The Mind That Knew Too Much

We are all familiar with that moment when we try to explain something we know really well and are reduced to incoherently going back to previous steps; to hearing a well-known song in our head and being reduced to “You know, it goes ‘Wawawoo Duff Duff Duff Dee Dee Dum'” This inability stems from the Curse of Knowledge; the counter-intuitive reverse correlation between how well we know something and how easily we can explain it.

This mental quirk causes problems in many areas; however, it has attracted particular notice in areas where providing instructions (written or oral) is key, such as education. Psychologists suggest countering it by pretending to forget that we know the topic well, and many methods of tricking the mind exist.

[Y]ou can use deliberate strategies to help you think about what other people know. A good one when writing is simply to force yourself to check every term to see if it is jargon–-something you’ve learnt the meaning of but not all your readers will know. Another strategy is to tell people what they can ignore, as well as what they need to know. This works well with directions (and results in instructions like “keep going until you see the red door. There’s a pink door, but that’s not it”). – Tom Stafford, Why Is It So Hard To Give Good Directions? (BBC Future)

While the application of this to annoying moments in daily life such as giving directions and helping your children are obvious, I was intrigued by the possibilities for the arts. In all creative pursuits the artist is giving physical existence to the structure in their mind. This can lead, especially noticeably in prose writing, to omitting crucial details because they seem to the creator to be sufficiently implied.

If we add a reviewing from ignorance stage to our creation, as technical writing already has, even attempt to make the work obsessively clear before editing the implication back in, then how much more approachable will our work be, and how much more will the deliberate ambiguities and surprises shine in contrast.

Do you have any amusing stories about not being able to explain basic tasks? Do you already devote effort to how something will seem to the audience? Do you lament the drive to save the audience the effort of analysing art?

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