Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Seeing the Forest BY Seeing the Trees

Have you ever been accused of 'not being able to see the forest for the trees'? It seems to mean, in the mind of the speaker, that the person they are dismissing is so focused on a specific detail that they're missing 'the big picture'. My experience has usually been that the meaning of the picture changes if you recognize the very details the other person wants to ignore. Kinda like the difference a single letter can make.

The following example is a bit absurd, but for example: a friend's recent status update on Facebook reads, "Don't know what to say, except I'm so bored. Everyday. Guess I need a new hobby. " My comment reads as follows. "... for a second, my brain replaced the 'o' with a 'u'... my bad!" Had her final word been 'hubby' rather than 'hobby', the sentence would have taken on a completely different meaning. Obviously, in this case it wasn't but it is an innocuous example.

A more disturbing example would be the abuser or criminal no-one ever suspected. I only bring this part up because there is an element that can be seen that is missing in the more entertaining one above. When the truth of whatever situation comes out, people often look back and realize there were clues that they hadn't been able to see. Or rather, they saw them, but didn't recognize them for what they were. We all hear this most frequently in the cases of school shootings and terror attacks.

I was introduced to a Malcolm Gladwell book entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking around the beginning of 2011 by a couple of friends. While the sub-title sounds a little hokey, it's a pop-science book about rapid-cognition. It's essentially the idea that the more familiar a person is with a subject, the quicker and better able they are to make almost instant assessments regarding that subject. And they do it so quickly that to the outsider, it seems spurious, an impossible, boastful claim with no true basis.

It is curious, therefore, that the book's very reception fits this very category. Being written for the common reader, it brings examples from science, culture, even sociology and presents them in ways easy to follow. A quick look on Wikipedia, however, will show that there are those in the sciences who look at his observations with that same dismissal and some definite annoyance that popular culture would actually listen to it. (It occurs that, just perhaps, if the sciences made their findings more accessible, there wouldn't be such a jealousy factor...)

So is there any legitimacy to Gladwell's idea? You tell me. His claim is that the person who becomes a master in his field of study does so by accumulating 10,000 hours practicing, studying, learning, applying the ins and outs (no, not burgers) and intricacies involved in said field. It becomes second nature to them, so much so that they don't have to be consciously thinking about it to perform the needed functions. Does that sound absurd to you? If you break the math down into a full-time work week, say 50 weeks a year, that comes to 5 years of full-time application.

In more simple terms, think of a piano student. I did not have piano lessons, but I did learn to read music in choir and was shown the respective keys on the piano. When I first tried to play, I had to keep stopping to count out the lines to tell what the note was supposed to be. The longer in choir, the easier it became. I'd also wander off to play hymns in the seminary building before class or at lunch time and became quite quick at reading the right hand. The left hand was still in the counting stages, though, until I took a music theory class. I recall very little from it except that having constant assignments where I had to deal with the bass clef as well ultimately meant that I can actually read the notes now without having to count. (My brain is still rather slow in combining the hands...)

Now think of someone who actually has skill, has lessons, and spends that much time working with music. They can listen to it and hear the key, the chord progressions, and even deduce who the composer was. How? If you ask them, they can go back and point to all the parts to prove it, but do they have to think about all the parts to come to the conclusion? Gladwell's point is that such things become so natural to the point that it actually frees up the brain to skip the steps in between. It is like my grade-school math where I hated it when teachers made you prove your work, every single step. Like geometry proofs. A > B. "Work, please." (Really?!?) A=12.8 centimeters. B=7.6 centimeters. 12.8>7.6. Therefore... DUH! So is the idea of rapid cognition absurd? I think not.

One of his examples, also noted in Wikipedia, is of a marriage counselor who could predict the stability of a couple's future marriage simply by listening to an hour's worth of conversation. (I have to admit, when I read this part of the book, my background of always being on guard in an abusive home meant that I saw the elements the Dr. and the author related after the snippet of conversation included before reaching that part of the text.) In maybe two minutes worth of talking there were a number of signifiers of a troubled relationship. To the average person (or the concrete, methodical teacher or scientist) the conversation would seem like no big deal. But when you realize that each time the husband tried to say anything and the wife disregarded it, dismissed it, or made a joke of it, you just might realize that something's up. Sure, the husband didn't put up a fuss, so why be bothered? Speaking from experience which I will not actually entail here, little things, the 'o' or the 'u' can hint at a very big deal. 'Are you sure?'

I actually like watching science, history kinds of shows. Imagine my delight when one of them gave a direct parallel to what I've been trying to say here, things I've been thinking for nearly ten years. You can watch it on hulu.com, which is where I saw it. It's a Nova special entitled Hunting the Hidden Dimension, about fractal geometry. While the whole show is interesting and may be helpful in understanding what it all means, the applicable part is in the last ten minutes.

Fractal geometry is the math that shows a basic discovery: that nature follows the same patterns on the large scale as the same patterns found in smaller scales. (Again, please watch the show for further details.) The final example they began studying in the show was how one tree in the rain-forest actually was representative of the whole forest. They found that measuring the limbs of the single tree directly paralleled the measurements of the trees in general throughout the forest. As of the shows release in 2008, fractals fall under the category of recognized but not fully understood. The truth is, however, that they are there, and their influence in the field of technology alone is profound.

Do you follow my leaps between the sciences and the humanities? Can you see that a single piece can actually represent a much larger scenario? I hope so. For when an old, broken-down camel warns you about the straw and all you see is a dinky piece of hay and you're tempted to think the old fogie is senile, perhaps you might pause for a second and consider. Or when the child tries to tell you something is important, maybe you will see the actual forest by looking at the tree. It's possible they just might know what they're talking about.

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