You Can Only Learn What You Already Know

Reviewing past knowledge can lead to new, beneficially updated understanding.

Posted May 08, 2019

Pixabay Free Image
Source: Pixabay Free Image

The title of this post is about as paradoxical as anything you might imagine. Apparently, it derives from a Sufi saying, although I originally encountered it in a human growth training back in the ‘70s. But what exactly does this maxim refer to? And just how much sense does it make?

Consider, on the contrary, the adage: “It’s all Greek to me,” which today commonly means that what’s being communicated is totally foreign, or unfathomable, to the person saying it—as though it’s in a language the individual has no knowledge of. Such an expression isn’t paradoxical; it’s simply metaphorical, signifying complete ignorance of a subject. That is, something that must be learned from scratch.

But to get back to the former saying—that you need to know something before you can actually learn it—the suggestion is that somewhere inside you you’ve already had an experience of it. The rudiments of that knowledge have been implanted internally so you’re primed to learn it, or become more consciously aware of it. Given the right environment and stimuli, it will (as never before) resonate within you.

Another way of understanding this is to deconstruct the word recognize. The prefix re- means again, while the word cognize means “to know” (become conscious of, or perceive). So the expression of learning what you already know dovetails with the single word recognize. For obviously you can only recognize what you knew beforehand (like recognizing an adult picture of someone you knew as a teen, for it’s the same person—but different, too).

Everything I’ve said so far may seem inconsequential, maybe even academic (if not downright pedantic). But the clarification I’m attempting here is really quite important because it encapsulates so much of what I learned in my first career as an English professor, as well as my second, as a psychologist.

When I taught literature (whether essays, poems, plays, or novels), I learned that unless I could relate what I was teaching to what my students had, in one form or another, already experienced, they really weren’t able to grasp what the author was seeking to communicate. That is, it was mostly Greek to them. But if I succeeded in “translating” the author’s message to what they’d personally thought or done (or had done to them), they could recognize what the author was getting at. Like teaching them something “new” by analogy.

Or you could look at this phenomenon syllogistically: If the inevitable meaning they took from their personal experience of “A” was “X,” and “B” (in the literary work) was undeniably kindred to “A,” then the message to be derived from “B” would be pretty much the same as that deduced from “A.” In fact, in making such a comparison, learning about “B” could help them understand their experience (i.e., “A”) substantially better than they might have earlier.

One example might be an author trying to communicate that when a person falls in love their best, most rational judgment isn’t available because they’re so overcome with emotion. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Most students, certainly with some instructional prompting, would recognize that when they were wildly enamored of someone, they also acted foolishly, or rashly, without sufficient regard for the consequences of their behavior. Or, even more dramatically, consider Othello who, after slaying his wife, Desdemona, in a jealous rage, describes himself as “one that loved not wisely but too well.”

Once students can make the vital connection between what they’ve read and what, personally, they’ve experienced, they’ll be afforded fresh insights into why they acted as they may now wish they hadn’t. But if they’ve never been in love (i.e., didn’t know first-hand what falling in love felt like), they couldn’t emotionally identify with what the Bard was characterizing. And ultimately the purpose of literature isn’t solely for writers to express their thoughts and feelings about the world but to creatively convey to their audience that which is most meaningful to them. Artists of all stripes get their greatest fulfillment from vividly illuminating aspects of our nature that can enable us to reassess our existence with new eyes.

To transition from education to psycho-education, the aim of therapy is basically the same: to provide clients with new, or at least “revised,” knowledge of what they already know. More precisely, it’s to help clients recognize not only which specific behaviors are counter-productive, but also why, until now, they’ve been ensnared by them. Generally speaking, that’s a key prerequisite for changing their maladaptive programming.

Effective therapy, therefore, needs to shine new light on personal struggles they already have some awareness of—but not enough to make beneficial change possible. And typically, this “awakening” assists them in locating the only half-recognized defensive patterns that may have served a positive function for them in the past but can no longer contribute to their well-being. Therapy, that is, can help them better learn, and understand, what they (well, partially) already knew.

To put it somewhat differently, the therapist’s role is to assist clients in learning, but now more consciously, what they merely had glimpses of earlier. To alter something no longer adaptive, it must first be “known again,” and then known differently. Freud believed that to change symptomatic behavior, what was unconscious had to be made conscious. And although, since his time, therapeutic approaches have greatly expanded and become more sophisticated, this essential truth remains as relevant today as it was originally.

Therapy clients, in sharing themselves with their therapist in ways they’d all-too-cautiously safeguarded from others, are given the opportunity to re-learn—and re-evaluate—past decisions now hindering them. What’s learned in therapy isn’t exactly something they hadn’t already known. Rather, they’re re-learning it by perceiving it as meaning something different from the meaning they formerly attributed to it.

For example: If they grew up in a dysfunctional alcoholic home, they likely see themselves as shameful, because that’s how those outside the family viewed their situation. And as children they couldn’t help but take personally such an adverse community assessment. But in therapy they can learn (or, more precisely, re-learn) that the behavior of one, or both, their parents really didn’t—and logically couldn’t—reflect their inherent worth. So yes, they’d already learned that outsiders saw their family in a negative light. But what they can still learn that’s new is that growing up in such a pathological family setting never actually affected their innate value. And that’s what they couldn’t possibly recognize at the time.

So, I’ll close as I began: “You can only learn what you already know.” And hopefully, I’ve been able to clarify this curiously paradoxical expression and suggest something of its profound—and eternal—truth.

 © 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

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