Why do we respond to new knowledge in different ways?​

Knowledge: Facts, information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.”

The Oxford Dictionary

However, knowledge is also the prism through which each of us perceives the world, and therefore underpins every decision we make, and every belief we hold dear.

You might be thinking that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s just an extension of the way we interact with the real world. We perceive the world through our senses, and the brain creates a model of the world that lets us interact with it.

A great example of this is giving someone a pair of glasses that flicks the world upside down for the person wearing them. The wearer has to figure out a way to manage in that world, and it’s really hard work, consuming a lot of brain power. It becomes easier over time however, and in the end, it would become second nature if something amazing didn’t happen first. While the conscious mind is struggling to cope with a topsy-turvy world, the subconscious is working things out too, and eventually it flicks the world the right way up again. The brain has reprogrammed the way it processes the information it’s getting through the eyes, to rematch its own internal model of the world.

Astonishingly enough, it wouldn’t be the first time that person’s brain had pulled off this stunt, because we all have. Our retinas receive an upside down image, and the brain eventually flicks it the “right way up” for us while we’re still very young.

We’re not generally aware of this internal model arrangement, because the subconscious handles it for us automatically. It’s so efficient, that we interact with the real world without even knowing the model exists.

But that’s just the model constructed to use our senses. The brain creates other models too, models that we’re pretty sure we consciously manage and construct. After all, we’re fully aware of the stuff we read, the things we make or use with our hands and feet, the skills we acquire, the values we come to believe are right for us, so we’re completely in control. Right? Um… no. It’s not as simple as that.

First of all, your subconscious builds the lion’s share of that model, not your conscious self. Secondly, your conscious and subconscious response will depend on what information you’ve already built into your model before this new knowledge arrives.

For example, let’s take a hunter gatherer, growing up in a forest somewhere, isolated from other communities of any kind. They’re going to learn whatever their parents and tribe think it important to tell them, and not a hell of a lot more. They’re not going to be discussing the impact of Pride and Prejudice on contemporary British education, partly because they will never have heard of either, and partly because… well why on earth would they?

On the other hand, learning which plants will make you sick if you eat them, how to track a particularly tasty kind of animal, how to court that cute person on the other side of the village fire without offending anyone, and what behaviour will make the gods really, really cross; those things are important! So they get passed down the generations, creating both tribal lore and tribal culture. Any new idea that comes along will have to fit into that existing model, where it will be assessed, and either incorporated or discarded. Show them a new way to catch their favourite prey and they’ll be right on it, provided it doesn’t clash with any deeply held beliefs. However, take their photo with a digital camera and you could get anything from “Hey wow! That’s cool!” to “You’ve stolen my soul! Die you demon from hell!”

You may think we dwellers of the modern world are different, more advanced, more… mature… And you would be mistaken…

Oh sure, we’ve got almost instant access to vast amounts of information, to different ideas, and new technology comes along almost daily to delight and entertain us, to expand the possibilities of life, and we hoover it up almost as fast as it’s created. But that’s not the point. The point is how we use our own internal models not just to decide how we’re going to respond to today’s new thing, but even if we consider it at all.

If you have a strong religious framework, it will probably have a set of filters that automatically suggest how you should respond to a particular new idea. A person of one religion might feel quite comfortable adopting it into their own life, while another may turn away in horror or disgust. The same thing applies if you have strong political or philosophical beliefs, even if you’re an atheist. So, just like our imaginary forest dwellers, your response could be anything from “How cool!” to “Die you demon from hell!”

The internet was supposed to leaven things out, allowing everyone to share ideas and opinions, so we could all learn about each other, and figure out better ways to work together. What it’s actually done, especially since the introduction of the smart phone and social media, is to allow people to drop into online bubbles, where they only see and hear the stuff they’re interested in, that they already believe. So it gets reinforced, and the stuff outside the bubble is batted away, or may not even be seen at all, leaving the person in pretty much the same position as someone who lives in a totalitarian regime that deliberately restricts their access.

So, on the tribal and cultural lore fronts, people in these modern bubbles aren’t that much different to our imaginary hunter gatherers. The more they interact with their fellow bubblers, the more that model gets reinforced, and the bigger the shock when they bump up against someone from a different bubble, or a brand new idea that shakes their beliefs.

It’s therefore not surprising that different people will respond to new knowledge in different ways. It’s something we’d all expect, if we weren’t already living in bubbles of our own…

All of this is interesting to an author for at least two reasons. Firstly, these bubbles are part of the underlying structure within the story that drives character behaviours and interactions. Secondly, when a character acts outside the behavioural norms of their particular bubble, the reader instantly smells a rat. They may not know why they’re smelling a rat, but they know it’s not right, and suspension of disbelief comes off the menu.

It comes into play in any work of fiction, but particularly in a time travel book. The time traveller’s freedom to operate in their new environment is absolutely dependent upon their ability to negotiate the bubble clashes in such a way that the inhabitants of their new world are able to accommodate them. Just what our hero is able to achieve, will depend on their social position and power in this new world, but even the most powerful position will have its limits, and the reader will have an instinctive feel about where those boundaries lie.

I doubt that very many authors think about this in an overt way. If they properly sort out their characters, and the world they’re playing in, it all happens automatically within the story. It’s as organic a process as the one we use to build the knowledge models inside our own heads. But boy is it obvious when it goes wrong.