Interview with the Author: Dr. Troy Swanson on Knowledge as a Feeling

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

July 25, 2023

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Troy Swanson about his book Knowledge as a Feeling: How Neuroscience and Psychology Impact Human Information Behavior. The book is available now from Rowman & Littlefield. 

Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I am Library Department Chair at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, which is in the Chicago suburbs. My primary job is as an instruction librarian but I wear a few different hats within the library and on campus.

Over the past two decades, I have written several articles focused on information literacy, especially thinking about how we teach students to evaluate and understand information. In 2016, I co-edited, with Heather Jagman, the book Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information, which received the Ilene F. Rockman publication of the year award from the ACRL Instruction Section. 

I was a member of the ACRL task force that issued the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. 

Additionally, I am a semi-regular guest host on the Circulating Ideas podcast where I have interviewed neuroscientists, psychologists, and journalists on their perspectives on the information landscape. 

Briefly summarize Knowledge as a Feeling: How Neuroscience and Psychology Impact Human Information Behavior. 

This book is an examination of the current thinking in neuroscience and psychology in an attempt to consider how it may recontextualize librarianship, information, science, and education in general. 

The book’s core ideas center on the feeling of knowing which is a mental sensation—i.e., a feeling—that offers a metacognitive evaluation of what we know. The way we “know“ something is that we feel that we know it. Sometimes we have the feeling of knowing but we cannot quite recall the information itself. Sometimes we have the idea, but we do not have a strong feeling about whether or not it is accurate. Sometimes we absolutely feel that we are correct but we later find out that we are not. The feeling of knowing is a type of evaluative summary generated by the mind. When we know something, we feel it.  

The important thing for librarians and educators to recognize is that knowledge creation is not a simple process of getting “good” or “better” information, applying logic, and then discovering truth. We must recognize that the act of knowing occurs at the interface of our consciousness and our unconscious mental processing. Importantly, the outcome of this interface is a feeling. 

This has wide-ranging implications for our field. 

Why did you decide to write this book?

Well, the funny thing is that I actually tried not to write this book for many years. When Heather and I worked on Not Just Where to Click, I tried to find somebody who could write about psychology and neuroscience, because I knew that our profession needed to do better at incorporating recent findings. But we could not find anybody to write a chapter that covers these areas. As I read the scientific literature and looked in the information science literature, I recognized a significant gap between these two bodies of knowledge. In 2017, my friend Lori Townsend invited me to give a talk at the University of New Mexico Libraries related to some of these topics. I started some basic exploration there and essentially did not stop until six years later—resulting in Knowledge as a Feeling.

Neuroscience and psychology are not topics frequently taught in library science programs. Do you think adding coursework on these subjects would improve the work librarians do to meet information needs? If so, why?

Maybe. I want to be clear that I do not believe that librarians need to become neuroscientists or psychologists. Our focus must always be service-oriented, centered on the information and educational needs of the communities that we serve. We cannot lose sight of this.

With that said, I believe our profession should want our theory and practice to reflect the scientific realities that our colleagues in other disciplines are discovering. There is probably a great deal of room to debate and consider what level of direct neuroscience and psychology findings should be in our coursework. But there is no question that librarianship and information science must do better at understanding how our minds process that information.

We call ourselves information professionals and information experts, but our expertise seems to end as the information goes through our eyeballs or into our ears. 

What are two primary insights you hope readers takeaway?

First, that our minds are modular and that our consciousness pulls off a grand illusion by making us feel like a unified whole. When we talk about logic, reason, social interactions, excitement, or conditioning, to make just a few examples, we are talking about various modules within our minds that all interact with each other when we make decisions and when we come into contact with information. Different modules take the lead within different contexts. This helps to explain why we may make different decisions at different times and why different individuals can disagree even when they utilize the same information. 

Second, an important skill we can foster is a metacognitive reflection about our own beliefs and experiences. We cannot evaluate information if we cannot evaluate ourselves. When we view information sources, we cannot simply use a checklist to determine authority. We need to recognize how our own beliefs impact our understanding of topics and our interactions with sources. 

How do you see this book impacting the work of librarians?

I hope for a few things.

At the 40,000-foot level, I hope this book opens up discussions about how we can incorporate neuroscience, psychology, and related disciplines into what we do. There have been several people over the years who have moved in some of these directions, and I have tried to acknowledge their work. But I think we need to go further. I have not answered all the questions—or even identified all the questions. I also know there are things I have gotten wrong, but if nothing else, I hope this starts a discussion. I hope my arguments are convincing enough to encourage others to dive into these disciplines. 

At a theoretical level, I hope this helps us to be more precise when we are talking about components and functions of the mind. Our profession can be quite imprecise, and even sloppy, when we talk about how the mind works. For example, neuroscientists and psychologists do not often talk about information or knowledge. They talk more about memory and knowing. Librarians and educators often put the mind up into cognition and affect. Neuroscientists delineate between cognition, emotion, affect, mental sensations (feeling), consciousness, unconscious processing, and more. I hope that we can link our thinking and terminology about the mind to the science as much as possible. 

In terms of information literacy, I am hoping this opens up new domains for instruction. There seem to be many implications for how we teach students to evaluate information, how students understand research topics, how we can evaluate lists of search results, and, generally, how students interact with new information sources (individually and as they operate within the social domain). 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

There are a number of technological and social factors pressuring our profession. Political polarization, artificial intelligence, the erosion of trust in public institutions, the income inequality within the communities we serve, and the attacks on democracy are just a few examples. I definitely do not think that my book has clear solutions to all of these challenges, but if we are to evolve and remain vibrant as a profession, we must deeply understand knowledge creation in meaningful ways. I hope this book is one part of this larger conversation. 

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Dr. Lauren Hays is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. Take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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