“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns; things we do not know we don’t know.”
– former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld
I read these words of Donald Rumsfeld, and the words make me wonder: Why’d you leave out the unknown knowns, Don? The things that we do not know that we know?
That’s what this blog post is all about. Unknown knowns.
I have this friend, you see. He is completely and utterly blind. White cane, dark glasses. The whole bit. Can’t see shadows. Can’t even see bright lights. He got in a wreck back when he was a kid and that part of his brain that does the visual thing, well, it got all scrambled.
But here’s the thing: If I say, “Hey, friend! I am about to throw a ball at you. Catch it!” don’t you know that he catches it, oh, roughly seventy-five percent of the time. Or if he doesn’t manage to catch it, he at least slaps it away with his hand.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Katy! What’s gotten into you? Throwing balls at blind people?” And normally I would say you had a point, but please stick with me here for a moment.
You see (no pun intended), there are TWO parts of your brain that process visual information, but only one of them goes through your cerebral cortex – that part of the brain that got all scrambled in my friend. The other part – the other route – is a much older part of the brain. Primitive! It perceives raw movement. It warns the fly or the frog or my friend that something or someone is approaching, and fast. The fly or the frog or my friend won’t be able to tell WHAT is approaching it fast, but it will allow him to get the hell out of the way in time.
This is known as “blind sight,” and it is an unknown known. My friend’s brain sees something’s flying at him, but he doesn’t know that his brain sees it.
Our brains, you see… Well, our brains have been keeping secrets from us.
* * * * *
My wife left me back on August the twenty-third, one day after I turned twenty-seven. There was no explanation; she simply left. And I was all alone and I was sad, but I was not depressed, and life seemed to trudge onward.
Nobody called. Nobody stopped by to see me.
And I found myself unable to read, and everything I wrote came out stupid: all couches and tube socks and baby seals and herpes. I felt exhausted most all of the time, and I would lie in bed picking out shapes in the spackle on the ceiling. And I started getting headaches, and I would wake up suddenly in the night with a feeling that I had been at the cusp of some great revelation, but I’d never remember anything about it.
And still, nobody called. And still, nobody stopped by to see me.
Desperate for company, I finally went to the dentist. My dentist will always agree to see me. And my dentist sat me in his chair and he hooked me up to the gas. Nitrous oxide gas. Laughing gas.
While my dentist jackhammered away at my teeth, I stared up at a pretty blue pattern on his ceiling. Then the pattern started to move. And then the pattern became sort of a puzzle. Then the pieces of this puzzle started rearranging and locking themselves into place.
Over the smell of burning enamel, a single thought occurred to me, and that thought was this: My brain had been working away at a puzzle for months now, but it had not bothered to tell me. My brain had been working away, day and night, at the puzzle of why my wife had left me.
And my brain had figured it out.
Why my wife left me was an unknown known. It was something I did not know that I knew!
After my dentist got finished with chipping away what was left of my teeth, then this happened: I walked out into the hall. I took out my cell phone. I placed a call to Anthony, who is my brother.
He did not answer. I left a voice mail for Anthony. I said two words. I said, “I know.”
And Anthony, he texted me back right away. He said, “How did you figure it out?”
I texted him, “I do not know how I know.” This was the truth. I did not know how I knew, but I did.
Anthony texted me, “Sorry, Katy.”
What had happened was this: My brain figured out that my wife had left me for my twin brother, but my brain waited a few weeks before it told me. Even then, it required a half hour breathing nitrous oxide for me to trick the information out.
My brain solved a puzzle I did not even know was there.
Maybe it was simply trying to protect me. Who knows? Maybe I hold vast vats of pure unadulterated wisdom in my brain that I do not have ready access to! But either way, the cat was out of the bag, and things were not ever going to be the same.
My wife left me for my twin brother.
My wife left me for my twin brother, who – quite conveniently – she’d married in March 2011, thanks to my genius “Double Bigamy (All the Way)” idea.
This changed everything, and frankly, it probably would have been better off as an unknown unknown; something I did not know that I did not know.
But now that I do know… Now that I do…