Levels of Understanding

The concept of understanding is an interesting one, it’s often used in a black and white fashion; either we understand something or we don’t, but there are of course different levels of understanding. I’m sure we can all relate to the feeling of understanding something but being unable to verbalize it, this would be a typical grey zone.

The brain may in this context be viewed as a framework for our stored knowledge, experience and understanding. We form new understandings when new information or experiences are compared to this framework.

I would argue that there are three main types of understanding; Basic Understanding, Isomorphic Understanding and Formal Understanding.

Update: These should probably be called “Methods of understanding” and not “types/categories of understanding” of understanding as my blogger friend themoralsceptic helped me realize.

Basic Understanding
We receive information via our senses which is via our framework converted into knowledge. This is in essence the difference between information and knowledge, the information becomes knowledge once we understand it.

Isomorphic Understanding
Isomorphism is a concept which I explained in a prior blog, it is in short about finding synergies between different thoughts. Once the information has been converted into knowledge it’s a part of your framework that is your mind, it can thus compare it to other thoughts, ideas and experiences and potentially find a lot of isomorphic relations.

To see an isomorphic relation (or a connection) will enable you to view this understanding from a new angle. This does not only deepen your understanding about this new thought but it also deepens your understanding about the older thought with which the new thought was connected to in this isomorphic relation.

Formal Understanding
We can formalize our understanding by writing it down, discuss it with other people or teach it. This blog of mine is foremost a way for me to formalize my own thoughts, I’m not only writing my thoughts down but I write them as if I where teaching someone. It is of course my hopes that any insights and ideas I have will be helpful to other people, but formalizing my understanding of my own thoughts were probably the main idea behind it.

We gain new perspectives which leads to new insights and new isomorphic relations by just transferring our thoughts from our heads on to another system – such as writing. Brainstorming with other people would be another way to formalize our understanding.

Before moving on I’d like to mention that many people would probably view the storing of information in our minds as understanding, this is not my personally opinion. But if one gets a question which triggers our mind to find the correct information then that information will most likely become knowledge. Thus the act of asking a question may ignite basic understanding about the matter at hand. If Basic understanding would be step one then the storing of information would be step 0.

This fish, painted by my little sister does on the other hand not seem to understand anything at all. But it’s cute.

If you succeed in deepening your understanding with both the Isomorphic Understanding and the Formal Understanding then you probably have a very good understanding about whatever subject you’re trying to grasp. If you on the other hand feel that you more or less get it but have a difficulty expressing your self verbally or in writing then chances are that you could gain a lot from working more on your understanding.

I imagined this blog while I was reading another section of my beloved book GEB talking about formal system. I realized that I was sort of understanding it but my understanding wasn’t enough to decode some formulas I en encountered as an exercise. This exercise required me to formalize my understanding about the system.

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2 Comments

  1. Themoralskeptic
    Aug 26, 2010

    Understanding about understanding, but I don’t understand. It isn’t so much a lack of basic understanding and I guess I am working on a formal understanding, but skipping Isomorphic understanding…anyway I guess the problem I have is with the characterization. I’m not sure there are three types of understanding.

    I think it is more black and white and that you either understand something or you don’t. That isn’t to say that there isn’t levels of understanding because it can work as a sliding scale.

    Take for instance Water. I can understand some of its properties like surface tension or weight per liter, but I, nor anyone else, will ever have a full understanding of how water works. While writing or learning more can help that understanding, I don’t think the ‘Understanding’ really changes in a categorical way.

    When I learn more about water or make different connections my understanding of water deepens and I move further up the scale, but I can also learn things that are wrong and I could go down the scale instead of up it. I could learn that water freezes at 4 degrees Celsius, and this would lessen my real understanding of what water is.

    In the three category description of understanding I see know way to account for misinformation or a lack of information….Also what would be information or knowledge you have that couldn’t be verbalized? Your mind works through a series of words, an internal dialog, so if the mind couldn’t verbalize the knowledge at a given time could you even be said to have that knowledge?

    Anyway this comment is getting long enough to be a blog post…so I’ll stop, but I think there are many problems with creating categories for things and I know that the human mind has a tend to create categories, but sometimes they aren’t needed.

  2. Tobias Wallin (Mentation Away)
    Aug 27, 2010

    After reading your comment I think I agree that I shouldn’t call these categories of understanding – but rather methods of understanding. I still see logic in these categories but the levels of understanding aren’t based on a system of categories, but rather how we proceed to gain our understanding.

    The concept of water is very mapped out so it’s a very semantic understanding, at least the basic properties we all know and learn in school so it’s pretty black and white for me right now, but I’m sure I could come up with some sort of isomorphic relationship between surface tension and something else.

    I’m remembering an isomorphic relationship I discussed with my friend Leo though, we compared the expansion of our mental awareness, or the mind with the expansion of the universe. They are both expanding but not at the cost of something else – at least not that we know about. I understood both the concept of expanding our mental awareness and the big bang theory before this, but the finding of this isomorphic relation expanded my understanding of both concepts.

    I also have to protest at your claim that my mind works through a series of words as my mind is more… I don’t know… image based? To actually verbalize thoughts into words doesn’t come naturally to me, but people are seemingly different there. “Whatever does happen in our minds when we order and retrieve ‘words’ and ‘ideas’, it is not done alphabetically” – McArthur. (I know it wasn’t exactly what you meant, but it’s a good quote).

    Thanks for your comment!

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