2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Reminding, Abstraction and Reasoning Form Experience 

Thirty years ago, I was having lunch with my colleague Bob Abelson on the lawn at Yale. I complained to him that my wife couldn't ever cook steak rare the way I liked it. I didn't see what was so hard about making steak rare. He responded that 30 years earlier in England he had asked the barber to cut his hair short, which was the style in the U.S. at the time, and the barber wouldn't cut it as short as he wanted it.

This response sounded brain-damaged to me but Bob was a brilliant man and wasn't prone to crazy remarks. So, I thought long and hard about this conversation until I understood what had transpired.

Bob had understood what I said at a high level of abstraction. The two stories are actually identical if one sees what I said as "I once asked someone to do something for me who was capable of doing what I asked, and had agreed to do the task in principle, but who refused to do exactly what I asked, because they thought the request was too extreme."

Has Bob really done all that? Of course, there is no other explanation.

People naturally are capable of abstracting in a principled way using a particular kind of language, in order to understand new events in terms of similar old events.

I was floored when I realized this and wondered if maybe this just a peculiarity of Bob. Do people make abstractions of what they are trying to understand?

Then one day I was giving advice to someone and I suggested they "make hay while the sun shines" an odd thing for a Brooklyn boy who knows nothing about hay to say.

This is why all cultures have proverbs. Proverbs give people a language in which to express these high level abstractions about daily life.

This is what it means to understand intelligently. Not everyone tries to do or is capable of doing this kind of abstraction. But it is something that moderately intelligent people regularly do and a case can be made that to some extent everyone does this much of the time.

What are they doing exactly? They are attempting to determine, when they understand a sentence or a situation, who has what goal, what plan they are using to achieve that goal, what obstacles are preventing the achievement of that goal, and what lesson can be learned from the entire situation.

Really? Do we do that all the time? Yes we do, unconsciously. We have no idea that we are doing it, but we cannot really process the actions or statements of others without doing this kind of calculation.

Every time you find yourself quoting a  cliche proverb, saying "a stitch in time saves nine," or "the shoemaker's children often go unshod," you have made this kind of abstraction. Finding no story of your own to tell, you tell a culturally known one. When we do find a story of our own to tell, of course, we tell it.

If you found a story of your own to tell, it would have had have been indexed in your mind with precisely these same abstractions.

All conversation depends on this kind of unconscious abstract analysis. We hear a story and we respond with a story. We don't know how we do it, but we do it effortlessly.

This is what reminding and comprehension look like. Without the ability to be reminded we would all see every day as a completely new experience unrelated to what we have seen before. The abstraction mechanism we use is beautiful and elegant and basically unknown to our conscious minds.