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July 24th, 2020
Levels of understanding are normally bound to attention investment. Our likelihood of gaining a new level of understanding on a given topic goes up if we focus more attention on that topic. Seems fairly straight forward: Experts invest more and more attention to achieve mastery of terms of a particular field and the inner workings of those terms. But compare this to the rare insight, the revolutionary new perspective that is by no means guaranteed to anyone.
What is the nature of correlation between a rare new insight and levels of understanding of a particular field? Each person understands a subject in their own way, and we generally accept that these understandings can be roughly imagined as levels, hence the levels of difficulty generally attributed to the educational system. A master’s degree is a level of understanding generally regarded as ‘higher’ than what a student explores in an undergrad. So do levels of understanding in a given field have any correlation to that rare field-changing insight?
Approach the question from a completely different tangent: Does a homeless individual suffering from mental illness ever strike upon insight that could substantially help humanity?
The answer seems as though it’s probably ‘no’.
But. How can we verify this? Such ‘disabled’ individuals often lack the presentational requirements for such ideas. Even if such an individual can get ahold of a keyboard, can the notion be successfully worded with an understanding of other people’s context that’s rich enough to create a bridge over which the new idea can be injected into our context? If someone tells you the answer to all your problems, but does so in Japanese, and you don’t know Japanese, how useful are those ‘answers’? Furthermore, imagine that instead of Japanese, it’s a language that no one else knows and no one has ever heard of.
The possibility of our understanding expanding beyond its own context remains cloistered within it’s own context.
So we arrive at a different question: how does the context of a particular level of understanding expand in order to achieve a new level of understanding in a new context?
The process of learning does seem to be demarcated with swift and dramatic jumps in our level of understanding. We squint and scratch our heads, confused with a new concept that is beyond what we currently know, and then like seeming magic, after enough head banging, boom, suddenly it seems to make sense. We test that understanding, we get a predictable answer, and it’s verified: we understand on a new level.
The transmission of understanding between people clearly has requirements. One of the most obvious requirements is language. It’s always an adorable sight when people who have utterly no knowledge of each other’s language are trying to help and get help, as with, asking for directions in a foreign country. The game becomes an unpracticed exercise in charades.
Of course, language isn’t necessarily a requirement. It’s not difficult for someone who doesn’t speak your language to teach you a specific dance. There the requirement is vision, and one of movement, and the amount of information that is ricocheted back and forth by simple eye contact and head nodding can be quite amazing. It’s like a game of Marco Polo but administered through ‘yeses’ and ‘noes’: encouragement and discouragement - perhaps the most fundamental form of evolution.
Now let’s apply these musings to conversation:
How does someone achieve the ability to understand what you are saying?
Does the success of your message depend more on your ability to articulate your idea or your understanding of the listener’s perspective?
Do we speak in a way that builds bridges between our own perspective and the perspective of another? Or do we speak in a way that merely reinforces our own context?
A useful concept at this point is the echo-chamber. Most of us just talk and talk as though a thorough description of our perspective is somehow going to invade and conquer the opinions and ideas of other perspectives. But our context often just becomes self-reinforcing when it doesn’t have access to other contexts. Access to those other contexts is also key to convincing someone to see something from a different point of view.
If you want to give someone a new perspective, wouldn’t it be helpful to understand what their current perspective is?
Would we not be better equipped to get someone to see something differently if we first asked some questions to get an understanding of what’s going on in their mind?
We might even get lucky. If our ability to form questions is well practiced, we might be able to form questions that simultaneously achieve two ends: We become acquainted with the mind of the other person, and their consideration of our question also casts a new light on their own understanding.
The presentational requirements for ideas, perspectives, opinions, are quite substantial. And with much of human dialogue, we are simply steamrolling these requirements in a vain attempt to convince by brute force.
Unfortunately, this strategy often just backfires. By ignoring the presentational requirements, we build echo chambers, we weld doors of perspective shut, we lower the blinds, and we become ignorant to the art of building bridges.
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