How Do New Ideas Come to Us?

A friend asks you for the name of the very familiar person you had met last year at a Christmas party. You know their name and you have a vivid picture of what this person looks like in your mind because you had such a great conversation with them. You click your fingers impatiently; squeeze your eyes shut as you try hard to remember the name. You tell your friend that the name is right on your fingertips. But hard as you try, after a few minutes you give up and tell your friend with frustration that you just can’t remember the name.  You walk away still trying. But maybe an hour or even a day later when you are not trying to remember anymore, the name suddenly pops up in your head. You might even shout out the name to yourself with great excitement. What is this phenomenon that seems to play a cruel game with our minds and brains?

The philosopher Michael Polanyi identified this as tacit knowledge. His argument is that our knowledge of anything in our lives is never done by separating what we know into small separate segments that we come to know individually. For example, if we pick out a word from a sentence and repeat it so many times, the word eventually loses its meaning after we have said it many times. When we master any physical skill which could be playing tennis, basketball, or the piano, we may initially learn by memorizing small little segments of motion and practicing them in drill fashion.

But to truly learn and perform the skill well requires us to pay attention away from the separate motions. In fact we are all familiar with the hot 3-point shooter in basketball who suddenly grows cold and the baseball hitter who gets into a slump because he is striking out and can’t get a hit. People will say the player will get worse if he or she begins to think too much and focus too much attention on the motions the player makes when they shoot at the basket or swing the bat at the ball. Knowing then is tacit and one cannot focus on it directly to truly learn, know, remember, or discover something. Emphasizing this point Polanyi says, “…the belief that, since particulars are more tangible, their knowledge offers a true conception of things is fundamentally mistaken.”(p.19)

The example at the beginning illustrates that we often know something by paying attention away from it. You do not know or recognize the person you met at the Christmas party by remembering their separate nose, eye, lips, eye brows, and cheek bones. You know them by paying attention away from the individual physical parts that we call “the face”. This is called the tacit dimension of knowledge. This is the condition in which what we know seems to be always on our finger tips or the edge of knowing or consciousness. Once we focus on the individual parts, the knowledge seems to disappear. What is the significance of being familiar with tacit knowledge in our everyday lives?

Since the enlightenment period in Western civilization and the discovery and ascendancy of science, rationality, and positivism, we are convinced that we know something by directly learning the different parts and how they work. We believe we can understand and solve problems in all kinds of relationships, for example, by knowing and fixing the different parts that cause us problems in the relationship. We even set up big Research and Development departments in corporations so that they can work every day to discover new things. Then we are surprised that those huge industries and university research departments rarely discover anything that is really new and ground breaking. Often the individual who works on the fringe in a garage alone may be the one to make the most ground breaking discovery.

The tacit dimension of knowledge is very evident and might happen to us every day in our lives without our being aware of what it is. We all had moments when we have come up with the most brilliant or creative ideas when we are not paying attention anymore to the particular puzzle or difficult task. Sometimes we talk about having a hunch about something. Creative writers come up with their best ideas when they are washing dishes in the kitchen, lying down quietly in bed, sitting on the couch day dreaming, fishing, or sitting on the toilet. Haven’t you ever wondered why many couples conceive a baby soon after they have tried for many years and have stopped and are making arrangements for an adoption? A single man or a woman may try really hard to look to fall in love. They may put ads on social sites, go to parties, go to many dates, and they may ask every person they might be attracted to for a date. Although such people sometimes may succeed, many of them fail. But often as soon as they stop trying hard to look and pay attention away from dating, they often will meet someone and fall in love immediately.

I had various types of tacit knowing in my mind for many decades. The several types of tacit knowledge one day converged and revealed to me a completely previously undiscovered idea. I experienced a eureka moment and eventually after four years wrote the paper: “Beautiful Women in African Societies”. My new idea about race and tribal conceptions of the African skin color happened not because I sat down and formally thought about it. To the contrary, my newly discovered radically new idea about race and skin color gradations happened purely by chance because the tacit convergence of my knowledge of photography, biology, anthropology, sociological theory, contemporary Western race ideology, and my unique deep experiential knowledge within African indigenous culture.

Perhaps the most significant illustration of the power of tacit knowledge happened during the race to split the atom that led to the atomic bomb. The scientists in Hitler Nazi Germany and in the Western labs were working night and day racing to split the atom during World War II. Nazi Germany men scientists were working in the labs. Lise Meitner was an Austrian who was among the few top scientists. She could barely get a space in the lab to work in the highly competitive men-dominated Physics program of one of the top NAZI Germany Universities as a woman and a Jew. When Hitler’s Nazi Germany began to harass and expel Jews, the Jewish woman atomic physics researcher fled to the German border to a remote snow covered winter cabin. She was thinking night and day about her lab work and the puzzle about splitting the atom. She was apparently sitting on a log with another male colleague, Otto Hahn, on the snow covered ground in this remote region in the wilderness when her eureka moment happened when she realized for the first time how to split the atom. The power of tacit knowing had happened once again.

The tacit knowing creates a very puzzling dilemma, contradiction, or challenge.  If you want to truly know something, you need to pay attention away from it. What is truly new knowledge may reside in “The Tacit Dimension” which is the title of Michael Polanyi’s book. This is not advocating ignorance but rather to open our eyes to the possibility that some of our long held beliefs and formal practices, and institutions that are devoted to formally focus on discovering new knowledge might for the most part be misleading or at worst are a fallacy.