What do we want to know? Thursday October 3, 2019
A few months ago a book showed me something about myself which I thought I already knew. It was a novel about a woman with face-blindness. She described her childhood and how upset and she'd been when her mum walked past her at nursery and took another little girl home. For me that was powerful because for the first time in my life I was seeing myself. When I read about that little girl mistaking another woman for her mother it suddenly seemed upsetting and I felt for her. Reading on I realised how hard some things about her life had been, like how difficult it was to make friends and the lies you tell to explain why you don't recognise people you know. When you are at the cinema or watching a screen drama, and your friends say afterwards how great it was you don't say you were struggling to keep up. More lies. I'd never seen any of this in a story before, and I know that most people can't imagine what it's like to have prosopagnosia — and this is the point: neither did I, and yet this is my world. For me, things like mistaking another woman for your mum were just normal. And if it's normal you don't really notice it.
The last couple of years I was doing a study at university so I had to read a lot of non-fiction, mostly research and scientific papers. I was studying the brain (in another area of psychology) yet despite knowing how we do facial recognition from a cognitive and neurological perspective none of that knowledge was anything like seeing myself in that novel.
I think the question of what does it actually mean to know something has a couple of aspects which show up here. The novelist tells you what you already know but lays it out in a new way. It's not new factual information, it's a new presentation, new insights. Whereas the scientific paper brings you new facts about the world. It literally brings you things you did not know before. Yet when we talk about gaining knowledge it's often as if it's only this latter version which is important.
I keep this knowledge distinction in mind when thinking about mental health and the question of what do we want to know. Sometimes we seek facts. This dialogue of facts is often the language of our doctors and professionals and yet sometimes it seems as if it's not telling us what we need. I'd suggest this is because there are times when we are really seeking insight. Insight is not the language of facts but the language of novelists, artists, and indeed the sort of writing you'll often see here.
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