Knowledge is highly valued in our modern culture. We sometimes talk about those with “book knowledge”, those who are “worldly wise”, or those who had to “learn in the school of hard knocks”. Presumably the more you know, the more power and influence you have. To a degree that is true. The 17th century Enlightenment period put a heavy emphasis on knowing facts. Our modern culture continues to put a high value on facts about things outside of us and has generally devalued knowing what is going on within us. Are we happier as a result? Has the quality of our lives improved?
Different Ways of Knowing: What Kind of Knowledge is Important?
Knowing facts is a function of the left brain that processes information in a logical and linear way. Some of us find it very comfortable to stay in the left brain, in the realm of data and information or correct doctrine. It makes us feel in control and safe. It gives us the right answer so we can win the argument.
When life gets messy, some of us (me) soothe ourselves by analyzing the situation or distracting ourselves with a good book–nonfiction, of course! The problem is our analysis is not always right, even if it seems rational and logical because we ignore data from other parts of the brain that bring in important perspectives. The right hemisphere controls spatial ability, creativity, non-verbal and context cues, and enables us to take in everything at once. For example, your friend tells you she’s fine, that the doctor’s report was good, but you sense something is off. Maybe it is the mood in the room, a tone of voice, or something else that is hard to define. A person who is paying attention to input from both the right and left brain will respond more appropriately. Most of us know this and are aware that certain people struggle with important social cues, which is a real disadvantage. These folks may come across as insensitive because they focus on the “facts” and miss the whole picture.
Finally, there is the internal layer to consider. What is going on inside of me? Am I able to focus on my experience of hearing my friend’s report? Am I aware of what I am feeling? Do I have a knot in my stomach? Do I feel the urge to flee, or perhaps compulsively fix the situation? What is that about? Can I recognize where these sensations, emotions, and thoughts are coming from? To be able to harness the usefulness of this internal knowledge, we need to understand how the brain works.
A Brief Overview of the Brain
Our brain never stops working while we are alive, whether we pay attention to it or not. Besides being divided into left and right hemispheres, the brain is divided into three other important regions that are interconnected. The brain stem and cerebellum are critical to our survival. They sense shifts in the environment and enable us to activate our fight or flight response. This is why we move instinctively out of the way when we sense something is coming toward us. No time for analysis or emotions, just move! This reflexive lower brain is similar to that of a reptile.
The second region, the limbic system, is positioned just above the brainstem. The limbic area is responsible for memory, recognition, attention, and our emotions. The limbic system is called the mammalian brain because it is common to all mammals, like our pets who are able to instinctively react, attend to different things (like the promise of a treat after performing a trick), remember, and experience emotion.
The third region of the brain is the neocortex which is involved in more complex abstract thinking, language, and creativity among other things. The “crowning glory” of this part of the brain is the prefrontal cortex, which is roughly right behind the forehead. It is in this part of the brain that we have insight, foresight, hindsight, and an ability to problem-solve.
Finally, our brains are ever-evolving. Our interactions and experiences change us. People positively change when they feel seen and heard, i.e. when they experience empathy. Both parties grow in compassion and connection.
Our Tricky Brain
The brain is crafty. It has no end of tricks to block out the information we do not want to acknowledge. We bury things deep in our subconscious, things that make us feel fear or shame. Sometimes we catastrophize, letting our lower brain–the brainstem and limbic circuitry–create an emotional storm that prevents a clear view of the situation. Part of the reason people give over-the-top emotional reactions when confronted with the truth is to divert attention from the thing they are trying to avoid.
Sometimes we minimize to numb our emotions and hide in the safety of our left hemisphere. We rationalize and intellectualize. We impress or intimidate others with our superior knowledge. But knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to connection or love, joy, peace, and the other fruits of the Spirit. Knowledge doesn’t satisfy our God-given desire to be known. Adam and Eve craved knowledge so much that they mindlessly ignored their internal experience and ruptured their relationship with God. Knowledge, whether it comes in the form of book learning, extensive life experience, or pristine doctrine, tends to “puff up” (I Cor. 8:1-3).
Hiding from ourselves has a heavy cost. It ruins connection and intimacy and leads to isolation. I have spent decades pursuing knowledge, and what I didn’t get at university, life kindly bullied into me. The things I learned about myself, understanding my story, paying attention to my internal experiences, and attending to others have been invaluable. Therapy is a great place to learn different ways of knowing.