Presentation: The Pleasure of Understanding

Meredith Doig / 27 October 2013

Back in January this year I woke up one morning and trying to get out of bed, realised I couldn’t twist my back.  It was one of only two times in my life that I’ve had muscle spasm and I’d forgotten from the last time how incapacitating it is.

The last time was about 20 years ago and I getting all sorts of advice from friends about how to treat it. Some said I should get a massage, some advised going to a physiotherapist, some swore by their chiropractor, and yet others said just have a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down.

Confused by this surfeit of advice, I called my father, a physician, and asked him which of these options would be best.  He listened to all the various possibilities and then said, “Well, yes, any of these will work  in about 10 days … and doing nothing at all will work …. in about 10 days!”

And he was right.  I seem to remember that it took about 10 days for my back to return to normal.  But this time I wasn’t prepared to wait, so I went to the physio.

I’d never been to a physio until about a year ago when I’d pulled a tendon (or something like this) deep in the groin and it was feeling very vulnerable. Anytime I got out of the car and had to twist, I felt my leg might give way at any time.  So, for the first time in my life, I visited the local physio and over a period of about 3 months, things gradually felt better.

So, this time when my back ‘went’, I decided to risk another visit to the physio.

I remember lying on the bench talking to this physio about how muscle spasms like this happen – and he was explaining to me what happens inside and how the treatment works.  And I distinctly remember thinking to myself how pleasurable it is to understand how the body works, how this condition comes about and how the treatment fixes it.

This led to thinking about the pleasure of understanding generally, and to reflect on why it is that some people don’t seem to want to understand.  Those who take the word of others instead of finding out for themselves, for example; those who feel more comfortable with black and white rules to live by rather than working out their own views and values; those who seek to be told rather than working things out for themselves.

Is it that they aren’t confident in their own capacity to understand?  [and of course we all have our own limits to understanding.  I don’t put much effort into understanding artificial intelligence, for example, though I’m interested in it]

Or is it based on a preference, perhaps socially induced, for looking to some external authority to simplify the task of making the effort to understand the world around.

What is Understanding

One of the most influential models in education is Bloom’s Taxonomy.  In this Taxonomy, ‘understanding’ comes after ‘knowledge’ but before ‘application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation’.  Understanding is demonstrated by the ability to describe and organise facts and ideas, compare and interpret them and identify and summarise the main ideas.

What Bloom’s Taxonomy suggests however is that understanding is not enough.  To be useful, we need also to be able to analyse, by comparing and contrasting what we already know, and then create new ideas by drawing on this analysis, buttressed by emerging confidence in our own opinions.

Teaching kids how to go beyond mere acquisition of facts and understanding to these higher order thinking capacities is known to be more difficult … but it’s also much more valuable because they can be used in situations we haven’t come across before.

To me, these higher order thinking skills are like what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’ or Practical Wisdom.  And as he said, practical wisdom can’t be acquired just by learning general rules; it needs practice: a proper upbringing and the development of habits which lead to the ability to see on each occasion which course of action is best supported by reason.

The point is, going beyond mere acquisition of facts to an ability to understand the context of a situation and to generate new insights requires higher order thinking skills.  And perhaps this is one reason why some people avoid it: it’s hard work!

Six Levels of Work

When I worked at Rio Tinto back in the 1990s I came across a theory of organisational effectiveness that, to this day, I think makes a lot of sense.  It’s called Requisite Organisation Theory and it came out of the life work of a French Canadian called Elliot Jaques.

Jaques did the field work that led to his theory of organisation in an automotive parts supplier called the Glacier Metal Company, back in the 1950s.  For ten years he was the resident sociologist there, interviewing people from shopfloor to board room, finding out what they thought about the ‘real’ organisational structure, not the one with formal titles and role descriptions but the one behind the scenes.  He would ask people, “Who’s your real boss?” meaning the person who really made the decisions, not just the person to whom they might report.

What he found formed the basis of what became known as Requisite Organisation theory.  ‘Requisite’, meaning how to structure a (large) organisation so that it has neither too many nor too few organisational levels.

But the other fascinating, and somewhat more controversial aspect to Jaques’ theory, is the human side of the equation.  Because what he proposed was that the reason organisations work best with a certain number of levels of hierarchy is because these levels correspond to levels of capacity that are found in people.

And he did years of research to back up this hypothesis. Now the research data is, I would have to say, equivocal, but there’s a lot of commonsense in it.

What he proposed was that about 80% of the population thinks mostly in serial form, with about 20% being able to think in parallel form.  Essentially this corresponds to Bloom’s Taxonomy, with about 80% of the population being able to learn how to acquire and understand knowledge, and about 20% being able to master the more complex forms of cognitive processing like analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

So what does this mean for the Pleasure of Understanding?

It means that there are likely to be some people whose sense of comfort and satisfaction are dependent on understanding what is going on (what is affecting them) – with being in charge of that understanding.  But it implies that most people would prefer that someone else or something else is in charge, someone they can refer to when coming to the point of deciding one way or the other, or choosing how to act.

The report released last month in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest revealed why people are likely to believe false information peddled by the media and politicians.  It’s because it’s cognitively easier to simply accept what is read than evaluate its truthfulness.  When people do evaluate the truthfulness of information, they tend to rely on a limited set of features.  For example, is the information compatible with other things I believe to be true?  Is the information internally coherent?  Does it come from a credible source?  Do other people believe it?

But even exercising these reflections may not do the trick.  We all tend to pay attention to pieces of information that fit in with our existing worldviews, even if it turns out to be misinformation.  [eg, I believed that the internet is more than 50% porn – not true, apparently]

The point is that the pleasure of understanding may be pleasurable only to those who are used to and enjoy putting in the cognitive effort to understand.  And so many people may be fearful of their capacity to understand, let alone look to understanding as a source of intrinsic pleasure.

Trusting External Authority

The second reason why some people may not seek the Pleasure of Understanding is that they may prefer to trust to someone else, perhaps someone they see as an expert in the field, someone more knowledgeable than they are. The medical profession has of course played on this tendency for many years.  [Anecdote about my father in hospital and the surgeon asking him questions which I answered]

Although trust is important in human relationships and distrust can be corrosive, in coming to conclusions about truthfulness, a certain amount of distrust can be useful.

Theme of Rationality and Emotion

The last talk I gave at this place was on the topic, “The Emotionality of Belief”.  In reflecting on this topic, the Pleasure of Understanding, it occurred to me there is a certain common theme in my thoughts.  This theme is about rationality and emotion – more precisely, I am curious about why people assume that those who value rationality are devoid of emotion; about the tendency to separate Reason from Emotion and assume that devotion to the first precludes the second.

You can see this in popular psychology like the Myers Briggs profile, which places Thinking and Feeling at opposite ends of a spectrum; in the contrast between ‘head’ and ‘heart’ decision-making; the left brain and the right.

Or, as put by Brian Rosner, Principal of Ridley College and Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, in OLO “Reason has its place but the human heart yearns for awe” (OLO 18 Sept 2012).

It consistently amazes and frustrates me that those who believe in a god seem to assume that those who don’t are lacking in emotion, the capacity to feel wonder and awe, and a sense of ‘the whole’, whether it be the whole human or the whole universe.

On Sunday I attended a Conversation between Ian Robinson, former President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, and Rev. Paul Tonson of the Uniting Church in Nunawading in Melbourne, talking about “Spirituality without God”. Ian described an experience he’d had many years ago which he said he could only describe as being like ‘falling in love with the universe’. But, he went on to say, despite being intensely emotional and awe-inspiring, he felt no ‘need’ to ascribe to this experience any supernatural source or transcendental association.

Those who heard Richard Dawkins speak at the first Global Atheist Convention would remember that his topic, far from being a rallying call to stamp out religion and religionists, was a lyrical speech on “Gratitude” – gratitude at the beauty of nature, gratitude for the human capacity to understand and thereby appreciate both the complexity and the simplicity of nature. Such feelings of gratitude do not however imply that there is someone or something to which thanks are due. It’s just the feeling of gratitude that the universe is so incredibly, wonderfully beautiful.

The human heart is not separate from the human mind, and reason is not separate from emotion.


And so I come back to a defence of rationality against the charges that Reason is cold and calculating, and devoid of human wholeness.  Actively engaging the higher order thinking processes to understand what is going on when you’re lying on a physiotherapist’s couch is satisfying in two ways: not only does it provide a framework to maintain some semblance of control of one’s own fate, but that feeling is pleasurable in its own right.

Reason is not devoid of emotion, and understanding brings pleasure.


Dr Meredith Doig

September 2012

All the more reason.