In science, two questions are asked all the time, “What do you know?” and “How do you know it?”. Together these two questions are really at the heart of figuring out anything from sub-atomic particles to what restaurant to eat at. It has been my experience, however, that people frequently are confident about what they know without asking how they know it, often to their detriment.
If Michele, your favorite foodie, tells you a place is awful and Tony, who thinks cockroaches are great dinner company, tells you the same place is great, where are you eating tonight and why?
My field is movement education and it often happens that people think they know how they are moving and what they are doing with their bodies as they go through the day - after all, rarely do we intentionally harm ourselves. But here they are in my office with musculoskeletal injuries caused by how they used their bodies. Arthritic knees and shoulders, strained necks and low backs, unable to take a deep breath. So how does that happen?
It happens because we are taught that what we “feel” is correct and accurate, but the reality is that the sensory data your mind gets is just a fraction of what is available. In short, we fail to ask how we know that what we feel is accurate or complete.
The sensory system reports in a tremendous amount of information on the world around us, far too much to attend to at one time, so we have to edit it before it even gets to our consciousness. To do this, we make assumptions on what data should come from the sensors and set the system to send an alarm to our consciousness only if the data varies too far from expectations. We can vary those expectations as needed. For example, if I stuck your buttocks with a needle you would jump away from it. But if you had pneumonia and expected a shot of penicillin you would reset the alarm state and stay still (mostly still, anyway) when you got stuck. If you got stuck again five minutes later you would jump again because you did not expect it.
We assume that if no alarms go off all is okay in the body, and this works well enough a lot of the time. But when was the last time you really looked at the assumptions you make about your movement?
Walk across the room a few times and think about what you are doing. You get from one place to another and don’t fall down or get injured so you know you can walk just fine.
Now ask the next question – How do you know you walk “just fine”? How do you know you are not straining your back or knees excessively or your coordination makes you use a lot more energy than you have to? What information and assumptions are you using to decide your walking is not damaging your frame over the long run?
This is not a pleasant exercise to do for most of us because asking how we know things reveals what we don’t know. But that is precisely why it is the critical question in scientific inquiries, so researchers can figure out the truth about how the world works.
Taking the time to ask “What do I know?” and “How do I know it?” is a powerful way to make yourself smarter and healthier, all in the comfort of your own body.