The Psychology of Understanding

The Psychology of Understanding

We have been conditioned to perceive the world around us binarily, hierarchically, opinionatedly; like/dislike, accept/reject, superior/inferior, good/bad, right/wrong. That will take us nowhere. The Key is to understand. Lack of Understanding can be referred to as one’s ‘intellectual impotence’.


What is understanding? Why do we need to understand? What factors govern or influence our Understanding? What does one need to have to understand? Should understanding be a process or conclusive?


Let us explore further.


What is Understanding?


Understanding is one’s formation of a mental construct or representation of an abstract, a situation, a person, an event, or communication where one tries to use intellect in leveraging whatever one acquired over time in giving a ‘form’ or ‘shape’ to “what is being understood”. Understanding gets beyond one’s perception where one tries to give meaning to “what’s being perceived with one’s own senses”.


Why do we need to understand?


Understanding is a vital pre-requisite & a primary foundation on which any progress, development, or growth that can ever happen and has the potency (to sustain) as well potentiality (to evolve). Understanding helps one synthesize all the compartmentalized components of all one’s learnings, and one’s experiences and amalgamate in making absolute sense and giving raise to higher wisdom.


What factors govern or influence our Understanding?


While there are several factors that govern or influence our understanding, let’s examine a few significant ones that play a crucial role:


  • Cognition: Cognition is central to human behaviors that put us into action in any sphere or dimension of the outer world. Our cognitive abilities majorly influence the way we reason, think, learn, remember what we learn, or process anything that we had to consume around us.

  • Knowledge: Knowledge is an accumulation or collection of what one read, learned, experienced, or can be of any other source. It’s a record of our past that acts as a baseline as well as a preliminary yardstick on which you can base your understanding to start with.


While both Cognition & Knowledge can help us in our understanding, they have a distortion component too, which clouds or distorts our understanding on the other hand. 


  • Distortion: With Cognition comes our cognitive biases that distort our understanding. Similarly, knowledge is double-edged sword, while it helps as a base to understand, the same knowledge can become a blocker in preventing one to get beyond what one already knows in a comprehensive review of ‘what is being understood’.


So, what does one need to have to understand?

Understanding anything requires a higher component to get beyond to ‘what is being understood’. Thanks to the Greek word ‘Meta’ (Beyond). (For example; we refer to Metadata as data that provides information about data.)



Let’s look at some essential components that one needs to have to understand:


  • Metacognition: Metacognition is a higher-level cognition that refers to one’s cognition of his/her cognition (Or) one’s thinking about his/her thinking. It’s simply awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes & thought patterns. When one is aware of his own cognition or thought patterns, one can more likely overcome one’s own cognitive biases, as well as develop an awareness about one’s own knowledge in reviewing where it stands with ‘what is being understood’. Here one knows the gap or deficit that may still exist to form a complete understanding.

  • Openness to experience: This is a personality trait in the Big Five personality traits model. This trait involves multiple dimensions like imagination, sensitivity, attentiveness, adventurousness, intellectual curiosity, and psychological liberalism. Unless one has the openness to be curious about ‘what is being understood’, one cannot get beyond his/her mental status quo to address any gaps that exist to form complete understanding.

  • Strength of Will: While both Metacognition and Openness to experience will help one to get beyond times & relevance and assess things from a contextual perspective (independent of anything), it is fundamentally the ‘strength of the will’ that fosters these. It’s the strength of the will that pushes one to get beyond to anything and raise beyond the ordinary.

  • Fluidity: Also, for an evolving person, one’s psyche at any point in time stands at a higher level than in the past, and so does one’s ‘understanding’ too. So, one’s understanding of anything gets better & refined with time as one evolves with a higher intellect. So, one also needs to know that there should be an underlying element of ‘Fluidity’ that one must hold as the understanding evolves as one evolves with time.


This is further supported by studies in Neuroscience (Neuroplasticity) as to how these will improve building more synaptic connections in our brain and hone our fluid intelligence.


Should understanding be a process or conclusive?


With essential elements like openness & fluidity, understanding can never be conclusive but an incremental & gradual process that helps one to evolve to attain higher wisdom. In conclusion, there is no further learning, one becomes a blocker to self in being conclusive. In a process, when one is curious & open, it will help one to get beyond and learn more in one’s evolution journey.


"The highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion."

(Richard Feynman)

About the Author

Visweswaran Balasubramanian
Practice Manager (IT).

I am Visu, currently working as a Practice Manager with Oracle Corporation in Bangalore, India. I have done my Post Graduation (PGCHRM) with XLRI,

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