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How can we know something that is totally unfamiliar to us?

by Tom Johnson on Feb 20, 2014
categories: technical-writing

I've been reading some science books lately and visiting a few museums. These experiences have led me to the following question: How can we know something that is totally unfamiliar to us, such that we've never experienced or conceptualized it in the least degree before? This question is more philosophical than practical, but it does play a part in our role as technical writers.

To consider the whole scenario of the unknown, think of something truly unfamiliar, like the physics of relativity, the principle of emergence, the genetic coding used in embryonic development, the definition and properties of light, thermodynamics of deep space, natural selection in the Cambrian period, microchips and your computer's motherboard, orchestrating the thousands airline flights at LAX, string theory, neuroscience of consciousness, quark mechanics, or some other mind-boggling phenomena.

How would you go about teaching a concept that is so unfamiliar to the user, or to yourself?

Pattern matching

The most common technique for teaching something unfamiliar is to find similarity to what we already know. Scientists say the brain engages in “pattern matching,” which means we try to extend a familiar framework to the unknown to better understand it.

For example, when people look up at the night sky, the great unknown, they tend to see patterns that resemble familiar objects – a big dipper resembling a ladle, or a constellation in the shape of a swan (Cygnus), or a ram's horns (Aries), or other familiar objects.

In Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan explains how people transpose familiar ideas onto the unknown almost unconsciously. They look in the moon and see a face (the man in the moon) or a rabbit. They do the same with the canals on Mars. Prior to the Mars rover, people interpreted the canals as aqueducts or tunnels – matching patterns with the cities they know, with what they can imagine. Sagan explains:

First observed in 1877, [the canals of Mars] were seemingly confirmed by a succession of dedicated professional astronomers peering through large telescopes all over the world. A network of single and double straight lines was reported, crisscrossing the Martian surface and with such uncanny geometrical regularity that they could only be of intelligent origin. Evocative conclusions were drawn about a parched and dying planet populated by an older and wiser technical civilization dedicated to conservation of water resources. Hundreds of canals were mapped and named. But, oddly, they avoided showing up on photographs. The human eye, it was suggested, could remember the brief instants of perfect atmospheric transparency, while the undiscriminating photographic plate averaged the few clear with the many blurry moments. Some astronomers saw the canals. Many did not. Perhaps certain observers were more skilled at seeing canals. Or perhaps the whole business was some kind of perceptual delusion. (The Demon-Haunted World, p.48-49)

Why was it so easy to move from an impression of geometrical lines to an intelligently organized city? Perhaps the observers were pattern-matching the unknown with their own ideas of cities. It didn't take much -- only the faint suggestion of lines -- for the mind to perceive the traces of a city.

Distortion through familiarity

The problem with comparing familiar experiences to the unknown is that our familiar framework distorts the reality of the thing. If we learn something new by pattern-matching it with something we already know, we reduce the likelihood that we're actually understanding the unknown for what it is. Instead, we're trying to make the unknown fit something we know, regardless of whether it actually fits.

Pattern-matching is probably necessary for survival (if you can't predict the future based on the past, you run into all kinds of trouble), but it gets in the way of true understanding. We can very easily mistake the unknown for something it is not. By using the experiences and ideas we are familiar with as a framework for interpretation, we likely will misperceive, misinterpret, and miss truly understanding the unknown.

Racism, stereotypes, and hasty generalizations are probably the most common example of pattern matching gone awry. But it creeps up subtly in other circumstances as well. For example, when my wife was in labor and experiencing a lot of pain, my empathetic instincts suggested that I say, “I know how you feel -- you can get through it!” After all, I've experienced some pain before, like when I twisted my ankle really badly on a basketball court, or when I had food poisoning and my stomach was twisting in sharp knots. But of course as a man I don't know what labor feels like, not in the least. As much as I might stretch my imagination for the most painful, wrenching experiences, I can't know this unknown, and my attempts to pattern-match only cheapen and distort the reality of what it's like to give birth.

Here's an example more related to technology. When people try to describe “Yammer,” they often do so by comparing it to something the user is probably familiar with. It's like Facebook but for the enterprise, they say. This analogy to something the user most likely knows can help the user understand. But Yammer is unlike Facebook in many ways. For example, you can upload and share document, everyone in the enterprise is automatically included, you can include hashtags, and more.

I'm not saying the analogy to Facebook isn't helpful, but only that once you start pattern-matching, the brain will bring all kinds of expectations. For those who dislike Facebook, they may sigh and say, oh, I don't need more social media, without realizing how truly revolutionary Yammer can be in decentralizing information in an organization that might favor controlled, sanitized messaging.

In sum, pattern matching can pose problems as we try to understand the unknown. If we force the patterns in our mind to fit something that isn't warranted or true, we end up distorting the unknown. Still, pattern matching is an essential strategy our mind uses to map the unknown.


In Michio Kaku's Einstein's Cosmos, Kaku says that pictures, or images in his mind, helped Einstein formulate many of his theories, and his failure to find the unifying theory was in part because he couldn't visualize the solution. Kaku writes,

It was precisely his ability to isolate the key principles behind any phenomena and zero in on the essential picture that put Einstein on the brink of mounting a scientific revolution. Unlike lesser scientists who often got lost in the mathematics, Einstein thought in terms of simple physical pictures – speeding trains, falling elevators, rockets, and moving clocks. These pictures would unerringly guide him through the greatest ideas of the 20th century. He wrote, “All physical theories, their mathematical expression theories notwithstanding, ought to lend themselves to so simple a description that even a child can understand."

Even as Einstein moved into completely new territory, moving past Newton's laws and equations, he still brought with him familiar images to try to explain it. The most common one is of Einstein imagining himself racing a beam of light and wondering what he would see.

Steve Pavlina, an expert on the mind, explains that we take sensory input and transform it into an internal representation:

Suppose I tell you I just moved into a new house, and I have a problem. The lighting in my new home office is too dim. What can I do to fix this? … As you read the text description of my problem, your mind took the raw sensory input arriving through your eyes and transformed it into an internal representation, one that exists only in your imagination. Since this was a visual problem, perhaps you even visualized what my office might look like, or maybe you imagined a room with dim lighting. Even if you didn't visualize anything, you still had to “load” the problem into your mental RAM. Take note that your mental representation of the problem is not the same thing as the actual physical reality it represents. The problem as you know it is nothing but an imaginary construct in your mind. (How your mind really works)

Again, our mind creates an internal representation of an idea or description. It converts it into a visual picture. We immediately conjure up our own experiences with offices and dim lighting to try to understand what his office and its dim light must be like.

In The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, Dan Roam argues that drawing pictures, or thinking visually, does much more than simply help illustrate ideas to aid understanding. Drawing pictures is one way we work through problems ourselves. When we're forced to draw it out, the idea no longer remains in the abstract. We make it real, specific, and our visual processing power starts analyzing the problem in ways other parts of the brain might not.

Roam explains:

One of the reasons that pictures are such a great way to solve problems is that many problems are hard to see clearly, and a picture can help us see aspects of the problem that might otherwise be invisible. Visual thinking helps by giving us a way to see problems not as an endless variety of things that go wrong, but as a small set of interconnected visual challenges, each one of which can be pictured more clearly on its own.

I have a whiteboard near my desk at work. Without fail, whenever two people start talking about a complicated idea, someone goes over to the whiteboard and starts drawing little shapes to communicate the idea. Often the person at the whiteboard is drawing the process to better understand it for him or herself as much as for the other. Visual thinking helps us get a better grasp on the unknown. The shapes and symbols help us understand a complex process that has too many parts and variables for our brain's working memory to hold at one time.


Although visuals certainly play a strong role in helping us make sense of unfamiliar things, experience is also a key factor. When you experience something directly, you begin to understand it in more intimate ways than merely reading about it.

For example, to someone who has never ridden a bicycle, you might describe what it's like to ride one -- the sense of balance, coasting, g-force on turns, the wind blowing through your hair. You might compare it to a flying or sailing or skateboarding, but until the person has experienced it for him or herself, the person will be in a state of unknown.

As another example, I was recently at the Exploratorium in downtown San Francisco. This museum is one of the biggest hands-on science galleries in the area. One of the most interesting exhibits involves a whole array of human perception phenomena that you experience first hand, my favorite being one called the "disappearer." It's basically a circular spinning wood disc with stickers on it.


You spin the wood disc while staring at the green sticker. When you do, there are brief moments where all the other stickers disappear. Here's the exhibit's explanation as to why:

This surprising phenomenon, called motion-induced blindness, can cause highly visible objects to seemingly disappear when their background moves. Scientists are researching the cause because it's not yet completely understood. Discovering what changes in our brains when objects appear and disappear might help us understand consciousness.

If you were to simply read about the disappearing phenomenon, you wouldn't truly sense how mind-blowing it is when everything around you disappears and then suddenly reappears, and then disappears again. Connecting this to consciousness is even more amazing. PIctures alone cannot substitute for direct experience as a means of understanding the unknown.

This is why, in technical communication, tutorials are so critical for helping users understand the application. Readers can study endless articles about a topic, but until they experience it, they don't fully transition into awareness.

I personally align myself with the try-it-to-understand it camp. Often in any problem solving situation, before I fully think through something, I'll briefly try it out, because I know one can only go so far in thought without experience. For example, you can read about how to select elements on a page using JavaScript, but until you actually do it yourself, you don't grasp the idea in the same way.

What I like most about experience is that it doesn't rely on something that is already familiar to the user. The user doesn't need to discard any previous ideas about X. When the user experiences X directly for him or herself, the user's understanding is not as biased as one who merely pattern-matches the ideas with previous ideas. Of course, our experiences are filtered through our perceptions as well, but not to the same degree.

Becoming numb to the unknown

So far I've argued that there are several key ways that we can understand the unknown:

  • Pattern matching
  • Pictures
  • Experience

There's another dimension to the unknown. When we first encounter the unknown, we are full of awe and wonder for it. It engages our minds and fills us with curiosity and questions. However, if our minds cannot find a way to understand it, we ignore it and accept it as common and familiar. This is regrettable.

For example, in our daily lives, we become numb to many unknowns. I'm typing on a computer whose inner workings, with silicon chips storing electrical signals composed of binary numbers, blows my mind. I could not make sense of most of the things around me. The smooth glass windows, the glowing orbs we call lights, the intricate engine of the Caltrain and its firing pistons or electrical power (I don't even know what drives it) – are all beyond my comprehension. Put me by myself in the wilderness, and I can reproduce none of this, not even rope.

And yet, despite the unfamiliarity with all of this, despite its unknown, I have found a way to cope with it so that the unknown seems familiar. I don't look at a light bulb with the fascination that someone transported 500 years from the past might see it. When I open the hood of my car, my impression is not one of "Holy miracles! This is amazing!" but rather, "What might be wrong here? Any oil leaks, cracked hoses?"

Through children can we really regain our wonder and fascination with the unknown. A child is full of curiosity and amazement for the simplest of things. For example, last week my 9-year-old asked, seemingly out of the blue, “Where do nuts come from?” I paused to realize (while chewing a mouthful of cashews) that I don't know. I just eat them. They seem to come  ... from the grocery store.

In time, whether we understand the unknown or not, the newness fades and our mind either accepts it or stops wondering it about it. Rather than seeing a blinking LED light in the dark and thinking, "How in the world does it do that?" I instead read the words briefly and then keep on about my tasks.

It might be awesome to be transported 500 years into the future, but after a month or so, we would probably grow so accustomed to teleporting from one place to another, genetically constructing our food on the fly, mutating our own genes to cure illnesses, etc., that we wouldn't think twice about it.

Of course, we wouldn't understand how any of it works. No one would have the full picture. Instead we would each be so specialized in our knowledge, like the developer in an IT shop who only knows one table in a database and nothing else, including how any of the products actually works, that all knowledge would be local and useless on its own. (And yet, isn't amazing how all of this local knowledge comes together in an orchestra of intelligent interplay -- that's "emergence.")

Avoiding a state of desensitivity or numbness to the unknown is essential to being a good technical communicator. If everything looks familiar, it makes your job as a technical writer so much more difficult. It would be helpful to keep detailed notes while the application or service is unknown to you, jotting down what's odd, strange, mysterious, or perplexing. 

Realize that this state of unfamiliarity with the unknown is a mere transitory state of mind. No matter how unknown or mysterious something is, in time the unknown fades into a sense of familiarity, even if the familiarity is false. Once something becomes familiar, it can be difficult to write for the audience that encounters it for the first time. When this happens, the unknowns transition into "unknown unknowns."

It is the worst of all possible scenarios when the unknowns exist in our blind spots. When this happens, we are unaware of their existence at all. We look over our documentation and may think it represents a complete set of information, that it details all the tasks users need to perform to achieve their goals.

Only when we start to receive reports from Support about issues and questions, when we see forum threads from confused users, or receive other feedback that exposes the gaps do we begin to see the gaps that we didn't realize existed in the information. Our awareness of the existing unknowns becomes apparent. Through the Other, we begin to see that they are many unknown unknowns in our perception of the world.


The technical writer is constantly shuffling people from a domain they don't know to a domain of familiarity. The technical writer must first make this journey his or herself, and on an even more extensive scale, since the technical writer usually isn't within the same discipline or industry as the users are.

Several techniques are helpful in making this transition from the known to the unknown: pattern-matching, pictures, and experience. If we don't understand the unknown, after some time we become numb to it, accepting it as familiar. This desensitized state makes us poor communicators, since what we document then has many holes and gaps that we fail to see. Only through our experience of others, with feedback from Support groups, forum threads, and other outside input can we identify the unknown unknowns and create more complete information.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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