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The spiral of knowledge

One of the recurrent ideas within the model of the Information Society is the following: as members of complex societies, our well-being depends on potentially our ability to transform information into knowledge. But, how do you convert information into knowledge? In this post, I’m going to comment on an interesting model, proposed by the psychologist Juan Ignacio Pozo Municio, in his work Acquisition of knowledge (2006).

The organisms exhibit a series of patterns of behaviors that are common and recurrent to a certain type of stimuli: the information is interpreted and filtered in ways highly selective and features. From psychology, evolutionist, these guidelines are interpreted as the reflection of the evolutionary heritage of these bodies: it would be a reflection of programs, instincts, fixed in their evolutionary line, as a response to pressure adaptive in the environments in which they have developed.

Such programs or instincts get the name of implied representations. Are “implied” because, in principle, are not accessible to the conscious; and they are “representations” because they are “in the place of another thing”, that is: they reflect the regularities that present niches environmental agencies (for an excellent introduction to the subject of the mental representation, it can be seen the work of Tim Crane-mind mechanics).

The implied representations are three traits that reflect their evolutionary origin:

  • Are embodied, in the sense that they are part of the biology of the organism.
  • Are domain-specific, since they give response to a particular type of ecological problems.
  • Are located, because their expression depends on the contingencies that arise in the environment.

I commented that, in principle, these representations are not accessible to consciousness, this being a fact which gives them their status of “implied”. If this is the case for the vast majority of organisms, the human being is characterized by the ability to make explicit the implied representations (“propositional attitudes”), making them as well in the same object of representation. This ability would be the result of the emergence, relatively late in our evolutionary line, areas of the brain associated with conceptual thinking (for example, the prefrontal cortex). Two processes are required for this explication of representations:

  • The suppression or inhibition of the environmental demands, to which the implied representations are activated.
  • The suspension of some components of the implied representations, once these have been activated as a response to the environment.

The ability to make explicit the implied representations, the product of our biological inheritance, we open the door to the ability to explain other implied representations that this time they are by being the product not of biological inheritance, but rather of processes of learning prerequisites.

The explication of the implied representations allows for the acquisition of knowledge, by allowing us to redescribir the implied representations. In other words: the explanation allows us to examine consciously the mechanisms implicit that we are gifted, or that we have acquired thanks to the learning, a test that provides the mental representations more flexibility and independence with regard to the environment.

But for this explication is carried out, are not only necessary cognitive processes for individuals – are also involved cultural systems of representation. And is that the human species develops within a process of cultural accumulation, called by the psychologist Michael Tomasello “impact ratchet”: the knowledge of one generation build on those of the past generation, producing a multiplier effect. Therefore, it is essential for the individual control of these cultural systems of representation for the acquisition and creation of new knowledge. In the words of a Well:

[…] the acquisition of knowledge of culturally accumulated will require the mastery of new systems-explicit representation, which constitutes a good part of that culture and that in fact formatted the culture, and with it, the mind itself. The internalization of these new systems of explicit representation (or knowledge) can make possible a restructuring of one’s own mind, through the acquisition not only of new knowledge but also new processes cognitive that generate new ways of representing the world; and, with them, new worlds of mental from which to reconstruct one’s own mind at the same time we rebuilt the culture. (p. 38)

This gradual process of explication of representations, powered by the effect ratchet, allows individuals to participate in activities epistemic, that is, in aqctividades that promote the acquisition of knowledge and the study of the conditions that allow the acquisition.

Well called this model the “helix of knowledge”. Maybe a name more apt would have been the “spiral” of knowledge. But, regardless of the exact name, the idea of Well it is clear:

[The process of acquisition of knowledge] is not linear, nor unidirectional, but rather has a recursive nature, so that if the implied representations go a long way of explication and reconstruction to produce those cultural systems of knowledge, the acquisition of knowledge, in turn, permits the “implicitness”, so to speak, of some of those representations explicitly generated and even acquired, that become so in new models or principles from which it could generate implied representations to the prediction and control of new events. [The scheme], rather than the spiral of knowledge should represent a pattern, in which each new turn there is the return to the box zero to re-start the game, but the construction of a new level that integrate and reconstruct prior representations, ways that are still largely unknown, in place of remove them or replace them by new (p. 199)

Apart from its theoretical value, models such as the one we offers Well have the virtue of allowing us to understand what factors are related to the acquisition of knowledge, and what is its specific weight in this process. This understanding can allow us to create, for example, educational systems that conform to our particular way of knowing. Above I made reference to the importance of management on the part of the individuals of the systems of representation, cultural, whose maximum exponent is now Online: well-known is the need to provide individuals with the correct information literacy, which will allow them to take full advantage of this tool. But the helix of knowledge also allows us to capture the importance of the individual processes of thought (such as the suspension of representations, or the ability of specifying the same): a good reason, then, to encourage the acquisition of skills in metacognition.

Finally, some questions for you: what do you think the model of acquisition of knowledge Well?; do you think that gives an account of the general way that we humans acquire knowledge?; do you know any other model?


Pozo Municio, Juan Ignacio. Acquisition of knowledge: when the flesh is made word. Madrid: Morata, 2006.

Credits: Image of David Leggett