The 5 Dimensions of Knowledge

dimensions of knowledge

Knowledge is something that we all possess in varying amounts on a wide range of subjects. For some reason, there is a tendency to view knowledge in a rather linear way. As if all knowledge should be considered in the same light.

I think this is a shortsighted approach that can prevent us from properly prioritizing how we learn. If we waste our time learning about things that don’t really matter, we won’t have time to take in knowledge that has real value in our life.

Filling the desire

Humans have an insatiable desire to learn. It’s a lifelong quest that begins at infancy and follows us to the grave. Learning makes life interesting, exhilarating, and even challenging. We were born to learn and we possess a seemingly limitless capacity and curiosity for knowledge.

The biggest limitation to learning does not stem from our ability to take in knowledge. It stems from having only a limited amount of time available for learning. Our lifespan is only so long, and it determines our window of opportunity for taking in knowledge.

All Knowledge is not created equal

Having a limited window of opportunity suggests that it would be appropriate to set some priorities. We could talk about priorities from the standpoint of which subjects are most important, but I think that is more of an individual choice.

Instead, let’s take a more dimensional approach. This is a concept that I’ve been working on for a few months. It has to do with the relevance of certain categories of knowledge as regards there actual value in our life. I have come up with five different types of knowledge that we are exposed to. I call them…

The 5 Dimensions of Knowledge.

To begin with, here’s a list of all five.

1) What we actually know.
2) What we think we know.
3) What we would like to know.
4) What we don’t need to know.
5) What we used to know.

Let’s work our way down the list so we can have a closer look at each one. As we do, I invite you to inventory your own knowledge base as a reference.

1) What we actually know.  Because this category is influenced by our perception, it is difficult, or impossible, to be completely objective here. With that in mind, let’s divide this one into 2 subcategories.

a.  Truths that are absolute for everyone. – This includes things like gravity and other natural forces that are basically undeniable. We all have knowledge of thousands of facts that fit into this category. They form a solid foundation for additional learning. The scientifically sound and universally accepted facts in this category are unshakable. For example, new research will never disprove gravity. It may increase our understanding of it, but gravity is here to stay.

b.  Things that are true for us right now. – These are truths that are subject to change. For example, it’s a fact that I am alive right now. That could change in the blink of an eye; I hope it doesn’t but it could. This subcategory requires periodic evaluation to stay up to date.

2) What we think we know.  This category reaches its peak around age eighteen, and then it begins to shrink. That’s because lack of real knowledge can create the illusion of knowledge. This happens when awareness of the vast unknown has not yet developed. Knowledge in this category can be backed by impressive research data and intelligent sounding speculation. Just remember, the speculation of many experts is still nothing more than an educated guess. It can go either way.

3) What we would like to know.  This is a very important category because it helps determine the direction of our ongoing education. We all have a mental list of things we want to learn more about. For me the list is huge. The bigger your list is, the greater the need for some organization and a systematic approach.

We can only learn so much during any given period of time. If you try to learn 10 topics at once, your rate of learning for each topic will be fairly slow. If you concentrate on just one subject at a time, your learning rate will increase dramatically.

By prioritizing the topics we want to learn more about, and focusing on only a few at a time, we will make faster progress. This will also allow us time to assimilate the new knowledge more completely.

4) What we don’t need to know.  This is a rapidly increasing category. Information overload gets in the way of learning because it spreads our attention so thin that we can’t focus enough to really learn anything. The human mind is not built for multitasking. It may seem like the way to accomplish more, but beyond walking and chewing gum at the same time, multitasking is a myth.

With learning, focus is the name of the game. Any attempt to divide our attention only compromises our ability to focus. By definition focus means to fix our attention on a single thing. To do that our mind must filter out anything that represents a distraction. Information overload and noise pollution are very distracting to the learning process.

5) What we used to know. We forget things, but much of it is just the way our mind filters and prioritizes information. Unused data keeps getting shuffled further back in our mental file cabinet. It’s never really gone, we just have a reduced degree of immediate access to it as time goes by.

This doesn’t mean that we are losing it, even though it may feel that way. Prioritizing is a built in program for keeping pertinent information close at hand and easily accessible. This process assures that we are always the most updated and upgraded version of ourselves. Don’t worry about what you used to know, that was then and this is now.

How to use this information

1) Don’t confuse what you actually know with what you think you know. They are two completely different categories. It’s OK to act on what you think you know as long as you recognize that it is speculation rather than fact.

2) Make a list of the things you want to learn according to personal importance. Use the time available for learning the things that matter most and that have the greatest impact on your life. If you spend your time learning trivia, that’s what your life will be full of.

3) Our brain is a master at prioritizing. It keeps important knowledge close at hand so we can access it readily. It also stores data that isn’t used very often in the basement. It’s not gone, but you may need to search for it awhile before you locate it. That is not senility.

Finally, always keep learning. Give your mind new territory to cover and new answers to discover. Learning keeps life fresh and exciting. If you want to make a meaningful contribution to the world around you, acquire accurate knowledge and insight. Then be willing to share it openly and freely with others so they can benefit from it.

How do you feel about continued learning?
What knowledge really matters to you?
The lines are open!

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  1. Steve June 16, 2009 Reply

    Hey Jonathan,

    My problem is that my brain is filled with information that I don’t need to know. There are just too many articles to read and too many ways to waste time. If I only I had a search engine for my brain. My other problem is I keep forgetting what I used to know due to lack of practice. As you pointed out, the key is to constantly learn and to reinforce what you already know. Excellent post.

    • Jonathan June 16, 2009 Reply

      Hey Steve, a search engine for the brain – I love that!

  2. Kikolani June 16, 2009 Reply

    I think we should all continue to learn at any age. Learning is like exercising the mind, and if you stop exercising any muscle, it gets weaker – and the mind is something we want to keep sharp and lively as long as possible!

    ~ Kristi

    • Jonathan June 16, 2009 Reply

      Hi Kristi, I totally agree, use it or lose it.

  3. Stephen June 16, 2009 Reply

    Jonathan, this may be my favorite post on your blog of all time. At least it’s my favorite of those posts of yours that have not yet reached “used to know” status :-) LOL!

    I’m not sure how to split 1b) and 2) apart though. I think of knowledge in a hierarchical and probabilistic way. For example I may be pretty sure of something because in a hierarchy of knowledge it makes so much sense out of a lot of other knowledge. It may not be correct but it has a high probability of being correct. Everything else that I think I know fits into that same kind of hierarchy and has a probability somewhere from very high to very low.

    I’m assuming what I am referring to here fits mostly into your 1b, but I really don’t know. What say you?

    • Jonathan June 16, 2009 Reply

      Hey Stephen, When probability gets involved we need to start looking at point # 2. Of course it’s all a judgment call, and it may be too close to say, but probability means some degree of speculation is involved. Remember though, it’s virtually impossible for us to be completely objective. So in reality, we all move the lines around to placate our beliefs. Which is OK because we are the ones creating our own reality.

  4. Frank J June 16, 2009 Reply


    Like always you did your homework. In fact, there are some points you make that I actually take advantage of and to many of those points I am now smarter after reading.

    Thank you!

    • Jonathan June 16, 2009 Reply

      Hey Frank, the older I get the more I appreciate having an excuse for not being able to quickly access information I haven’t used in a while (#5).

  5. Rocket Bunny June 16, 2009 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    I love to learn and continue to learn because I enjoy it. I love History but I am not limited that. Learning is something you do without even knowing it in daily life. I am open to everything.
    Great article !

    • Jonathan June 17, 2009 Reply

      I’m with you Bunny, I love to learn!

  6. Dragos Roua June 17, 2009 Reply

    Keep learning seems to be the most important point here. It lets you assess what you need to discard, it gives you hints and pointer for what you want to learn and it creates a favorable context for unexpected learning opportunities.

    I think I was in the “what I think I know” territory a lot :-)

    • Jonathan June 17, 2009 Reply

      Hey Dragos, thanks for joining in. You know, there’s a lot of value in that “what I think I know dimension.” This is where we develop ideas and concepts. We start with some degree of reasonable speculation and go from there. Used correctly, it can be the place from which great truth is discovered, and false truths are exposed.

  7. McLaughlin June 17, 2009 Reply

    There is a marketing thing similar to this, speaking of your target audience. They know of you and know they want/need your service. They don’t know about you and know they want/need your service. They know of you and don’t know they want/need your service. They know of you and don’t know they want/need your service.

    Interesting to me that knowledge has such a close relation to this marketing list. One question though, where is the section “things I’d like to forget”? :-)

    • Jonathan June 17, 2009 Reply

      Greetings McLaughlig, I wasn’t aware of this analogy in marketing, but it makes perfect sense. I appreciate you pointing it out. As for a section on “things I’d like to forget.” I hear you on that one. Steve (comment #1) suggested a search engine for the brain, let’s include a delete button as well.

  8. Steve Levinson June 17, 2009 Reply

    A clinical psychologist, I couldn’t agree more that focused attention is a crucial factor in learning. The problem is, along with its awesome capabilities, the human mind has some troublesome leftover primitive wiring that makes us far more distractible than we need to be now that we’re no longer living in caves and constantly facing danger. We’re programmed in a way that causes us to give our attention to the highest bidder – not to whatever it is that our intelligence tells us deserves our attention most. I’m convinced that achieving greater control over our own attention is a key not only to learning more efficiently, but to putting more of what we know into practice.

    • Jonathan June 17, 2009 Reply

      Hey Steve, thanks for the “give our attention to the highest bidder” insight. That’s an interesting thought and one that advertisers seem to be well aware of. Reminds me of the saying: the squeaky bearing gets the grease.

  9. Hicham June 18, 2009 Reply

    Jonathan this is insightful indeed. I think that what’s important after realizing those 5 dimensions is how to implement the accquired Knowledge because without implementing it became useless and time-wasting.

  10. Arswino June 19, 2009 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,

    I like the idea of prioritizing the topics we want to learn more about, and focusing on only a few at a time.
    Sometimes, we want to know all information. We just let all information flow into your mind and become overwhelmed. As the result, we will be hard to think clearly. Therefore we have to be more selective in what we let into our mind.
    Great post, Jonathan.

  11. Sandra Pawula February 17, 2013 Reply

    This is an incredibly important point, Jonathan: “If we waste our time learning about things that don’t really matter, we won’t have time to take in knowledge that has real value in our life.” #4 especially spoke to me as it’s so easy to get distracted with all the information coming our way these days.

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