Thursday, December 25, 2008

Three Elements of Learning about the World

How do we learn? Or more ambitiously, how do we create a consistent view of the world? I am not talking about a religious view of the world, but rather a scientific "theory" of world. I believe there are at least three important mechanisms that help you build a consistent picture: 1) mental pictures, 2) paradoxes and 3) metaphors.

Of the three above the first one is undoubtedly the most important one. When you listen to, or read about some topic of interest you never remember the literal words. Rather, you compress the text into a mental picture that summarizes its content (at least that's how it seems to works for me.) I have read about famous scientists like Einstein, Poincare, Feynman etc. who build very elaborate mental pictures (see e.g. "the psychology of invention in the mathematical field by Jacques Hamadard.) The picture must represent an abstraction; in some sense the "essence" of what is being told. When one reads about new things either new mental pictures are build or old ones updated. In fact, I believe it is this collection of mental pictures with their interdependencies that defines ones world view. One tends to interpret new information in light of this existing framework. As an academic researcher I attend a rather large number of "talks", 90% of which are quickly classified as "abstract idea X with bell and whistle Y and Z". So now and then, I hear about an entirely new idea which does not resonate with anything else in my mental knowledge-base or is even in direct conflict with existing information nuggets. This makes my heart pound faster and forces me to pay close attention. In fact, a frustrating, somewhat stressful state of mind overtakes me that only subsides when a new picture is build or when the dissonance is resolved.

This brings me to the second mechanism: paradoxes. Sometimes we learn about things that are not consistent with what we know. The paradox that results is a very powerful singularity for learning. One should never step over these paradoxes as may be most convenient, but embrace them in order to update one's internal mental representation. Paradoxes almost always point to beliefs that are wrong and are in great need to be updated. Do not rest until you find out the cause of your paradox. It would be a missed opportunity.

Finally: metaphors. The real world is often so complex that creating mental pictures are a real struggle. It is of great help to first describe the problem in terms of elements that we are familair to us in our everyday lives. Metaphors are almost always simplifications and relying on them too literally will quickly lead to paradoxes. So, one ought to proceed with caution and refine one's mental pictures as one gains understanding. Nevertheless, metaphors a great way to make initial progress.

In this blog I will be (hopefully) describing a good number of interesting or surprising scientific ideas that may cause your mental picture of the world to slightly shift or even be somewhat upset. Keep and open mind, as will I with respect to your comments.

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