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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

On Being Certain

Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not

Robert A. Burton, MD

St. Martin's Griffin


On Being Certain

The Feeling of Knowing
I AM STUCK IN AN OBLIGATORY NEIGHBORHOOD COCKTAIL party during the first week of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A middle-aged, pin-striped lawyer announces that he'd love to be in the front lines when the troops reach Baghdad. "Door-to-door fighting," he says, puffing up his chest. He says he's certain he could shoot an Iraqi soldier, although he's never been in a conflict bigger than a schoolyard brawl.
"I don't know," I say. "I'd have trouble shooting some young kid who was being forced to fight."
"Not me. We're down to dog-eat-dog."
He nods at his frowning wife, who's anti-invasion. "All's fair in love and war." Then back to me. "You're not one of those peacenik softies, are you?"
"It wouldn't bother you to kill someone?"
"Not a bit."
"You're sure?"
He's a neighbor and I can't escape. So I tell him one of my father's favorite self-mocking stories.
During the 1930s and '40s, my father had a pharmacy in one of the tougher areas of San Francisco. He kept a small revolver hidden beneath the back cash register. One night, a man approached, pulled out a knife, and demanded all the money in the register. My father reached under the counter, grabbed his gun, and aimed it at the robber.
"Drop it," the robber said, his knife at my father's throat. "You're not going to shoot me, but I will kill you."
For a moment it was a Hollywood standoff, mano a mano. Then my father put down his gun, emptied out the register, and handed over the money.
"What's your point?" the lawyer asks. "Your father should have shot him."
"Just the obvious," I say. "You don't always know what you're going to do until you're in the moment."
"Sure you do. I know with absolute certainty that I'd shoot anyone who was threatening me."
"No chance of any hesitation?"
"None at all. I know myself. I know what I would do. End of discussion."

MY MIND REELS with seemingly impossible questions. What kind of knowledge is "I know myself and what I would do"? Is it a conscious decision based upon deep self-contemplation or is it a "gut feeling"? But what is a gut feeling--an unconscious decision, a mood or emotion, an ill-defined but clearly recognizable mental state, or a combination of all these ingredients? If we are tounderstand how we know what we know, we first need some ground rules, including a general classification of mental states that create our sense of knowledge about our knowledge.
For simplicity, I have chosen to lump together the closely allied feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction, and correctness under the all-inclusive term, the feeling of knowing. Whether or not these are separate sensations or merely shades or degrees of a common feeling isn't important. What they do share is a common quality: Each is a form of metaknowledge--knowledge about our knowledge--that qualifies or colors our thoughts, imbuing them with a sense of rightness or wrongness. When focusing on the phenomenology (how these sensations feel), I've chosen to use the term the feeling of knowing (in italics). However, when talking about the underlying science, I'll use knowing (in italics). Later I will expand this category to include feelings of familiarity and realness--qualities that enhance our sense of correctness.

EVERYONE IS FAMILIAR with the most commonly recognized feeling of knowing. When asked a question, you feel strongly that you know an answer that you cannot immediately recall. Psychologists refer to this hard-to-describe but easily recognizable feeling as a tip-of-the-tongue sensation. The frequent accompanying comment as you scan your mental Rolodex for the forgotten name or phone number: "I know it, but I just can't think of it." In this example, you are aware of knowing something, without knowing what this sense of knowing refers to.
Anyone who's been frustrated with a difficult math problem has appreciated the delicious moment of relief when an incomprehensible equation suddenly makes sense. We "see the light." This aha is a notification from a subterranean portion of ourmind, an involuntary all-clear signal that we have grasped the heart of a problem. It isn't just that we can solve the problem; we also "know" that we understand it.
Most feelings of knowing are far less dramatic. We don't ordinarily sense them as spontaneous emotions or moods like love or happiness; rather they feel like thoughts--elements of a correct line of reasoning. We learn to add 2 + 2. Our teacher tells us that 4 is the correct answer. Yes, we hear a portion of our mind say. Something within us tells us that we "know" that our answer is correct. At this simplest level of understanding, there are two components to our understanding--the knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4, and the judgment or assessment of this understanding. We know that our understanding that 2 + 2 = 4 is itself correct.
The feeling of knowing is also commonly recognized by its absence. Most of us are all too familiar with the frustration of being able to operate a computer without having any "sense" of how the computer really works. Or learning physics despite having no "feeling" for the rightness of what you've learned. I can fix a frayed electrical cord, yet am puzzled by the very essence of electricity. I can pick up iron filings with a magnet without having the slightest sense of what magnetism "is."
At a deeper level, most of us have agonized over those sickening "crises of faith" when firmly held personal beliefs are suddenly stripped of a visceral sense of correctness, rightness, or meaning. Our most considered beliefs suddenly don't "feel right." Similarly, most of us have been shocked to hear that a close friend or relative has died unexpectedly, and yet we "feel" that he is still alive. Such upsetting news often takes time to "sink in." This disbelief associated with hearing about a death is an example of the sometimes complete disassociation between intellectual and felt knowledge.
To begin our discussion of the feeling of knowing, read the following excerpt at normal speed. Don't skim, give up halfway through, or skip to the explanation. Because this experience can't be duplicated once you know the explanation, take a moment to ask yourself how you feel about the paragraph. After reading the clarifying word, reread the paragraph. As you do so, please pay close attention to the shifts in your mental state and your feeling about the paragraph.
A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.
Is this paragraph comprehensible or meaningless? Feel your mind sort through potential explanations. Now watch what happens with the presentation of a single word: kite. As you reread the paragraph, feel the prior discomfort of something amiss shifting to a pleasing sense of rightness. Everything fits; every sentence works and has meaning. Reread the paragraph again; it is impossible to regain the sense of not understanding. In an instant, without due conscious deliberation, the paragraph has been irreversibly infused with a feeling of knowing.
Try to imagine other interpretations for the paragraph. SupposeI tell you that this is a collaborative poem written by a third-grade class, or a collage of strung-together fortune cookie quotes. Your mind balks. The presence of this feeling of knowing makes contemplating alternatives physically difficult.
Each of us probably read the paragraph somewhat differently, but certain features seem universal. After seeing the word kite, we quickly go back and reread the paragraph, testing the sentences against this new piece of information. At some point, we are convinced. But when and how?
The kite paragraph raises several questions central to our understanding of how we "know" something. Though each will be discussed at greater length in subsequent chapters, here's a sneak preview.

• Did you consciously "decide" that kite was the correct explanation for the paragraph, or did this decision occur involuntarily, outside of conscious awareness?

• What brain mechanism(s) created the shift from not knowing to knowing?

• When did this shift take place? (Did you know that the explanation was correct before, during, or after you reread the paragraph?)

• After rereading the paragraph, are you able to consciously separate out the feeling of knowing that kite is the correct answer from a reasoned understanding that the answer is correct?

• Are you sure that kite is the correct answer? If so, how do you know?

ON BEING CERTAIN. Copyright © 2008 by Robert A. Burton, M.D. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.