How do you Know what you Know?

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

I've been asked this question many times and I've asked myself the same question - how do I know what I know? So it seems like a good topic heading into the weekend!

How do we know a horse is actually a horse? That the sky is blue and grass is green (generally)? Who decided these were the 'labels' we should use? Ah perhaps that last one is a little too philosophical for today.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “We filter around 2 million bits of information per second down to 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information.” In other words, the data available to your central nervous system goes through a process of deletion, distortion and generalisation.

That means we use our experience, what we have learned, what we have been told, and what we can infer from all of this to help with the filtering. We delete anything that doesn't fit with 'what we know', we make generalisations based on the same, to make sense of things.

We make assumptions about the objects in our physical world e.g. a horse can't be a dog. Some of these assumptions are based on our own experience, some on the knowledge imparted by others of their experience, and some on inferences of logic.

But what then is experience? Our experience comes through how we perceive things to be. How things look, how they feel, how they sound. Our perception could be very different to that of someone else e.g. when I was young I tried many things and often they didn't work out, I was taught to learn from it and try again. Compare that to someone else doing the same thing but they were told 'that's not for you, do something you are good at'. Our perceptions about success and failure will be very different based on those experiences.

Friedrich Nietzsche notoriously asserted: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Given all of this I'm thinking that next time I'm sure I 'know what I know' that I'll get curious and ask myself if it is based on 'fact' like the sun rises and sets every day, or a 'need to be right'.