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Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry
2005 Web Report
On Serendip

Opening the Door- Explorations In Tacit Understanding

Ayaka Dubin

Tacit knowledge is the understanding that arises from the unconscious self, a part of the mind outside the range of normal awareness. Surely, to any who claim interest in exploring the mind's reaches, a part by nature inaccessible, veiled from perception, would provide much intrigue. How to open the door to such a place, however, could prove at least as tough a mystery as the nature of what would be found inside.

Generally, we all are indeed in communication with this unconscious part of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. We make connections between things that leave even our own selves questioning the nature of such thoughts. We perform actions that we are unaware of. We switch accents and forms of speech, tap our feet, bite our nails, and even hold conversations in our sleep. By its very nature, this form of communication will go unnoticed unless specifically paid attention to or pointed out by others. However, the fact that these inner reaches of the mind have an interaction with the external environment speaks to the possibility of conscious interaction with them. Fascinated by the possibility of some sort of conscious exchange of ideas between these two parts of myself, I decided to conduct an experiment, with my own subconscious as the subject.

When is it, then, that our subconscious is closest to the surface? Dreams are a door into that part of oneself, for certain. Another more fully conscious way to take a look at that part would be free association- in which the subject is presented with a word and asked to record the first word that comes to her mind. So a free association exercise was the first thing I did- presenting myself with a random selection of words and recording my first impressions.

Stimulus:: Response

Offspring:: Difficult
Cultures:: Color
Stairway:: Spiral
Sack:: Fit
Spinster:: Needle
Jellyfish:: Peanut butter
Booted:: Broken
Quail:: Curl
Brakes:: Crash
Espionage:: Pokemon
Spherical:: Ethereal
Flow:: Tears
Naught:: Empty
Equals:: Pendulum
Jolly:: Red
Dancers:: Ankles
Sell:: Ocean
Rubs:: Mint
Memo:: iPod
Landmine:: Earth
Negotiate:: Table
Dusky:: Puppy
Sometimes:: Crazy

I was surprised by many of my answers, because at first a lot of them didn't mean to make a whole lot of sense. I classified my responses into categories based upon my interpretation of them. Some seemed to be linked to their respective stimuli by their sound or structure. The alliteration between "cultures" and "color" and " booted" and "broken" would serve as an example of this relation, as would the similarity in sound between "quail" and "curl." Then, there were word pairs that were related through some sort of "logic" that I could figure out upon looking at them further. Some were more obvious, such as the connection between "Jellyfish" and "Peanut butter" or the "Brakes" that one would use to avoid a "Crash." Others took a little more thought, but could still be uncovered. When I heard the word "Negotiate," the image that popped into my head was of the conference room on the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This conference room contained a long table, so a "Table" was what I saw. "Dusky" sounded like a good name for a "Puppy," "Landmines" are buried in the "Earth," and "Dancers" (for it was ballerinas on pointe that I pictured) put a lot of stress on their "Ankles." Finally, there were relations that even after careful thought I couldn't figure out. These included "Equals" and "Pendulum," "Sell" and "Ocean," and "Memo" and "iPod." I am not sure of the meaning of these thoughts- only that somewhere inside me these images must hold some sort of connection.

Moving on from word to word free association, I decided to do a stream of consciousness exercise. While not purely unconscious, with the awareness necessary to transfer the images present in the mind of a visual thinker such as myself to paper in word form, such a piece of writing often brings surprise glimpses into the tacit self. As someone who actually does this kind of exercise for fun fairly often, I'm able to tell the difference between the way my conscious self would go about writing something and the freer flowing style of my subconscious self. So, I sat down and went about writing down everything that went through my mind, without the inhibition of conscious thought or structure.

"i built this world from for you page by page with bricks of twilight, rain falling upwards into a great ocean of stars impossible you are impossibly bright made of it all wings and warm gingerbread, flannel blankets, and flying so far to my arms there is no distance so far so long as that between the here and the wanted between when i'll see you once again and right now far from the ground but closer to the sky.

your sorrow i want to take it take it away from you red and orange and the palest gray there were stars there in those moments of happiness and now i am afraid you will see them no longer hold fast to your happiness do not let it go no matter how hard it tries to flee from you hard far i am falling i am fading i am drowning help me to breathe in an old video store before the years turned and faded or maybe right after, still it was around that time and i was counting how many how many now i wish for those days when i could count it still before those things had lost their novelty before i lost my identity in those days when i could still express in those days when i had an answer to what do you like what do you want your wishes goals future aspirations i do not know yet when is yet never never ever like there's no to-morrow (shelter each other from the pain and sorrow) my reflection in a window so warm the line between the warm and cold the stars above and i below in the place where i'm so unlucky so unlucky remembering those days i wanted to hold close and at the same time erase, those days for which there is no reason but that of nostalgia, i no longer miss that this is the world that i will forever hold"

Since when I put it down on paper in the first place there was a lack of capitalization and punctuation, I left this piece of writing in that form. At first I was completely surprised by it- by the path that I took through the subjects I discussed, seeming to jump around aimlessly. However, with further reading, this piece took me on a somewhat nostalgic trip through my thoughts. It was incredibly interesting for me to peel back the words, digging behind them for meaning and context. The images of my deepest wants appeared- the warm, familial comfort of Christmas gingerbread and a cozy blanket with someone I love. I saw my fears and insecurities- my worry of being unable to comfort someone I care about in a time when they need it, my anxiety about not knowing where I'm headed in life. Memories that I would never have thought to see again resurfaced- an evening in the video store, back when I could count on just my hands how many anime movies there were on those shelves. I am easily lured by nostalgia- these images are quite appealing to me. In the end, however, I was pleased to find that even subconsciously I seem to be moving away from doing things solely for the purpose of remembrance- I seem to have truly moved on from the past.

Once the experiment was over and I reread my writings, the connections that were made as I followed my train of thought seemed quite puzzling. However, upon further exploration, some explanations, I feel, can indeed be found. Twice I ended up recording song lyrics after words I wrote reminded me of them- in the instance of "I am falling, I am fading, I am drowning, help me to breathe" (lyrics from "Duvet" by BoA) and "like there's no tomorrow, shelter each other from the pain and sorrow" (lyrics from "Manic Star" by Conjure One). These are songs that I have listened to for a long time and are clearly deeply ingrained in me. I think the BoA lyrics led to the image of the video store because that was a song I listened to a lot during the period of time that created that memory. I tend to define periods of time by the songs that I listened to, and a return to an old song can often reawaken memories I thought to have lost. The reasons beyond other connections remain a mystery to me, however, and perhaps signal areas of my thought that could benefit from further exploration.

These experiments seemed a valuable endeavor to me, as I was able to uncover some of the inner workings of my thought processes and the relationships that I create tacitly. I have found, however, that many claim the analysis of one's own subconscious through such exercises to be a very difficult feat. That's a strange thought to me, as I never thought it confusing in the least bit. I've always seen myself as the easiest person to analyze, seeing as I probably know myself the best out of anyone. Perhaps a point of difficulty may be an inability to accept the validity of the unconscious self. If these stream of consciousness writings are seen only as randomness or inconsequential blabbering, then I feel little success would come out of any attempt to analyze them. The unconscious self is a valid part of oneself that has an effect on our lives and can likewise be affected by our experiences. Tacit knowledge must be recognized as something with weight that could better our lives and understanding of ourselves if it is to be studied. It should be realized that our tacit knowledge could indeed make us worse off if not taken into consideration- as we could be hindered by our own unrealized prejudices and unconscious ideas and worries. Perhaps if the journey upon which such tacit knowledge explorers are embarking upon is taken with gravity and significance, then using an academic approach to analyze these artifacts of the unconscious would not seem like so far a stretch.

Beyond acknowledging it, there is the necessity of learning to access the unconscious side of oneself. What causes difficulty is that the conscious and the realm of tacit knowledge are somewhat separated in ordinary situations. Exercises such as word association and stream of consciousness writing are good ways to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the unconscious. However, sitting down to actively do an experiment on tacit knowledge is a pretty good way to send the unconscious self into hiding- as this act of research is a fairly conscious one. To avoid this pitfall, I allowed myself extra time so that I would not be under pressure to conduct the experiment. That way, I could complete the stream of consciousness writing at a point in which I was already in the mood to do it. Another thing that would definitely facilitate easier access to tacit knowledge would be frequent practice in such stream of consciousness exercises, as well in other ways to approach the unconscious self, such as meditation.

Once in possession of such examples of tacit knowledge, the remaining step would be to analyze them. While having another person take a look at it to provide any additional feedback can be a good idea, it is often the case that you will know the most about your own self. Distancing yourself from any pre-formed ideas about your mental processes may be a good idea- looking at your work from the point of an outside observer rather than your own viewpoint may prove useful. However, as I did in my own analysis, it is beneficial, perhaps even more beneficial, to take into consideration what you know about yourself as well- your interests, fears, and ideals, and notice how all these things interact to paint a picture of that self that you are now finally able to meet.

I think that exercises such as these are great ways to start to pry open the door that divides the conscious world and that which is thought of unconsciously. As the darkness behind that door begins to be dispelled, many new questions continue to come to light. As a scientist I would love to be able to answer all of these questions about myself. However, at the same time, I know that with all questions answered there would be nothing left to discover, so I do not make that wish wholeheartedly. Instead, I hope to continue on this quest to uncover the hidden parts of the human psyche, with the dream of infinite regions to explore.

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