Embodying and Understanding

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Some people seem to think that if we can merely understand someone we can empathize with them.

This is not true.

In Korean, we often say “이해는 되는데 납득은 안돼.” Literally translated, this means I can understand, but I cannot let the understanding in. Figurately translated, this means “I can understand, but I cannot empathize.”

To explore what this means, we need to talk about the difference between understanding and embodying.

Understanding something implies that we have a model, which we can use to articulate the underlying structures and relations of that thing.1

Embodying does not automatically connote understanding.

Take walking as an example. Most of us have never bothered to understand walking, but it’s something we have embodied nonetheless. Although, if you spent a few minutes right now, you could probably arrive at an understanding—regardless of how inaccurate, imprecise, or limited it may be.2  And once you do, you will be able to articulate your model in some way, be it using words, images, or physical demonstrations.

Understanding does not connote embodying, either.

Let’s say you spent a whole year reading a book that articulates a model of how snowboarding works. Even if you have become a master at articulating this model, when you actually get on a snowboard, chances are good that you’ll fall flat on your ass. That’s because you have yet to embody it.

Given this, one can say that even if you understand, if you are unable to augment it with an embodied experience you can have a difficult time empathizing or letting the understanding in [to your body].

Say you’re engaged in an empathic conversation with another person through words. Chances are good that you’ll start developing an understanding based solely on what you can directly perceive from them—their words, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc.

But an understanding of the other is not all you’ve got.

You also have embodied experiences from your own past. If you’re able to appropriately use these past experiences as references, you will be able to augment the understanding you are developing. In other words, by relating an experience you have embodied in the past with what the other is articulating, you can start to appreciate and resonate with the qualitative aspect of what the other is articulating. This can help you empathize, even if you do not understand.

The catch, however, is that you have to relate it to an experience that is qualitative similar enough instead of superficially similar enough. For example, if you try to empathize with someone’s experience of going to school you may fail to empathize simply by relating it to your own experience of going to school. That’s because while the experience may be superficially similar enough they are not necessarily qualitative similar enough. In other words, to empathize you may have to augment your understanding with an experience that has nothing to do with going to school, but nonetheless qualitative similar enough.

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Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

It’s tempting to define understanding as being intrinsically accurate and complete, but this is overly ambitious given that understandings often prove to be inaccurate/imprecise/limited only in hindsight. For example, geocentricity was a model proven to be inaccurate and Newton’s theory of gravity was proven to be accurate and precise only within a certain range of scale, and therefore limited. By allowing room for error or incompleteness, we can more precisely refer to these understandings as inaccurate/ imprecise/ or incomplete in hindsight instead of having to retroactively refer to them as not understandings.

3 For a related discussion surrounding various kinds of understandings, check out Dr. John Bigg’s research on the SOLO taxonomy.