Methods & System

Building blocks of true Knowledge: Atomic understanding

Learning is not knowing, it’s about understanding, not just superficial understanding which is little more than passive mental work. It’s an about deeper understanding, deeper to the core, and reflecting on it.

Deeper understanding is a process of deduction and reconstruction.

Deeper understanding (unlike superficial understanding) demands active mental effort, it’s a cognitive process of questioning your own understanding until you make sure you know things rather than you believing or assuming you know it.

Most of the time, we don’t question our understanding further when we reach a point where things make sense on what you reading/learning. We assume or believe instead of knowing as it is, trying to fill the gap by guessing the meaning of those chunks that we didn’t understand fully. We often stuck at this “Illusion of knowledge“, the sad part is, it’s hard to be aware of this illusion when you’re inside it and even if you’re aware of it, we neglect it, because thinking is hard.

Break down to its atomicity

Atomic understanding is a concept of breaking down the concepts or theory into its atomicity, and then understanding those ‘units’ first and then moving on to integrating, interconnecting those units to understand the whole concept. In a broad sense, you need to see it as ‘whole’ and then as ‘parts’ and then again as a ‘whole’.

‘Atomic’ in the form of a single irreducible unit or component in a larger system/concept. You can’t further deduce it. I refer to this as “Atomic Block“.

Almost all concepts or theories (basically anything you want to learn now) can be deduced into smaller parts or to their atomicity. Rarely, you find a basic concept that can’t be deduced further, it is called as “First Principle”. (I will talk about this in my next article in this series).

How to deduce to atomic block?

Simply by asking questions, follow-up questions, too many questions until you can’t make meaningful, relevant questions further out of the concept under consideration.

We rarely question analogies or obvious concepts. Obviously, our primary understanding is accepted without questions. But for deeper understanding, it is not good to accept things without deducing even if you feel you understood them better. Every question you get during deconstructing/deducing your concept can be answered with a help of a simple Google search, right?

We often heard this cliche from every expert asking you to be strong with your fundamentals. It’s not enough to understand primary fundamental concepts but to understand the concept’s fundamentals (in other words ‘atomic block’).

True knowledge is built with fundamental knowledge. Here in this context, make sure your ‘atomic block’ is based on reliable understanding which is true to its core.

‘Reflection’ by interconnecting your ‘atomic block’

Step in the sequence: Deconstruct ➡️ Understand ➡️ Reconstruct.

Reconstructing is may not be as simple as deconstructing. As I said in the beginning, this portion of the process requires your cognitive effort. People know ‘deconstructing’ a machine(concept) and learning from doing it so is “Reverse Engineering”. No, it is not. Learning from reverse engineering takes place only when you try to reconstruct what you dismantled in the previous step.

I pretty much recommend hand sketching, mind-mapping (with tools like Whimsical), or the promising old school method of visualizing for this reflective thinking process. Visualizing is equivalent to computer modeling (like CAD) inside your head.

If you can’t imagine it, you didn’t even understand it, if you can’t comprehend it, you didn’t understand it better.

Breaking concepts into basic tiny building blocks and building right up from the ground in your imagination is a visualization or reflective understanding.

eg: Gravity

What is gravity? (take a moment and try to comprehend the answer in your mind to know how you have been understanding this so far) Gravity is a force that attracts a body towards the center of the earth, or towards any other physical body having mass.

To deconstruct the above statement: Gravity is a force. Now we need to be knowing what force is? Next, a force that attracts a body towards the center of the earth or any physical body having mass. Now we need to know what ‘mass’ is. And then we know the line not only talks about the earth but about any physical body having mass. If you deduce it further, it talks about the force between two physical bodies having ‘mass’. Then you will know the force is attraction force, that attracts towards the center of the body. That’s why you call that center the center of gravity of the object. Likewise, you deduce it and make questions about it to deduce further.

Later, the reflective part comes in. (Newton’s analogy with apple) So an apple is a physical body, so does the earth. According to the concept learned, two body attract each other, apple and earth attract each other. As earth is quite a larger mass, as the apple is a tiny one, it moves towards the earth instead of other way around. Likewise, moon is kept in its place because of earth’s gravity. What if a bigger object (some other planet or a space rock) comes near earth. This kind of reflective thinking/imagination, visualisation will make your understanding better and wider and deeper. Those few left out questions in deconstructing will arise here and it will be answered, making the topic thoroughly, deeper, and wider.

How to take notes with atomic understanding?

Atomic block: In note-taking, the notes on this one, independent, solid piece of knowledge is Atomic block note or “Atomic note” or simply it’s an “Atomic block” in your notes. These ‘Atomic Blocks’ can be clearly showcased with the use of ‘indents’ in your notes. (Note-takers who using RoamResearch and Notion would understand what a note-block is and indenting it).

(In)Denting ‘blocks’ in your notes make it straight and clear.

At every indented line, I deduce the concept to simpler and smaller chunk, until it can’t be simplified further. The last rightmost indent is my atomic block. (If I had to tag or link to other concepts, I do at the last indent line. RoamResearch users can use this to properly filter and it has many other uses which I will explain in another post).

Regardless of the indent, each block is your ‘atomic note’ for your future use and reference. Once done rightly, you can re-use it, and to recite the concept, a simple layered glance should be enough for it.

eg:

Sample note taking example

In the above example, on the final indent, I quoted “Force”, assuming “Force” is already understood as another ‘Atomic block’ of knowledge (which I already understood). Likewise, you build your knowledge with ‘atomic blocks’ in notes and atomic understanding to build in your knowledge in mind.

That’s a brief on Atomic understanding. More practical ways (demo) will be given in future posts, consider subscribing to pick ideas from my work 🙂

In this series of The Knowledge WorkflowPrevious: << Note-taking workflow: To build and extract knowledge from digital notesNext: Beginning of original thinking: Reflective thinking >>

About the author

Sakthitharan Subramanian

Systems Thinker | Academic Researcher | Productivity Enthusiast | Loves Minimalism, Philosophy | Ph.D. in Computer Science |