Have you ever have an experience where you happen upon an idea that seems so right you wonder why you haven’t had it before? A word or phrase suddenly makes sense in a new way. Thoughts that have been swimming around in your head start to connect in different ways. A lightbulb goes on and maybe you even say, “aha!”
When my advisor, Rebecca Saxe, talks about theory of mind (the ability to infer the beliefs, goals, and desires of others) she often uses a story her lab created about Grace. In the story Grace and her friend are in a chemical factory. Grace gets coffee for her friend and puts white powder in the coffee.
If you’re anything like me you might think to yourself, “white powder?” Why would you say “white powder” and not just say sugar when clearly what you mean is sugar. Maybe it’s an artificial sweetener but the author didn’t know which type. Maybe it was vanilla powder and not sugar — Starbucks uses a white vanilla powder for some of their drinks… You can’t put your finger on it, you think the use of the term “white powder” is odd. But nothing seems nefarious — Grace is simply getting a coffee for her friend.
Then you find out Grace’s friend, the one that drank the coffee, died.
You knew the “white powder” term was weird. Maybe it wasn’t powder at all, maybe it was poison!
The story progresses a little more and you learn Grace didn’t know the powder was poison, she thought it was sugar. Phew! The “aha” moment turns out to justify your belief about Grace — she is a good person that was doing a nice thing for her friend. Yes, her friend died, yes the sugar was poison, but Grace was ignorant of this fact and so she is still good.
Saxe always poses an alternative account in which Grace knew the powder was poison. Now the belief you had that Grace was a nice person getting a coffee for her friend turns out to be false. This time, the aha moment changes your knowledge about Grace, not just the powder. Grace is no longer a nice person — she put white powder in the coffee in order to murder her friend.
When you hear the second version of this story do you wonder to yourself, “I should have known the white powder wasn’t sugar” or worse, “did everyone else know the white powder wasn’t sugar and I was the only one stupid enough to fall for it?”
When Saxe tells this story, it’s often in a large group. Simultaneously she announces the outcome to both scenarios. The results from multiple experiments reveal a truth about the human mind — in the first story we think Grace is not guilty of murder whereas in the second story, she is. In the context of a lecture it is always easier for me to not berate myself for lacking foresight — Saxe manipulated this story to force people think about intent and harm — I am learning along with the rest of the audience.
We are constantly taking in new information and updating our understanding of the world. As Lauryn Hill says, “this life is a process of learning.” Some would argue that we can choose not to engage in the process of continual learning. I would argue that we are all always engaged in learning. However, just because we learn something does not mean what we know is true.
For example, think of the Grace story again. Imagine her friend doesn’t die. Because Grace’s friend didn’t die, you believe that the powder was sugar (or at least some sort of sweetener) and that Grace did a nice thing for her friend. But, you never find out that actually, not only was the powder poison but Grace knew the powder was poison and had intended to kill her friend — she just didn’t die. What is true about Grace is that she intended murder her friend. But, what you know about Grace is that she does nice things (namely, getting coffee for her friend). Thus, while you have learned about Grace, your knowledge about Grace is not completely accurate.
I recently had an, “aha” moment. At least, I think it qualifies as an aha moment… I have been spending a lot of time combing through the literature (the thoughts and beliefs of others) to figure out if my aha moment is accurate. Do other people believe this? Is there evidence it’s true? Does everyone else already know this and I am just now catching on? Why does it take me so long to learn things? Why is it so hard to make these kinds of connections that are so immediately obvious to others? Who can help me figure out if this is a real “aha” moment or if my thinking is flawed is some really important way?
It takes a lot of evidence and a lot of reinforcement for me to believe something is likely true. (At least I think it does…) And I work really hard to constantly update my beliefs about myself, others, and the world so that what I know gets closer and closer to the truth. (Again, at least I think I do…) Sometimes it is really, really easy for me to believe that other people possess knowledge that I am ignorant to — I think that is what is happening right now.
What is real?
What is true?
What is known? or knowable?
What does it mean?
I have a few puzzle pieces. I’m trying to put them together but there are still so many pieces missing. I feel like everyone else has already put the puzzle together. But still, I’ll sit here and fiddle with my pieces in search of knowledge, in search of meaning, in search of truth.
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Hannah just walked into my room. With a sly smile on her face she says, “I didn’t see you working in the living room and so I thought, ‘that’s unusual, I’m normally the last one up.’ But then I came into your room and I saw you working!”