Brain imaging reasearch shows that in fact “the vast majority of the brain does not lie fallow [and …] any sufficiently complex set of activities or thought patterns will indeed use many parts of the brain” (Radford, 2019).
So, we can say that our limits of knowledge don’t stem from a limitation in brain activity. Much rather, it seems that we can choose what we want to know by the direction of our attention and, depending on the acitvity, using different parts of our brain. We can actively look for knowledge in the world and our brain supports us in that inquiry to tap our full potential. This way we can know things about ourselves (name, appearance, hobbies, friends) and the world.
But we can not only consciously know things. Every human has a large individual subconscious mind. If we were able to consciously be aware of everything that is happening around us, we would be cognitively overwhelmed. It would be so much stress to be aware of everything and that’s why we have selective attention and the subconscious. It stores information that pass our conscious mind and processes that information a lot faster than our conscious mind does. Psychologist Vera F. Birkenbihl once explained in a visual way that on 11 kilometers that are unconscious come 15 millimeters that are conscious. Some people might then say “That’s how small my consciousness is?” and she always replies with “No, so huge is your subconscious!”. Automatic behaviour, elements of decision-making and complex sequences of actions are all stored in the subconscious. Intuition is something that stems from it as well. Sometimes we might know something which seems impossible to know. But it is actually a product of the complex integration of larger amounts of knowledge. We might not remember where that unconscious intuitive knowledge comes from, but we still know without having to consciously think about it.
Now we know what we can know consciously and unconsciously. However, there are still limitations to our knowledge. If these don’t stem from a limitation in brain activity, where do they come from?
What we can’t know
One limitation of our knowledge is the endless quentities of knowledge there is in todays world. Even if we were able to rewind time, we probably wouldn’t be able to absorb every bit of knowledge there is out there. Because while we are in the middle of understanding a specific topic, new knowledge is continually found and produced. Knowledge is continuous and ever-developing. Not to mention the evolution of the internet which created a whole new type of media to access to a broader variety of knowledge. . In the midst of the age of digitalization, this leads us humans now continuously having to choose between where we want to direct our attention towards. That way, information is filtered and only parts of everything are transfered into our conscious mind.
A second limitation emerges when we look at the qualities of our memory. There is this one lyric in the song “Mind” by Sleeping At Last which goes: “Memory is historically inaccurate”.
In fact, there are many factors that can influence the accuracy of memory. One of them is the retention interval. The APA dictionary defines this as “the period between a participant’s exposure to information and being tested for retention of that information” (APA Dictionary). The longer that interval between exposure and testing is, the more the retained information can be forgotten or changed. Experiments on that matter can be interpreted in a way that our brain hasn’t developed to precisely recall every little event but much rather to perceive regularities in the world.
Our memory is also influenced in terms of premonitions. If we learn something that fits our premonitions, it is remembered significantly better. This lateron led to the implementation of the term “schemes” in psychology which emphasizes the more”reconstructive character” of memories. There are many more factors that can influence the accuracy of our memory, some are listed in chapter 8.3 “Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Memory and Cognition” from the book “Introduction To Psychology”. You can find it in the references.
In short, our memories aren’t often as accurate as we think and our subjective confidence in the correct remembering of the memories doesn’t always have to be right. Let alone the fact that memories can change over time.
We might now think that these limitations are a bad thing and start questioning if we can ever really trust ourselves. But what if it is a good thing and much more a protective mechanism of our mind? We don’t need to and simply can’t know everything (“It ruins the mystery if everything is explained” – Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)). But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Ultimately, we need to recognize the limits of our own knowledge at some point in our lives. We never run out of new things to learn and that’s the beauty of it. We only have one subjective reality we know and can’t read other people’s minds. However, if we let people in to our way of understanding and exchange opinions with openness, there emerge endless possibilities. Possibilities of understanding, trust and even love. Because what are we here for on earth: To learn to live and love every day. Learning and philosophysing is a way of life. You can choose to close the curtains or step right into it and learn something new every day.
It’s just like in that quote from “Samadhi”: “Most people think that they are free, conscious and awake. But if you believe you are already awake, then why would you do the difficult work to attain what you already have?”. What happens when we apply this quote to our knowledge? If we believe we already know everything, why would we do the work to attain more knowledge? So, if we believe we are already omniscient, we may very well be fools like Shakespeare said. But when we finally acknowledge what we don’t know, that there is and always will be so much to learn, that is where the journey of discovery can begin.
– Radford, B. (1999). The ten-percent myth. Skeptical Inquirer, 23, 52-53.
– Psychology Today. 2022. Unconscious. [online] Available at: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/unconscious> [Accessed 18 October 2022].
– University Of Minnesota. (2010). 8.3 Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Memory and Cognition. [online] Available at: <https://open.lib.umn.edu/intropsyc/chapter/8-3-accuracy-and-inaccuracy-in-memory-and-cognition/> [Accessed 18 October 2022].
– Schmidt, D., 2017. Samadhi Movie, 2017 – Part 1 – Maya, The Illusion Of The Self. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bw9zSMsKcwk&list=PL8qL2YhfbR-u-xu5-mdHa-F-4l-yb0vQ-> [Accessed 18 October 2022].