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[a] sudden flash of insight derived from a profound empathetic experience.
—Bull Shannon, Night Court
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Grok is a term Robert Heinlein invented for his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In the novel, a Martian uses the word to describe understanding beyond sympathy or empathy, one that ultimately changes the lives of those who experience it. He uses a psychic experience in order to help humans grok, but it is understood that this can be achieved without science-fiction. This article is used to explain the term (which gets thrown around on RationalWiki quite a bit) to those who haven't read the book.

Beyond understanding[edit]

"They" say you shouldn't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes.[1] This sort of empathy will give you the opportunity to grok that man, provided you have an open mind and aren't resistant to challenges to your own philosophies or identity.

In the novel, the Martian uses his psychic powers to answer one character's criticisms about the Martian feeling amorous love for more than one person. The experience not only helps her understand why he can engage in those feelings, it shows her how and gives her the ability to do the same thing. She doesn't understand that kind of love—she groks it.

Popular media comparisons[edit]

Body-swapping stories (Freaky Friday, The Change-Up, All of Me), and to a lesser extent, life-swapping stories (The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places) all give their characters experiences that are initially frustrating but ultimately change their lives for the better. The understanding between the characters whose lives were uprooted is about as close to empathy as Hollywood can describe—arguably close to grokking.

The original stories of Gulliver's Travels and Never Cry Wolf end with the narrators expressing a disdain for humanity due to their observation and exposure to the lives of Houyhnhms and wolves, respectively. Similarly, the stories of Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and Avatar end with the main characters adopting and ultimately grokking the cultures that their own cultures and nations were originally fighting against, although the latter includes a physical transformation unlikely to occur in reality.

Perhaps the closest example to grokking is in Being John Malkovich. The various characters who enter the room that is John Malkovich's mind not only see life through his eyes but also experience his feelings. The love that Cameron Diaz's character feels for Malkovich's wife comes not from witnessing them in a sex act but instead experiencing that act.

How do I grok?[edit]

Basically, the idea or feeling you wish to grok needs to become a part of your personality and your life. A great example is learning a foreign language. It's one thing to take a class in school and learn to speak, read and understand Japanese. If you go to another country (say, Japan) and use the language in everyday conversation or to get around town, it's better than just understanding Japanese because you're using it actively and not just repeating what you hear or read. If you start writing (say, a journal or a blog, or letters to friends) in Japanese, you understand it even more (you can see we're slowly moving up the pyramid of Bloom's Taxonomy here).

When you start dreaming in Japanese, or it comes to a point where your use of the language actually changes the way you think or live (not unlike someone who is themselves Japanese or from Japan), at that point you can be said to be grokking Japanese.

This kinda sounds like...[edit]

Yes, I'm going there. Leaders of religions, personality cults, political entities and businesses will use techniques to indoctrinate their members or employees with the teachings and philosophies of their organization or product/service line, for better (personal improvement) or for worse (institutionalization).

Experiencing an epiphany from such indoctrination, religious or otherwise, is a form of grokking.

Notice that grokking doesn't take into account what one is learning to understand, just how they are understanding it.

Couldn't this be bad?[edit]

In the movies, being able to grok another (or grok love for another) leads to some interesting dilemmas with interpersonal relationships. In reality, it is possible for someone to become obsessed with a person or an idea to the point where it consumes their life. This really isn't grokking, as grokking is more about integrating an idea or feeling into your own life, rather than letting it take over.

Advertising campaigns and late-night infomercials try to get people to grok their products as much as the actors appear to—but this isn't really grokking, as they fail to provide the same epiphany that comes with understanding how other people actually live. In this case, it's more about getting people to purchase an item that will solve a problem, and that problem is often insignificant or imaginary.

In the end, once you've grokked something, your personality (if not your life) should be better for it, and some things involved with what you grok should become second nature.

See also[edit]


  1. Once you do, you can say whatever the hell you want to, because he's a mile away and barefoot.