Questions, Intuitions, Revisions:
Telling and Re-Telling Stories About Ourselves in the World
A College Seminar Course at Bryn Mawr College

Forum - Thoughts on Tacit Understanding

Name:  Diana
Subject:  tacit knowledge
Date:  2001-11-07 12:21:40
Message Id:  571
Diana Lowell

While typing an e-mail to a friend, I stumbled over the word hair. I mistyped it at first, and then while trying to correct it, the entire word lost its meaning. In fact, I deleted the entire sentence and chose another topic. Now that I come back to the word, I can see that it is correct. Tacit knowledge is the inner knowledge that is more like a feeling than words, which guides motor skills, recognition, and language.
Gymnasts often speak of a sixth sense that allows them to go through a routine simply by feel and not thought. However, that feeling could better be called motor memory because it comes from memorizing the moves so well that they come without focus. Tacit knowledge is knowing that the move is right or wrong without needing to perform it. To use an example, after memorizing a song a pianist can play it on a muted keyboard and know where the mistake was, without hearing it or looking at the keys. It isn’t because her fingers landed in the incorrect place or because she forgot a section, it is because her tacit knowledge told her that one finger was off, be it even by a millimeter, and the “feeling” of the song was not the same as usual. However, if one was to ask her what she did wrong, she would not be able to explain in words such as, “My third finger missed the flat.” She would instead say that there was something simply wrong with it. Tacit knowledge could also lead her to finish the song correctly and, though she did not hear a note, know that it was a flawless performance, not only technically, but also artistically. The tacit knowledge about the song came from practice and memorization, but it is also much more than that because it has been internalized and transformed into an inner guide. Other motor skills, such as walking, are programmed into each living thing. Therefore, though a child needs to practice walking, they are not taking a skill and making it their own, they are discovering the knowledge which is within them. This can be easily described with birds. Four birds are born on one day and two are taken from the mother. When the two remaining birds gain strength the mother begins to train them how to fly, while the other two birds are not taught anything. On the day that the two “trained” birds first fly the other two “untrained” birds are released. All four are equally capable of flying. Therefore, the skill of flying does not need to be taught, the small birds are at first incapable only because they are too small and weak. Tacit knowledge is taking an outside (distal) skill and programming it until it is as innate as walking.
Recognizing faces is another form of tacit knowledge. While walking down the street, one can see friends, family, and aquantances and be able to recognize and distinguish between even those who have similiar features, such as sisters. However, imagine a situation when a person is unable to meet a sister and sends a friend in his place. This friend must know how to recognize the sister, therefore the brother describes her as being “tall, thin, with short black hair and dark green eyes.” If the friend is lucky, the sister will be on a plane filled with short blondes. This simple description is, in reality, quite useless. Without tacit knowledge, police lineups would not work. Take a group of fat, bald, dark skinned construction workers and ask a victim to pick out the exact man who stole her purse. Tacit knowledge allows the woman to point at a man who was the perpetrator. Though she could not find enough words to say why she knew that he was the man, her tacit knowledge told her. She had tacit knowledge of him because he was not just another face on the street, he was the robber! Again, tacit knowledge is the internalizing of a learned fact. No matter how many words the brother may use to describe how her sister looks, until the friend actually see the sister, he would not be able to pick her out from a crowd of similiar faces. Once he met her, though, and the knowledge began to pertain to him, he would be able to find her again by use of his tacit knowledge.
Just as each face has many characteristics that are internalized in different ways, so language is tacit knowledge with nuances and personal meanings. For example, lock a child in a blue room every time she misbehaves. That child will associate blue with punishment, pain, lonliness, and anxiety. Take another child and reward him with a blue ball every time he behaves well. That child will see blue as satisfaction, joy, freedom, and love. Each child has a different view of the word blue because they have had different experiences with the color. Blue is neither pain nor love, but to those children, it is. Another way that language is tacit is how each person constructs sentences and chooses words. The word “toilet” and “john” both mean the same thing, yet it is unlikely that a buisness woman would announce a trip to the john. Though one could say that she chose a formal word over slang, in the dictionary there is no real difference between the words. Tacit knowledge says that you know which word to use in which situation, though there isn’t a lengthy explanation as to why. Children often misuse words because they have yet to learn the complex meanings behind them. However, when they hear the word used and the situations it is used in, it becomes tacit knowledge to them.
To summarize, tacit knowledge is taking facts and internalizing them until they take on personal meaning. It is also knowing more than words can say. Explaining to a blind man what the color red looks like is as impossible as saying why your two blonde haired, 5’7”, blue eyed, thin friends look completely different. However, a blind man can learn where things are located and get to a point where he can avoid tables without touching them or seeing them. Avoiding tables, recognizing faces, and playing the piano flawlessly are all aspects of the broad topic known as tacit knowledge.

Name:  Eveline A. Stang
Subject:  The Tacit Dimension
Date:  2001-11-08 09:31:54
Message Id:  581
Eveline A. Stang
College Seminar 01
November 8, 2001

Paper #3: The Tacit Dimension

In his lecture “The Tacit Dimension” Michael Polanyi explores the idea that “we can know more than we can tell.” In order to explore the concept of knowledge that is understood or implied without being stated, I undertook three experiments accessed from the Serendipity “Brain and Behavior” website.

The first experiment called “Time to Think” measures simple reaction time to a visual stimulus, as well as reaction time in several situations where more “thinking” is required ( At the outset, this experiment seemed to be straightforward enough. Basic response time was observed and it seemed obvious that the more complex the stimulus, the more time it took to respond.

Some of the tacit aspects of this experiment are of course to a certain extent physiological: the body automatically “knows” how to press the button in response to the instructions. However, we are not conscious as to the mechanics, that is, how the body does this, not are we able to articulate this process unless perhaps we study neurobiology. Silently, and most efficiently, the brain is able to make decisions that are subsequently translated into actions.

I observed that fluctuations in response time could be caused by a variety of factors including newness of the task, fatigue, lack of concentration (mind wandering), anxiety or annoyance because of making a mistake, and premature responses due to competitiveness (with myself!). All of these elements constitute a tacit level of the experiment, as does the inner dialogue that may be taking place while we are thus engaged – “You are too slow. How could you be so stupid? I wonder how I rate compared to other people …” Whereas negative messages to the self had the effect of causing mistakes or a ‘slowing down’, positive messages resulted in greater efficacy and success. In short, the experiment revealed that attitude seems to have an effect on reaction time.

The second experiment called “Seeing More Than Your Eye Does” demonstrates that the brain “adds very substantially to the report it gets from [our] eye, so that a lot of what [we] see is actually “made up” by the brain” (quoted from the website). It is remarkable that the brain has the ability to fill in the blind spot or “space” with the particular color or pattern of the background even when that background color or pattern changes. This experiment seemed to unveil another tacit component in that not only are we not conscious of certain physiological processes such as demonstrated in “Seeing More Than Your Eye Does”, but we have no control over these processes. It seems that on some level, ultimately we must accept that we are not in full control. Thus part of our tacit knowledge appears to consist of a certain degree of faith, even to the extent of taking for granted, certain aspects of ourselves. This leads one to ask an age-old question which has been voiced in the realms of philosophy and metaphysics. If we are not fully aware of or in control of our functions, then are we really the doers of those actions? And, if we are not the doers, then who or what is?

The third experiment brought me to a further area of exploration. “The Three Doors of Serendip” ( not only tests “hands on” understanding in terms of intuitive, unconscious understanding, “experimental” understanding in terms of what is conscious and observational, it also challenges “rational” understanding which is conscious, analytical, and logical. The player is invited to take part in a contest where choosing the right door will earn him $5. The choice in choosing one of the three doors lies is whether to stay with the door you originally chose or switch the choice to the remaining, as yet unopened door. After multiple attempts at playing, I began to experience not the satisfying experience of “Oh, I get it” or “Hmmm, there is something interesting here”, but frustration – even anger. This was no longer an experiment to measure the effects of stimuli in the cool light of reason. This was war! Playing “The Three Doors” did have the result, however, of bringing out a certain determination to “get it.” Finally, it became clearer that the act of switching doors was “better” than staying at the same door. In the final analysis, the experience was unsatisfying because although there was a vague recognition of the benefits of switching, it was still not clear to me when switching should occur. In other words, the element of predictability or logic in the game was not fulfilled for this player. But, it’s only a game, right? Is the objective to play or to win?

It is interesting how a game, which at first glance seems innocuous enough, can elicit such a strong reaction from a player. More that the first two experiments, perhaps, this game was armed with the implicit and tacit concepts of winning or losing. Winning and losing imply values or judgments that involve the individual. On further analysis, I realized that perhaps this is why I don’t really like games and have never been any good at them. Perhaps this is because to be successful a certain amount of flexibility and a certain amount of playfulness is required, as well. The enthusiastic player doesn’t mind playing by someone else’s or something else’s ground rules. The unsuccessful player may resent the boundaries that are set by the game, and even prefer to set his own boundaries! As a result of feeling restricted, the reluctant player’s ego seems to become resistant and defensive losing its sense of willingness to experiment and play.

In conclusion, it appears that the underlying attitudes and tacit pre-conceptions one brings to life affect our ability to engage in the world. “The Three Doors” game serves as an example that knowledge (about ourselves) can remain tacit unless we make the effort to examine it. If we wish to change our performance in the world, i.e. if we wish to interact rather than react in terms of situations and the people around us, it is vital that we try to cognize the hidden aspects of ourselves and articulate them (if useful and appropriate).

Name:  Lisa Harrison
Subject:  Drawing Experiment
Date:  2001-11-08 20:55:45
Message Id:  582
Tacit Knowledge
Drawing Experiment

Within all of us lies the ability to draw; and while the talent may be dormant, it can be awakened. We need not be taught step-by-step how to put lines on a page to complete a picture, but rather we need to be introduced to another way of “seeing” via a deeper level of concentration, in order to access our tacit artistic competence.

The ability to draw is not a magical gift. In fact, many people might be surprised – if not disappointed – by the beautiful simplicity in achieving access to their individual artistic aptitude. Drawing takes work, but a person with seemingly no drawing skills can achieve success rather quickly. To my way of thinking, the desire to learn how to draw is all that is necessary, because as long as you have the desire, you can be taught how to view the world as an artist does and the natural ability will follow.

My plan for this experiment was to introduce non-artists to this deep level of concentration, in which they would begin to draw what they “see,” and not what they “know.” Artists often speak of “seeing,” and by this they mean they are focusing their attention to all the lines, shadows and value changes of their subject matter. This level of concentration is different from that which people usually use to view the world.

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Two of my three subjects told me they “couldn’t draw at all,” and were convinced that they just didn’t know how. I explained to them that once they reached a certain state of consciousness, the analytical part of the brain would quiet. In this state of mind, they would be free to draw what they saw, without the “voice in their head” telling them otherwise.
My third subject is an artist, and as such, she continually endeavors to improve her “seeing” and so she too was eager to participate.
To start, I gave each person in the group a special soft-leaded pencil and some sketching paper. I talked about the struggle many beginning artists have in trying to translate so much information from the three-dimensional world onto the two-dimensional paper. One way beginning artists simplify images is by squinting their eyes. Another method involves using a viewfinder (a one-inch rectangular opening cut out of paper), which the artist looks through with one eye. This viewfinder helps contain the image(s) in a smaller field of vision, allowing the artist to compose her drawing.

Exercise #1.

The first instruction was to “Draw a hand.” In less than a minute, my three subjects each produced a rendering of a hand. I explained to them that part of their brain “knew” what a hand was, and so with that knowledge they had quickly fashioned an image with 5 digits, representing a hand.

Subject R did not look at her hand while drawing. Subject M thought about it, questioned me about it, but in the end proceeded to draw the hand that she “knew” from her memory without looking at her own hand for reference. Subject Z (the artist) did not look at her hand for reference, but relied on her memory, as well. (Note: Subject Z’s memory includes her prior drawing experiences.)

Exercise #2.

I asked each of my three subjects to draw her own hand, without looking at her paper. My intent was to get them to start focusing on what they saw (the subject and all its lines, value changes and shapes), not what they were putting on paper. This exercise is known as “blind contour drawing,” and is often used by artists as a type of warm up exercise. Initially, the idea of drawing and not looking at their paper was met with some trepidation, but all three subjects complied. While I did not time them, this exercise took considerably longer than the first, as their concentration deepened.

We all know a hand usually has four fingers and a thumb – and all of the first drawings by the three subjects clearly showed all five digits. Yet if you were to hold your hand in a fist – no obvious fingers in view – it still looks like a hand and of course, it still is a hand. In our memories, however, we tend to hold a simplistic image of a hand.

During Exercise #2, Subject R included five digits in her drawing, as that was how she modeled her hand. Subject M included her wrist in the drawing and then drew one shape that represented four fingers, and another shape that represented the thumb, so that her final exercise looked something like a mitten. Subject Z drew her hand showing all five digits, but with the palm facing upwards, fingers curled.

I pointed out to each person how the lines in their second drawings were more authentic than those in their first attempts. By having altered their concentration, they were already beginning to draw what they saw, not what they knew.

The final experiment for the day was to draw a picture of a famous person –using a photograph in a book. I knew that the more analytical part of their consciousness would recognize the image, and that there was bound to be resistance on the part of the subjects in tackling this type of a drawing. To subvert this judgmental sensitivity, I turned the image upside-down for Experiment #3. Then I drew a smaller rectangular shape on their papers so that the white space or size of their paper did not overwhelm the subjects. Within this smaller rectangle, they drew the image of former President John F. Kennedy.

For two of the subjects, this was their first attempt at drawing/seeing all the lines, shapes and value changes that make up the image. Subjects M and R met with success in completing the drawing and accessing a deeper state of concentration.

Subject Z had in fact earned a living through portrait work, and so while inverting the photograph was a new exercise for her, she had no difficulty in accomplishing the task, and she also met with success.

Afterwards, I asked the subjects what they were thinking while drawing, and asked them to explain any difficulty or frustration they might have experienced. Subject R stated that when she reached one area of the image, she immediately recognized it as the nose and started mentally labeling it as such. For a moment, she even stopped drawing, telling herself “Oh, it’s a nose, I can’t draw that. It’s too hard.” Subject M also stopped at the nose, because even though inverted, it was identifiable, and so for a moment she too stopped seeing the lines, values and shapes. Subject Z never paused, but stayed focused on the image.
Periodically during Exercise #3, I referred to areas within the image, literally pointing out the relationship of one line, shape or value to another. Subject M stated that when she found herself struggling while drawing the nose, she squinted and forced herself to see it as a line or shape, and was thus able to continue.

When the subjects turned their drawings right side up, they were impressed with their creations. They did not think they were going to be able to do it. Subject R commented that all the while she was drawing the picture of President Kennedy, she was thinking it was not going to come out as anything but blobs, and so she was pleasantly surprised with her results. In fact, Subject R expressed a desire to try this experiment at home using other images.

Total time for all drawings/discussion: 30 minutes (12:30 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.)

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Subjects R and Z were absent.
Subject M was present.
New Subjects were: Subject D, Subject MM and Subject Matt

It is important to note that the three newcomers never expressed to me that they could not draw.

I met with Subject M and three of her friends at 12:15 p.m.

I handed everyone a drawing pencil and a piece of sketching paper. I asked the three newcomers to draw a hand.

Meanwhile, Subject M began by practicing blind contour drawing (not looking at her paper).

Subject D and MM are students on campus. Subject MM is an artist. Subject Matt is a professional musician.

I found it interesting that when I instructed this group to “Draw a hand,” each of them immediately looked to their own hand for reference.
Subjects D and MM are foreign students, and I mention this because I wondered if there was a cultural difference in how people responded to my asking them to draw a hand. (Perhaps I’ll save that question for another experiment.)

Subject M was ready to begin her second drawing of President Kennedy. Again, I inverted the photograph.

Subject Matt wanted to participate in this exercise of drawing Kennedy, as well.

Subjects D and MM continued to work on their hand drawings.

We were in a busy, noisy public cafeteria, yet all the while these four students were drawing, they became astonishingly silent. So deep was their focus, they were not at all distracted by their surroundings.
I flipped the Kennedy image for Subject M, and for the first time she worked on her drawing right side up. A few minutes later, I inverted the photograph again, and told her to finish her drawing by working on the “darks,” which she did with great success.

Subject M was most surprised and pleased by her final experiment, saying, “I drew Kennedy.”

Subject Matt was surprised with the results of his final renderings of his hand and Kennedy, as he’d never before attempted drawing.

Every Subject in this experiment produced excellent examples of drawing what they “saw.”

If I had more time for further experiments, I would have the Subjects in my study begin drawing images or landscapes of their own choosing – drawing them right side up.
I believe this initial experiment illustrated how we can alter our tacit knowledge.
Subjects M and R initially believed they could not draw, but after only a few short exercises, they began to realize that the ability to draw existed within them.


| Forum | Science in Culture | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 11:57:11 CDT