Visuality

The Practice & Art of Thinking


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Problem Solving – Learning and Sense Making

Explaining how something works is important, not only for the sake of knowledge itself, but because explanations can lead to solutions and improvements of our understanding of how something works or behaves.  You cannot fix something if you do not understand what has gone wrong.  You can’t prevent cancer cells from growing if you do not know how and why they started to multiply in the first place.  To interfere in the process, you must understand the process in all its enormous complexity. You need to start somewhere and a theory is the beginning.

This post is a hybrid; it uses observations and years of teaching and solving problems as the source to attempt to explain problem solving.

A large component of problem solving is learning. When we solve problems of relative complexity, we have to go through a stage of learning. I will explore this within the context of problem solving in a future post. For now, let us accept that a good chunk of what we do, when we solve problems, involves learning. The link between learning and sense making is also made.

Learning is a natural process that originates from us and enables us to interact with the environment. Learning is something we ‘do’ – we do not acquire ‘learning’. Like breathing, learning is a normal function of living. The activity of learning originates from our desire or need to make sense of our experiences; to manage the unknown and uncertain aspects of life; and to take action in the best possible way to ensure our survival and security.

Humans are constantly making meaning. As William Perry said: we are wired to organise meaning. We make sense of our experiences and give them meaning.

We learn to make sense of the chaos and confusion of the raw uninterpreted ‘data’ surrounding us and we learn to develop ways (methods, heuristics etc.) to best respond to and interact with the environment (external and internal). We also learn to define who we are and our personal view of the world. This filters and conditions how we interact with the ‘world’ and how we choose to ‘see’ and make sense of it.

We do this thing called learning instinctively. Current research proposes that our brain is intensely aggressive and is designed to learn throughout life – learning is an inbuilt survival strategy of our species. We create meaningful patterns from the environment that we then use as constructs that make sense to enable our survival.

unknown image source

unknown image source

Sense making (as explained by Karl Weick) refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sense making involves coming up with a plausible understanding of our perceived reality of the ever-changing world around us. It is a mapping process that attempts to give structure to the unknown.

This process enables us to “to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict”. It is a cyclical process that we go through, as we obtain more information. We refine our understanding through the patterns and associated meaning we have created and which we constantly test, verify and refine. Eventually, the complex unknown situation becomes ‘tamed’ and we reach a higher level of understanding at this point. We have learned and created new knowledge that we can call on to solve our problems. Learning from a constructivist point of view is essentially a sense making process.

From what we have seen, there are three conditions required for learning:

  • Enough raw data or experiences must be available with enough repetition and variations on themes to allow for the differences in patterns to emerge;
  • Enough time for the patterns to emerge naturally; and
  • Sufficient, prior meaningful perspectives to be able to handle new experiences productively. If these do not exist, then a longer learning process is required or this can be acquired from other people we trust (we do this with caution).

Learning is dialectical. It is a process that involves interaction through discussion and reasoning by dialogue, whether carried out internally with oneself or eternally with others. This dialectical process explores alternative viewpoints in order to develop an integrated point of view, resulting from the best aspects of all the alternatives we have been exposed to up to that point. The process goes on as new alternatives emerge and it is interactive because we generate meaning by exchanging information with the environment and integrate the meaning into a constructed whole. We construct our knowledge.

unknown image source

unknown image source

There are many aspects that affect our learning, such as past experiences (these can act as a barrier or can enhance our learning). We also have preferred learning styles (a fascinating topic on its own, which I will try and explore in a future post); cognitive styles (a term referred to more by psychologists); preferred learning strategies (visual, auditory and Kinesthetic) and our mental models, to name a few.

Learning is central to problem solving. Our ability to solve problems is affected by some of the aspects listed below:

  • Independent learners – the degree to which we are able to communicate and learn from the meaning created by others – we create meaning for ourselves without reference to others. Some people need to learn things for themselves, whilst others are quite happy to develop a shared meaning through interaction with others;
  • Ability to communicate – learning is dialectical –our ability and how rich our vocabulary is and other non-verbal expressions such as drawing gestures etc. Our ability to understand what needs to be stated and how best to communicate that.
  • Mental flexibility – how prepared we are to adjust our own learning and theories of the world around us. Some people can be quite stubborn (or mentally lazy) and are not flexible or open to adjust their opinion about their worldview. Good problem solvers are highly flexible but critical and keen to reassess their mental models. They are agile and curious. They know that the world is in constant change and, the best strategy to survive, is to make sure they adjust their knowledge to meet the new changes. Their mental models are constantly being renewed and tested against new data and information;
  • Ability to actively re-examine personal constructed theories – we place our ‘self’ at the centre of our reality. The meanings we assign to reality, together with our constructed theories about life and reality, enables us to operate in the environment – without these we are lost and paralyzed. However, at the same time, a good learner and problem solver is very mindful of the fact that these maps of reality are only temporary and approximate reality. The good problem solver will not objectify these maps but, instead, will re-evaluate them eagerly when presented with new information and patterns that emerge and will adjust reality to match the new meanings.
  • Critical thinking – the rigour in critical thinking allows us to evaluate the data, make sense of it and assess its usefulness within the context of the problem to be solved.

The above aspects are important for us to be aware of when we solve problems, especially if we want to be good at solving problems. The objective of this post was to provide background and I will be referring to some aspects covered in future posts. It was also important to make the link to sense making, as I often use the term and will be using it frequently, especially as I start to elaborate on a problem solving method we have been developing.


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Brain Music by Masaki Batoh

Imagine creating music by simply using your brain. That is exactly what Masaki Batoh (formerly the frontman for the experimental rock group ‘Ghost’ formed in Tokyo in 1984) has done.

By using a science fiction-looking contraption strapped to his head, Masaki is able to generate eerie theremin-like sounds (see Youtube video to see what a Theremin is).

The musical instrument, referred to by Masaki as a BPM or brain pulse machine, consists of headgear and a motherboard. Brain waves are picked up from the parietal and frontal lobes and then sent by radio waves to the motherboard, which then converts the radio waves into a wave pulse that is outputted as sound.

Masaki Batoh - Brain Pulse Music Machine

Masaki Batoh – Brain Pulse Music Machine

The goggles that are part of the BPM have indicator lamps synchronized with the motherboard, allowing the musician to see her/his brain’s musical output. According to Masaki Batoh, it requires quite a bit of practice to learn how to control one’s mind in a way that produces a pleasing sound.

The music might not be to everyone’s liking but it remains fascinating and I think it is the beginning of many new technologies.


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WE ARE VERY GOOD AT THINKING IN PATTERNS

Thinking in patterns comes naturally to us.

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This is how we make sense of things – we look for the underlying patterns.

Consider this excerpt taken from Robert Burton’s book ‘The feeling of Knowing’.

Read the text at normal speed and do so only once at first.

textYou are probably a bit confused. Does it make sense? You might even be feeling annoyed.

Now, you can read it as many times as you like. Has anything changed?

I can assure you that the solution is in a single word not found in the text but what the text describes.

You are looking for a picture or a pattern that will make all the pieces fit. In fact, that is what we are always doing. We are looking for meaning in the things we do and the patterns in the world around us.

Our aptitude for patterns is remarkable. I will post the solution in next week’s post – you will see how everything just falls into place.


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A Retrospective of Visual Thinking

I thought I would do a retrospective of some ideas on visualization that I have explored during 2013.

Because I thought that people will be more interested in having a good time and catching up with family and friends over the Christmas holiday period, I am posting this in January. I am still in Bhutan by the time this post appears and, when I get back to New Zealand, I am looking forward to sharing some of the different insights gained during my trip.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Vision is one of those things that humans do very well and naturally.
  • The human brain has a very large portion dedicated to vision and visualization – this must say something!
  • We are awake more than asleep. This means that we are ‘doing ‘vision’ the majority of the time in our lives.
  • Through evolution, we are designed to ‘do vision’.  Again, this must say something very obvious about the importance of visualization.
  • Visualization is more than passive seeing.

My question is: does this mean that visualization is a massively important component in the way we make decisions and make sense of the world? Yet, we have not really defined this capacity and fully understood it. Is it too difficult or have we considered it to be one of those nice but not serious topics? I think this is about to change, especially as we are making a social shift towards recognizing the importance of design, innovation and creativity as a powerful component to the future survival of our civilization. The dominant ‘left brain’ (I have used this mostly as a metaphor) is not able to suppress and dominate the centre stage of our thinking anymore. Balanced critical thinking includes creativity.

Creativity is not about rearranging the furniture or choosing the wall colour to match the curtains. It is hard, yet everyone has this capacity in varying degrees and it must be cultivated seriously.

We live in a visual jungle. How do we articulate this skill so that we can use it mindfully rather than simply doing it? A sprinter runs, so do the majority of humans, but not all humans run like a trained athlete – can we, in a similar way, harness and understand our visual skills so that we become fantastic at thinking and, as a consequence, leap into another realm of awareness and understanding?

Visualization is a new language of cognition. With this skill we are able to zero in on the emergent factors, variables and otherwise hidden patterns in front of us and, in so doing, unlock new knowledge.

We need a high Visual IQ (V.I.Q) to deal with nuances and subtleties in the noise of life. As a society, we have progressively been increasing our I.Q in general – this means we are getting smarter as a species. But we need to define our Visual I.Q so that we can survive in the dense, visual jungle, make sense of it and not be afraid of it.

Visualization is a form of knowledge compression, as expressed by David McClandless. This allows us to identify not only the gestalt but make and design new knowledge. Knowledge has become a construct that gets reconstructed within new contexts by individual observers. Individuals are now the curators of knowledge and visualization has become the means to creatively explore and innovate our new futures.

I think we should celebrate this ability and use it to its full potential to enable us to unlock the creative spirit dormant in all humans. Everyone needs to be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. We need to change out thinking from a mindset that can only tolerate the logic of  2 + 2 = 4 to one where we can see the message captured in 2 + 2 = 5.

Tom Fletcher by mywonde - modified by Rui

Tom Fletcher by mywonde – modified by Rui


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A Visual Essay

In this video, Paul Jenkins tells the story of a photograph. There is great skill in deconstructing meaning and putting the story together that is captured in the metaphors in the photograph.

The video is about 14 minutes long.


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The Grammar of Visual Thinking

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way

—things I had no words for.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

This quote by O’Keeffe, the artist, succinctly highlights that visual thought transcends language and gives voice to a dimension of sense making that emerges, creating rich and dynamic meaning that is unique and not confined by language. The observer in turn creates new meaning – meaning is in flux not static. This dynamic of meaning making is creative and open to possibilities. For instance, if you want to be innovative, visual thinking has endless possibilities – in contrast, written language can be finite and often holds a tightly bounded meaning.

I will be exploring the notion of the grammar of visual thinking further.

Black Abstraction - 1927 by Georgia O’Keeffe  at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Black Abstraction – 1927 by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Pelvis Series - 1945 by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Pelvis Series – 1945 by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Whitney Museum of American Art.