The insights industry is all about transforming information into insights. Information is raw material. Insights come from distilling that information to its essence and then putting it in context by making connections to other knowledge.
As we journey from information to insights, we must navigate the maze of our minds. By better understanding how our minds work, we can realize when we’ve gone down a blind alley and course correct. In this article, we’ll make the first step along that journey by looking at how we learn.
When we are born, we come equipped with a variety of hardwired abilities. Even though our vision is poor, we pay special attention to faces, and we are quickly able to identify the faces of our mother and other important people. We are automatically attracted to the sound of speech over other sounds and pay closer attention to higher-pitched voices (hence, baby talk). When something brushes a baby’s cheek, they turn to it, and when something is put in their mouth, they suck. Then we start learning.
Bit by bit, we start making connections, layering one piece of information on top of the next one. When we put together that the special face and breast brushing against our face equals dinner, we really start rolling. When we realize that the thing that is poking us in the eye is our own hand, and that we can stop it from hitting ourselves, we’re picking up steam.
We learn by linking new information to what we already know. And that process never stops. We are continually making connections between what we have seen before and what we are seeing for the first time. These connections have important implications for how we come to an insight because it is these connections that are the only route to fresh thinking.
We cannot leap from point A to point C without first connecting to point B. This process of making connections provides both amazing opportunities and potential problems.
The roots of learning
This process of making connections is how all living creatures learn and navigate their lives. Humans have been the most successful at making connections, allowing us to make incredible advances in science and art. Both innovation and creativity spring from this ability to make new and unique connections. Formally, this process is referred to as apperception.
In psychology, apperception is “the process by which new experience is assimilated to and transformed by the residuum of past experience of an individual to form a new whole.” Pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James wrote in his 1899 book Talks to Teachers on Psychology, “In all the apperceptive operations of the mind, a certain general law makes itself felt—the law of economy. In admitting a new body of experience, we instinctively seek to disturb as little as possible our pre-existing stock of ideas.” This points to the strength and weaknesses of how we learn.
The strength is that we can expand our base of knowledge by seeing patterns and similarities and connecting the new information with the old. The weakness is that it is easy to draw false parallels and therefore draw incorrect conclusions.
“I think that you see plainly enough now that the process of apperception is what I called it a moment ago, a resultant of the association of ideas,” James wrote. “The product is a sort of fusion of the new with the old, in which it is often impossible to distinguish the share of the two factors. For example, when we listen to a person speaking or read a page of print, much of what we think we see or hear is supplied from our memory. We overlook misprints, imagining the right letters, though we see the wrong ones; and how little we actually hear, when we listen to speech, we realize when we go to a foreign theatre; for there what troubles us is not so much that we cannot understand what the actors say as that we cannot hear their words. The fact is that we hear quite as little under similar conditions at home, only our mind, being fuller of English verbal associations, supplies the requisite material for comprehension upon a much slighter auditory hint.”
In other words, we fill in the blanks based on what we know already. That way we don’t have to think so hard. That’s why when you go someplace you have never been before, it always seems to take much longer to get there than to get back. When we are going someplace new, we have to pay attention and check to make sure we are on the right track. We’re processing lots of information to ensure we don’t miss anything. On the way back we can go on autopilot because our mind will fill in the gaps.
Great pigs that carry men
This ability to fill in the blanks allows us to make rapid links, even in the face of missing information. But how well we make those connections influences how well we understand the new material. James continued, “We always try to name a new experience in some way which will assimilate it to what we already know. We bate anything absolutely new, anything without any name, and for which a new name must be forged. So we take the nearest name, even though it be inappropriate. A child will call snow, when he sees it for the first time, sugar or white butterflies. The sail of a boat he calls a curtain; an egg in its shell, seen for the first time, he calls a pretty potato; an orange, a ball; a folding corkscrew, a pair of bad scissors. Caspar Hauser called the first geese he saw horses, and the Polynesians called Captain Cook’s horses pigs. Mr. Rooper has written a little book on apperception, to which he gives the title of “A Pot of Green Feathers,” that being the name applied to a pot of ferns by a child who had never seen ferns before.”
Our understanding of something obviously ripens as we make additional connections. While it made sense to Polynesians seeing horses for the first time to call them “great pigs that carry men,” and goats “birds with great teeth in their heads,” they soon developed a more nuanced understanding of these animals.
But this ability to fill in the blanks also opens the door to learning through analogies. This not only allows us to make creative leaps, but it also enables us to make imprecise connections that permit us to grasp things that, at first, are difficult to understand.
About an acre
Can you picture how big an acre of land is? I can look it up and learn an acre is 43,560 square feet, but that doesn’t help me. I know that Toronto’s High Park, just two blocks from my house, is 400 acres. Having spent many hours walking the dog through its trails in the woods, across soccer pitches and through formal gardens, I know it is large, diverse and very beautiful. But I can’t mentally subdivide it by 400 and have that make any real tangible sense to me. I can’t quite get my head around it.
Richard Saul Wurman, perhaps best known as one of the founders of TED talks, wrote a book called Information Anxiety. I read it thirty years ago and in it he provided a description of how big an acre is. He used that description as an illustration of how we can make something understandable by connecting it to something we already know.
“An acre is basically the same size as a football field without the endzones,” he wrote. Now can you picture how big an acre is?
That parallel has stuck with me this past thirty years because it’s a brilliant example of how we learn by making connections, even if the connections are approximate. A football field is actually a little bigger than an acre, but that’s okay. It’s close enough that I can make a connection between the two and suddenly take something that I can know the quantitative measurements of, but can’t really get my head around, and transform it into something I can picture and relate to.
Making connections cuts both ways
The way we learn has some important implications for generating insights and communicating them. On the positive side, it can empower us to generate fresh insights by making new connections. That is at the heart of innovation and creativity.
On the negative side, it can lead us to miss or ignore information that does not readily fit with our prior knowledge. It is the fuel that fires the engines of bias—a problem that bedevils all types of analysis, insight generation and decision making.
One foot in front of the other
Learning by making linkages is the first step in the journey to insight. Our brains are the vehicles that takes us from input to insight. To make the journey we need to know how that vehicle works, what its quirks are and how we can correct for them, or at least recognize and grapple with them.
As we travel along, we need to recognize that what we know now may not be the complete picture or even a good representation of reality. In subsequent articles I’ll look at how we can miss the mark by making connections that “make sense” but are wrong. Then we’ll dig into how our brains are wired to seek out patterns and makes inferences, and how that can both help and hurt us. We’ll follow that up with some considerations of the major kinds of cognitive biases that can take us off track. Then we will look at what can be done to correct for those biases.
All along the way we will draw in learnings from history and the literature on cognitive psychology and behavioral economics. We’ll also examine how other sense-makers, such as intelligence analysts, physicians and police and prosecutors, grapple with the same challenges we face in the journey to insight.
On a related exciting note, I’m working on a follow-up to The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything. The upcoming book revolves around learnings from other professionals who also develop insights. The book will include interviews with detectives, spies, doctors, prosecutors, archeologists, and historians about how they develop and communicate their insights.
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