An interesting article I came across brings up an interesting issue: how do we do complex thinking? Are some people just better at it? The short answer appears to be ‘no’. Instead, a couple of tools play a role, and I think it’s an interesting excursion.
The article says that our brains are limited in thinking about complex situations. Yet, experts can do this. How? The article cites metaphors as the key, grounding our thinking in models that we’ve developed from our experiences. They draw upon George Lakoff’s work on metaphor (a core aspect of my grad school experience) to explain how our understanding advances. At core, there’s a fundamental requirement that our knowledge builds upon previous knowledge, which ultimately is grounded in our physical activities.
My PhD thesis topic was thinking with analogy, which shares much with this model. The point being that we use familiar frameworks to make inferences in new areas. We map the familiar to the points in the new that match, and then we extrapolate from the familiar to explain things in the new. And using familiar models as explanatory frameworks are essentially the same process as metaphors. Metaphors tend to be more literal, with a shared point, while analogies go further, and share structure. The latter is, I’ll suggest, more useful.
Note that the frameworks are built of conceptually-related causal relationships, e.g. models. Thus, when we want to communicate models, we can detail them, but using metaphors or analogies are short-cuts. When we want someone to be able to understand, particularly to be able to use the reference as a tool to support doing, we can use them to facilitate comprehension. We want to leverage, as much as possible, pre-existing knowledge. And people aren’t necessarily great at coming up with analogies (research shows), but they’re good at using them.
Another short-cut that the article cites is diagrams. Here, we’re making visible the relationships, supporting the understanding. Equations can get specific, but conceptual understanding is facilitated by seeing the connections.
The important outcome is that we all have our cognitive limitations to overcome, but we’ve also developed powerful tools to support these limitations. To the extent we understand how these tools support learning, we can use them to help achieve the outcomes we need. We can do complex thinking, with the right tools. Are you facilitating success by leveraging these tools?