The Two Kinds of Knowing

Mindfulness in Action

As I lay there on the floor, drained of every last ounce of energy, mind blank, I somehow knew the right thing to do. It was time to leave the land I had come to think of as home and return to the US. As the days and weeks followed that fateful day, the knowing became stronger and the assurance deeper. Looking back now, over nine years post my departure from India, the decision has indeed proven to be the right one. There were no facts, nothing I could have pointed to that could have explained my decision, especially in the face of the fierce love I had for the place, the people, and my job. I just knew.

Have you ever had an experience like this? Those times when you just knew something somehow? What is that all about?

The Two Kinds of Knowing

Our Western world has long had a love affair with the left side of the brain. In case you are not aware, the left hemisphere is home to that which is logical, linear, and language-oriented. It is the side of the brain where our conscious awareness resides. Lefty likes to push us to measure, quantify, plan, and describe. That half of our noggin is not a particular fan of the imaginative, creative, random, or touchy-feely. No, the apparatus for all that is in the right side of the brain – and it often gets the short end of the stick.

I wish I had a nickel for every time in my life I have heard someone say, “prove it,” whenever spirituality or some other intangible topic is broached. It is as if you must be able to touch it, weigh it, or otherwise explain it in concrete terms in order to know something exists or is true.

Answer me this, then. Do you love someone? How do you know? How much do you love them? Is it a pound? A mile? A cubic meter? What about what happens inside of you when you look at a beautiful landscape or hear a moving piece of music? Have you ever been so inspired after such an experience that you have suddenly solved a problem you have struggled with for ages? Think about the time your friend tried for an hour to explain something to you but when she told you an analogy, you suddenly understood. Is all of this a lie because you cannot always define “how you know it” in specific terms?

The truth is, there are two kinds of knowing. Now, let me stop here and say that what I am writing in this article is “based on a true story.” I am most certainly overgeneralizing. Not everything I am thinking about or referring to is relegated precisely to one or the other side of our brain. The concept remains that there is more than one way for our brain to skin the proverbial cat. (Sorry kitty).

In keeping with the love of our left side, I will start there. Whenever we talk about the workings of that region of our brain, we can use the tried-and-true word, “know.” If I ask you what you had for dinner, your left (explicit-memory-oriented) side dutifully says, “Pick me! I know!” and shouts out, “Tacos!” Words, numbers, time, tangible memories, and structure pour forth with what seems like little effort. Nothing new here.

However, when we begin to tap into the incredible vastness of our right half, accessing imagery, body sensations, and holistic perception, we find a different sort of knowing. Unbeknownst to some of us, there is a word for this, and it is noesis. Noesis (or, noetic knowing) psychologically speaking, refers to more of an innate, intuitive, body-sensation-based comprehension. In his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Daniel Siegel discusses the idea of noesis and explains how it works with such mental processes as neuroception, interoception, intuition, and imagination.

Which One Is Right?

“Wow. Okay. So, there are two ways to know things. Great. Which one is right?”

I expected that question from we mostly left-leaning folks!

The answer is both and neither.

I will explain with a couple of examples. Think about the recent fad of eating soy. For a period of time, everyone and their brother was a strong proponent of eating this meaty bean. It was suggested, at least in my hearing, that it was the cure-all for just about anything that ailed you. “Research showed” that eating heaps of soy would result in weight loss, improved memory, and reduction of your risk of some cancers. This was touted as a fact for a few years. Then, low and behold, other well-funded research studies were conducted and the next thing we know, everything we read warned us to stay away from the over-estrogenated product. We weighed, measured, and studied this and still came up with something wrong. Likewise, the fact-focused left brain can get things wrong.

Now, let’s think about that person we all know who had a terrible first love experience and swore off romance for the rest of their lives. Every time they accompany us to a gathering that includes people to whom they are attracted, they complain vehemently that, “Something feels wrong,” and “All men are dogs,” and they warn us to beware and get out. Everything in their body tells them they are right – and yet, they are mistaken.

These two instances illustrate the fact that both our knowledge-based and our noetic knowing can be wrong. Yes, it is true.

If you think of your brain largely as a file cabinet, storing all your experiences, mental processes, and perceptions, then it is important to know that some of the files are downright incorrect, while others have been put there by crackpots, the media, society, and eccentric Uncle Charlie. In other words, not everything in our head is there with your awareness and permission, and not everything rattling around in there is accurate. Both left-brain files and right-brain files can be corrupted.

Don’t panic.

The vast majority of our files are just fine. However, every single day, we run across old thought processes or “things we know,” that simply are not true (or, not true any longer). Because we have so revered the left side “knowing,” and have hyped it as accurate, we rarely take into consideration what the other side has to say. In fact, we seldom stop to check things out at all.

The Logical Left

I believe one reason we like the left-side-logic-brain so much is because of its cut-and-driedness. It is objective, practical, analytical, and what comes out of it is much more available to the masses as relatable and objective. Safety in numbers. If a million people agree that the sky is blue, rocks are hard, and a pound equals sixteen ounces, then it must be true. Right?

Much of the time, probably yes. However, the fact is though our brains can outwork even the Cray in sheer computational ability when it comes to volume, the lefty is pretty weak. A number of research studies have been done on the executive functioning area of the brain and how much stimuli it can actually process at one time. A couple of decades back, it was accepted that the magic number was seven. More recent research points to four. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, to the things like writing reports, feeding babies, driving cars, and other things we humans do, the truth is, we can usually only focus wholeheartedly on one measly thing at a time. For this, I refer to our conscious awareness. Surely, the mega-machine that is our brain is doing much more in the non-conscious regions. However, we tend to make decisions consciously and the astronomical complexity of everyday human life really beats us down there. When we put all our eggs in our left-brain logic and reason, we end up moving through life duped into thinking we can handle way, way more than we can.

Simply speaking, we cannot possibly guess the sheer number of variables that will interfere with our everyday thoughts. Wonderful, well-funded studies are created by people with brains. Those people, looking, say, at the effect of soy on weight loss will create studies that are as rigorous and unbiased as possible – but they will, in fact, not be looking at the same time at how hormones are affected or what the impact of toxins in the environment is. We simply cannot accommodate all the possibilities at once.

The Creative Right

Where the left side is limited, the right side is near infinite. The randomness and massiveness of what goes on in that untethered, timeless, wordless space is astounding. As a trauma and anxiety therapist who uses imagery and other expressive and experiential techniques as well as cognitive methods, I see the incredible depth of what is often trapped in our bodies and imaginations. There is no time or words on the left side, but there is color, shape, sensation, story, and a myriad of other highly valuable information that are healing and transformative when considered.

The problem with righty is its propensity to poke our limbic system when upset. The right-brain’s language is sensation, space, and image. Next time you have a chance, peek over a tall bridge or walk around your house with your eyes closed. You will undoubtedly feel unpleasant sensations in your body signaling alarm and peril. The fight or flight systems of our brains are grand over-generalizers. They always err (and err deeply) on the side of caution. When trauma, anxiety, or illness invade the files of our right brain, the resulting emotional responses can color everything we experience. The end result is what we know “with our whole being” may be based on a sensation and not something existing in reality.

What Can I Trust Then?

I will answer this with the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

If you line up a good number of people and every one of them agree with your left-brain analysis of X, Y, or Z, and the knowledge seems to work just fine in practice, then I think you are safe in trusting your overt cognitions. Same goes for the right side. If what you feel and how you act on “autopilot” does not land you in a ditch relationally and your body seems to be working in balance, then whatever is connected to your intuition is probably reliable. The goal, then, is to pay attention to patterns of when things are not working smoothly. When what “everyone says” does not seem true for you, stop and take a closer look. When what “feels right” lands you in trouble, take some time and think about it.

None of us speaks “Amygdala” very well yet. We will not always know what our bodies are trying to tell us. It will take a bit of trial and error – but neuroscience is uncovering landmarks all the time and we must start somewhere. We cannot keep believing that we know only that which can be described by our five basic senses. There is more to this rich life than the concrete.

Why Does This All Matter?

People who come to see me are in agony because of the untold number of unprocessed experiences floating around in their somatic experience. No one tells them what is happening and many who describe their experience are not believed and may even be belittled. Others build their lives on “things they know” or “things they feel” without understanding the balance a whole-brained approach can provide.

I think we need to take a step back and look at life with fresh eyes and open minds. In other words, I think it is time to stop lauding the concrete left side and fearing the vagueness of the right side. We need to start tapping into the considerable wisdom the right hemi has to offer. We need to learn to temper our corporeal sensations with our rational interpretations – and we will never do that if we do not explore and address both.

If you struggle with anxiety, relationship problems, trauma, depression, or have had a lifetime of struggle you cannot put into words, stop. Ask yourself what you know and what you feel. Ask yourself what is most true in the present moment. Seek out both cognitive and expressive methods of therapy and learning. My suggestion is to start with a new consideration of the somatic (often thought of as “woo woo”) world.

Keep reading. Keep exploring. Keep imagining.