Sunday, July 11, 2010

Intellect, Smart People, and Other Myths

Faith talked yesterday about being a top-down thinker; she starts with the big-picture and works her way down to the details. Some of us are bottom-up thinkers (not to be confused with bottoms-up thinkers, those who experience alcohol-induced moments of clarity); we start with the details and work our way up to the big picture.

A top-down thinker begins with a general theory: all cars can be started by placing the key into the ignition and turning it forward. From this theory, he makes an assertion or hypothesis: I should be able to start the rental car by placing the key into the ignition and turning it forward. He conducts an experiment to test the hypothesis: insert key into ignition and turn it forward. He observes the results which either confirm or don't confirm the hypothesis: car started or car didn't start. Top-down thinking (a.k.a. deductive reasoning) is the method we most often employ when teaching or training people.

A bottom-up thinker begins by observing details: Mary started her green Audi by inserting her key into the ignition and turning it forward; Joe started his red Toyota pickup...; Fred started his Ford Explorer… Reviewing her observations, she notices a pattern: no matter what the brand or model or color, it seems that people start their cars by inserting keys into ignitions and turning them forward. From the pattern, she makes an assertion or hypothesis: having seen everyone else start their cars by inserting the keys and turning them forward, I bet I can start this rental car by inserting the key and turning it forward.

As she repeatedly tests her hypothesis through experiment and observation, she arrives at a theory: all cars can be started by inserting a key into the ignition and turning it forward. Bottom-up thinking (a.k.a. inductive reasoning) is the essence of figuring things out, it's what we do sans instruction.

Methods of Non-Thinking
If we were to define all thinking as being either top-down (the process of systematically moving from general theory to specific experiment and observation) or bottom-up (the process of moving from specific observations to general theory), then most of us don't think, or at least not a lot. Yet, many would take offense at the assertion that he doesn't think. The reason is that there are well established forms of non-thinking that are commonly accepted as thought. They include: top-only non-thinking, bottom-only non-thinking, and quantum non-thinking.

A top-only non-thinker lives exclusively on the penthouses of thought surrounded by decors of incompatible and clashing theories that never need to be reconciled; he rarely, if ever, ventures to the basement to test and observe specific applications of his theories. A bottom-only non-thinker lives exclusively in the basement of thought walls stacked high with random details that she's not willing to discard; she doesn't see the patterns that would let her leave the basement and begin climbing the steps upward. A quantum non-thinker is able to instantaneously beam himself down from theory to irrelevant specific detail and back again without passing through steps such as hypothesis, pattern recognition or observation. When you hear him explain something it has both theory and detail; they just don't hang together that well.

The method that all forms of non-thinking have in common, the method that makes the activity appear to be thought, involves a combination of recall and association. A non-thinker is able to memorize and recall vast amounts of theory or detail or both. He then connects them to a current event or situation through some tangential association that is often irrelevant.

We're All Born Good Thinkers
The crazy thing is that most of us start as pretty darn good thinkers. Not just that, but we start as bottom-up thinkers well equipped with inductive reasoning skills. We accomplish amazing inductive feats (we learn to crawl, to walk, to speak, to eat) through observation, pattern recognition and hypothesis. However, since most formal instruction involves top-down thinking, as we enter the ages of being instructed, we do less and less inductive reasoning and more and more deductive reasoning. By the time we get to college, most of us practice bottom-up thinking only rarely.

Further, as the breadth of knowledge continues to expand, we simply run out of time to apply everything we've learned in a top-down fashion; instead, we simply remember. So, by the time we leave college we're practiced at neither top-down nor bottom-up thinking.

The Problem with Bottom-Up Thinkers
Of course, people who fail to adapt to top-down instruction, the bottom-up tinkerers and take-it-apart-and-figure-it-out types, tend not to get into college in the first place. They tend to be dismissed as either not-that-bright or having behavioral issues. The reasons that many bottom-up thinkers are dismissed as not being that bright are twofold. First, there's the assertion that it's stupid to figure out something when you can simply look it up or read the instructions. Second, the pattern recognition capabilities that make a great bottom-up thinker typically don't start out great.

As we observe phenomena, we're presented with more patterns than we can count. The trick to becoming a great bottom-up thinker is not simply recognizing patterns, it's discerning which patterns are relevant to what you're trying to accomplish. Great diagnosticians (be they doctors or computer techs or automobile mechanics) know how to filter out the meaningless, irrelevant patterns from the ones that help them discern the root cause of a problem.

Learning to recognize and cull out the relevant patterns takes time and practice. As a novice bottom-up thinker living in a world of top-down instruction, you're likely not to recognize and discern patterns fast enough to keep up with those who are being given the answers and told to try them out. So, you'll be seen as slow.

Bottom-up thinkers are dismissed as having behavioral challenges because they don't follow instructions. For whatever reasons, bottom-up thinkers seem compelled to figure it out for themselves. It might be a resistance to being told what to do, it might be that they don't learn things they haven't actually derived for themselves, it might be that they just love to take things apart and put them back together. However, in a world dominated by top-down instruction, to want to figure it out yourself can be a real problem.

Becoming/Building Great Thinkers
In the end, great thinkers are capable of both bottom-up and top-down processes. When we test our top-down theory on car keys and find that there are some cars for which inserting the key and turning it forward doesn't work, we begin to look for new patterns among the cars where the theory doesn't apply and work our way back up.

It's been said that the difference between good researchers and great researchers is not in how they answer the questions (top-down), it's in how they determine what questions to ask (bottom-up). Most great discoveries start with a bottom-up assertion that is proved through top-down experimentation.

Whether you find yourself a top-down thinker, a bottom-up thinker, or one of a variety of non-thinkers, you can strengthen your thinking by practicing in the areas where you're weak. If you're a top-down type, then try some bottom exercises: put together that IKEA dresser without looking at the instructions, or, find the closest Starbucks by observing the people walking past you. If you're a bottom-up thinker, try reading the instructions before you even empty the rest of the box, or, stop to ask directions and actually listen to and visually process the answer without saying "uh huh... uh huh..."

Since it's likely that your kids are receiving 90% top-down instruction, focus your time together on bottom-up discovery. Play games and do projects that involve observation, pattern recognition and generally, figuring things out, rather than ones that involve receiving instruction and then trying it out.

Concepts such as smart people and intellect are simply myths. Thinking is just a skill that can be developed like any other.

Happy thoughtful Monday!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on thinking, Tef. I especially appreciate your exposition on non-thinkers. Next time I meet one of those maddening people, I can have fun identifying which category they fall in :-).


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