The world we live in: foundations

I am fascinated by the idea that each of us has an internal map or framework that not only determines how we interpret the world around us, but in a sense determines what we do or don’t see, what questions we ask or even can ask, and what answers we can obtain. I suspect that the impact of these internal maps is far greater than most imagine and that accepting that impact has far-reaching consequences for everything: how we do interpersonal relationships, how we design communication and media, how we design social institutions and how we approach the study of, obviously, psychology and sociology, but also even a supposedly harder social science like economics.

This certainly isn’t an original idea. Two places I’ve encountered it that come immediately to mind are Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, and I’m sure there are many more. But I have the sense that there are interesting and important practical consequences that haven’t really been pursued. This is likely to be a topic that I will write about fairly frequently over the next couple months, so I’m starting a WorldMaps tag to link them together.

Well below the framework we have for interpreting the world we see is the framework for how we think, and it seems that there can be astonishing differences even here, as described in this interview with Richard Feynman:

As Feynman puts it, “I suspect that what goes on in every man’s head might be very, very different – the actual imagery and semi-imagery … and that when we’re talking to each other at these high and complicated levels and we think we’re speaking very well and we’re communicating, what we’re really doing is having some big translation scheme going on for translating what this fellow says into our images, which are very different,” even at the very lowest levels.

Feynman then proceeds to recount some personal experiments he conducted on our “time sense” in which he practiced measuring the passage of a minute by counting to himself. I recommend listening to his delightful telling of it (it falls near the end of the interview, at 55:18), but the upshot was the discovery that something as simple and fundamental as counting involved senses and imagery that were radically different for him and for the mathematician John Tukey. For Feynman, counting involved speaking the numbers internally to himself, which meant that he was unable, for example, to speak at all while counting, but was able to read text. Tukey, on the other hand, saw a tape with printed numbers that clicked by – he had no trouble at all carrying on a conversation, but was utterly unable to read.

Feynman concludes that, if there is such a great difference between what people are doing for such a basic operation, then it’s no great surprise that that one person can have a great deal of difficulty understanding something that another considers entirely obvious – it is simply a sign that the particular point is difficult to translate between one and the other’s framework.

I ran across the interview a few weeks ago and have been planning to write this post ever since. In a wonderful coincidence, just a couple days ago, Rudi Seitz published this blog post documenting a similar phenomenon.

So how much do such differences in how we think actually affect how we perceive the world and what sorts of frameworks we build to understand it? I’ve no idea, but I suspect the effect is not nearly as small as we assume.

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2 Responses to The world we live in: foundations

  1. iamsorry88 says:

    Thank you for sharing this – especially for the interview with Feynman. The concept of individual internal maps or frameworks looks sapid. Yes, our maps differ. (Although they are influenced by our environment and in the first place by the language we speak.) And when people join their maps it brings real power to what they do.

    • ejaxon says:

      That’s absolutely true. Of course the opposite is also true: when peoples’ maps differ enough that it’s too hard for them to translate between them, communication becomes effectively impossible. What’s interesting is that it’s usually not that hard to deal with when you know that it’s happening, but most of the time people end up just talking past one another.

      To your other point, there are actually probably many layers of maps at work. I have certain layers that arise from my language and culture and from my upbringing, others from my own social networks, still others that have evolved through my own unique path through life. Sometimes our own maps contradict each other, but we manage them in such a way most of the time that we don’t see it.

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