The Easy Way to Understand More, and Better

May 17, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Practical tips | 4 Comments
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Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer (1870–1928).

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer (1870–1928).

Biographies, and then histories, are the pleasantest way to learn more, to understand more, and to understand better: any science, mathematics, politics, business, literature, the performing arts (including sports), and the military arts.  Biographies and histories are a useful supplement even for the studio arts.

Biographies, and then histories, are extremely effective aids to mastering new material.

Biographies and histories are narratives.  Our brains have evolved to be especially good at digesting narratives, and in basing actions on predictions of how narratives will play out.

It is easy to see why this is so.

Tyler's Tree Frog (Litoria tyleri).  Photo by LiquidGhoul (2006-01-10 (first version); 2007-03-07 (last version)).  Photo by LiquidGhoul.

Tyler’s Tree Frog (Litoria tyleri). Photo by LiquidGhoul (2006-01-10 (first version); 2007-03-07 (last version)). Photo by LiquidGhoul.

Consider a frog watching a fly swooping and buzzing almost within range of the frog’s tongue.  The frog’s brain has evolved the ability to fairly accurately guess where the fly will be next.  It does so by constructing scenarios in its brain, and playing them out there, conciously or unconciously.

Packsaddle (Kløv på Siberian Husky), photographed by Per Harald Olsen (Perhols)

Packsaddle (Kløv på Siberian Husky), photographed by Per Harald Olsen (Perhols)

A sleeping dog sometimes moves its legs, or even whimpers or growls.  It is dreaming.  A scenario is playing out in its brain.

President Reagan holds a oval office staff meeting on his first full day in office (from left to right) Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, Counsellor to the President Ed Meese, Chief of Staff James Baker III, Press Secretary James Brady, President Reagan, 1981  (http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/photo.html; Courtesy Reagan Library, PD).

President Reagan holds a oval office staff meeting on his first full day in office (from left to right) Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, Counsellor to the President Ed Meese, Chief of Staff James Baker III, Press Secretary James Brady, President Reagan, 1981
(http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/photo.html; Courtesy Reagan Library, PD).

Photo by Dennis Crowley. Here is a kitchen view during Wednesday night's green tea party, 30 May 2008, 10:07:15, Author: Nick Gray

Photo by Dennis Crowley. Here is a kitchen view during Wednesday night’s green tea party, 30 May 2008, 10:07:15, Author: Nick Gray

Picture taken at at Masters of Lindy Hop and Tap, Century Ballroom, Oddfellows Temple, Pine Street, Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington, USA. At the tail end of the Friday night Masters' Exhibition, there was a general invitation to the audience to come up and dance. This picture was taken during that period. Photo by Joe Mabel/Century Ballroom, 14 August 2009.

Picture taken at at Masters of Lindy Hop and Tap, Century Ballroom, Oddfellows Temple, Pine Street, Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington, USA. At the tail end of the Friday night Masters’ Exhibition, there was a general invitation to the audience to come up and dance. This picture was taken during that period. Photo by Joe Mabel/Century Ballroom, 14 August 2009.

2006 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Table, 22 May 2007, http://www.lasvegasvegas.com/photogallery/3719-lg.jpg, Author: Photos by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com

2006 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event Table, 22 May 2007, http://www.lasvegasvegas.com/photogallery/3719-lg.jpg, Author: Photos by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com

We are a social species, and moreover do not have our responses hard-wired, but create them on the fly.  We must continually guess what other people know about us and about the rest of the world, and what they want to accomplish.  We do so by imagining scenarios, usually consciously, but sometimes unconsciously.  We have built upon the scenario-building skills of our evolutionary ancestor-species, and our scenarios can be much more sophisticated than theirs, often resulting in greater predictive skill and longer predictive lead-times.

Our proclivity for making scenarios is so great that we do so in day dreams, in night dreams, in literature (broadly construed: including plays and movies, and childrens games, and fantasies).  Our day dreams and our night dreams are not snapshots, they are movies: scenarios playing themselves out.  Sometimes we put considerable care and expense into creating scenarios: war games involving many people, or practicing and rehearsing a presentation to an individual or to a group, or for an upcoming job interview.

Dogs, our most social companion species, have evolved to be intensely interested in our feelings and intentions about them, as individuals.  So most dogs become rather good at reading us, and at anticipating our reactions.  By observing our behavior they are able to accurately imagine scenarios involving us.  So they become sneaky, hiding evidence of actions that they know we wouldn’t like, or they act embarrassed when they know we will be unhappy with them, or they bring us their leash or make noises with their food bowl, or wake us up and whine when something unsettling has appeared in the house, such as smoke in the air.

Cats, a less social companion species, do this less so.  But house cats vary greatly, and some individuals act rather dog-like.

So now you see why narratives are a particularly congenial way for us to learn and to understand.

Read biographies first, then histories.  Biographies are vivid.  We can more easily relate to an individual (with affection, sympathy or disgust) than to crowd. A biography acquaints us with the flavor of a time and place.  A biography gives us questions about the person’s context: customs, prevailing scarcities, politics.  That prior knowledge and those questions provide a structure upon which we can hang the more general information provided by a history.

4 Comments »

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  1. Yes, stories are the essence of life. What would any of us be without stories? I found it interesting to think of animals playing out stories (scenarios) in their heads. It sounds very plausible.

    • I am delighted that you found this post, which is so apposite for you.

  2. […] posts on this blog (here, here) have suggested that human intelligence developed from our facility in generating possible […]

  3. […] posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  One post also constitutes an example of a human who is mentally […]


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