We would take this one step further. The threat-appraisal function being primarily served by the Amygdala might have provided us with our initial way of viewing our world—and even our first heuristic. As Charles Osgood (1957) found many years ago, much of our way of categorizing the world in which we live comes down to just three criteria. First, is the entity we are encountering interested in our welfare or are they interested in doing us harm (the good/bad criterion). Second, is this entity as powerful as I am or could I defeat it if necessary (the strong/weak criterion). Third, is this entity active and fast or is it inactive and/or slow. Could I outrun it if necessary (the active/passive criterion)? Osgood proposed that these three criteria still dominate our thinking and acting—even though we no longer live on the African Savannah.
The Limbic System is dominated by the Amygdala and the Hippocampus—at least when it comes to our emotions and memory. The Limbic System, in turn, is one of the oldest parts of the brain. It provides us through the Amygdala and Hippocampus with some particularly important sources of internally generated expert insights. Much as they do in the case of Osgood’s three criteria of threat, the Amygdala and Hippocampus provide templates for the immediate appraisal of certain challenging conditions. Pattern-recognition is engaged to determine if something is “right” or “wrong.” Is what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell as it “should be” or is something amiss?
Jonah Lehrer (2009) writes about the wisdom that can be found in the Limbic System and illustrates the existence and valuable use of this wisdom in the detection of an enemy missile firing during the Gulf War. A sailor on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea was reviewing blips on a radar screen and “sensed” that there was something wrong. He sensed something very subtle on his screen that ended up being an enemy missile that was trying to track as an American aircraft returning to the ship. The missile was shot down and the lives of many people were saved. The sailor’s detection was so sensitive that it took extended replay of the radar signals to detect the anomaly.
At a less dramatic or life-saving level, we all can recall detecting something that is wrong about what we are taking in from our multiple senses. We “know” that something is wrong with the food we are eating, or something has been moved in our bathroom or bedroom. We sense that the man we just met again for the first time in five years has somehow “changed.” Has he lost weight or is he perhaps ill? No, it is the absence of the beard he was wearing five years ago. We know that something is different.
The dimension of Tacit Knowledge that we identified at the start of this essay applies here. Polanyi specifically used this example of ‘knowing” that something is different in the person we meet to illustrate the existence of tacit knowledge. The knowledge becomes explicit when we recognize that the beard is gone when the person that we meet mentions that he saved it off. The knowledge moves from our template-matching back burner to the front burner where we interact (better informed) with our now-beardless acquaintance.Download Article 1K Club