Overcoming Barriers to Making Sense
Outdated science told us that the barriers to make sense are natural limitations or are part of 'the human condition'. this has led many to believe that life simply isn't supposed to make sense. However, modern cognitive science has turned this view on its head by revealing how barriers to making sense are imposed on us, creating artificial limitations that can be overcome to restore our natural capacity to make sense.
Fundamentally even a perfectly functioning brain and psyche can have its abilities to make sense blocked. When we can't make sense of our environment, we can't navigate away from pain and threat. This can lead to various forms of downstream illness and loss of function that can make it even harder to make sense of life precipitating a downward spiral where we fall further behind and the barriers to making sense of life get higher.
When our ability to make sense is unblocked, we act as natural scientists of our own lives - driven by curiosity and fueled by insights. As we make more sense of our lives and the world around us, we naturally learn how we can best thrive in it. As we take better care of ourselves, we naturally free up energy to more and more easily make sense of life.
As we shall see, many barriers to making sense are widespread and deeply internalized. Because of this, these barriers are often seen as impossible to overcome and simply part of 'the human condition'. This leads many to believe that life simply isn't supposed to make sense. However, modern cognitive science challenges this view with recently understanding that many barriers are not intrinsic to us, but imposed, and they have revealed key mechanisms can reduce or even remove these barriers.
Cognitive Modeling gives us powerful ways to implement these mechanisms to create a new class of solutions for making sense of life. Inqwire is the first cognitive modeling solution of this class. In the following sections, we will examine what these barriers are and see how Inqwire is designed to help overcome them.
We Can Overcome Conditioning and Restore Natural Capabilities
Just about everyone finds doing arithmetic in their heads, trying to remember long strings of numbers, and creating airtight logical arguments to be hard cognitive tasks. In contrast, just about everyone finds following a story, listening thoughtfully to a friend, and navigating from the couch to the refrigerator without tripping over something to be much easier cognitive tasks.
Easy cognitive tasks are ones based on information that is ‘situated’ and has context, meaning what you bring to mind you can arrange in space relative to other things you bring to mind in a way that makes sense. The most obvious example is geographic information, but it turns out we do this with all kinds of information without thinking about it.
Hard cognitive tasks are ones based on information that is ‘unsituated’ and often requires advanced tools of math, analysis, and logic to work with.
Most of us have been taught that hard cognitive tasks based on unsituated information are more powerful than easy cognitive tasks based on situated information. As we will see, it is the complete opposite and using the right kind of cognition is critical to making sense of life.
When we are thinking with information that is situated, we can hold everything easily in our mind’s eye and even manipulate what we are holding using our imagination as a way to simulate hypothetical scenarios. We do this constantly without even noticing. We create complex simulations to ‘make sense’ out of our world, such as following a story, planning the future, or finding our way around unfamiliar territory. We do this through effortlessly performing complex conceptual blends of multiple hypothetical scenarios to create new scenarios that retain the truth while at the same time revealing new information that helps us make sense.
When we create these complex simulations, we constantly adjust our understanding and interpretations of the world as well as detect when a story ‘doesn’t add up’. In this kind of thinking, the truth emerges from the system, not the parts. Because of this, we actually can learn new things from our imagination alone, as scientists do all the time when they perform ‘thought experiments’, or when they artfully bring together different observations into a single simulation and have a new explanation emerge in the form of scientific insight that becomes the genesis of new hypotheses.
Hard cognitive tasks are the product of choosing to represent the world with information that is ‘unsituated’, meaning, information that doesn’t have the context that allows us to understand where it fits with everything else, or everything we know so far. Unsituated information represents truth in a fact or statement, not as emerging from a system. Statistics, labels, platitudes, and soundbites are all examples of unsituated information.
A hallmark of unsituated information is that we have to learn it through memorization. Another hallmark is that we have to practice how to think with this information, as we cannot use conceptual blends. Instead, we are limited to analysis, synthesis, and logic that doesn’t come naturally when we are dealing with unsituated information. Thinking across unsituated artificial systems is so hard, that we have invented ‘cognitive’ technologies, such as calculators, computers, and now Artificial Intelligence that can handle this kind of information more easily and help us think with it.
Why Higher Level Cognition is Easy for Humans and Hard for Computers
The reason that we find thinking with situated information easy, and thinking with unsituated information hard is that it turns out our brains, like our bodies, are designed to work on dynamic, situated scenarios, and move and interact easily with complex interactive landscapes of meaning or ‘context’ - likely as a natural pre-requisite for navigating and surviving in a dynamic complex natural environment. The reason that much simpler unsituated artificial systems are harder to think with, is that they remove the context or ‘landscape’ we need to represent the information they contain in a ‘situated form’, so we find it very hard ‘hold on to them’ in our mind.
For example, you can hold on to virtually infinite information about your surroundings right now. Not only can you hold on to complex color, texture, and sound palettes, but you can construct them and reconstruct them in your mind’s eye. We count on this ability in the courtroom where witnesses are expected to to be able to remember endless aspects of a scene they may have only had a few seconds to take into their memory. However, nobody is expected to remember a license plate that is only 6 digits unless they made an effort to memorize it or write it down. The difference is, your surroundings are ‘situated’ and are full of context, and a string of random numbers and letters is not.
By analogy, thinking in these artificial, static, systems of thought is like forcing one’s body to be still and not move for hours on end. We find sitting perfectly still much more effortful than dancing spontaneously to a song we like. But sitting still has much less complexity than dancing, and like cognition, again, the difficulty in both scenarios does not reflect the complexity.
This plays out in a major way with our inability to think rationally with probabilities in statistics. Human cognition makes an assortment of predictable errors when it tries to reason across problems formulated using probabilities, but if the problem is reformulated in a way that is situated, the errors go away. What this experiment showed is that we can create barriers to thinking rationally if we do not represent information in natural systems of thought that are situated and retain context. Research like this is reversing the misunderstanding that humans are irrational, and showing that humans actually are rational in their thinking when they can situate information. And further, when information is represented in a way that maintains context and the ability to situate, we can harness the full power of higher level cognition to make sense of things using reasoning capabilities that are only available when there is context, while maintaining rationality.
The hard task of capturing truth into unsituated statements, and attempting to arrive at deeper understanding through analysis, synthesis, and logic has a rich history of being a pinnacle of human achievement and as such, recognized as a kind of higher level cognition. Because of this, we naturally assume that thinking with unsituated, artificial systems of thought would be considered ‘higher level cognition’. And that the much easier tasks associated with situated systems of thought would be ‘lower level cognition’. But if you asked a modern cognitive scientist, particularly an artificial intelligence expert, they would say it is the exact opposite.
Modern cognitive and statistical sciences consider what can be accurately represented and understood with different levels of cognition. Unsituated information cannot be conceptually blended because it doesn't have context and therefore cannot be combined to accurately represent a feasible real world scenario. Because of this, it is recognized as a form of lower level cognition that in the real world is only useful for understanding artificial or engineered systems that are much simpler than the real world, such as Newtonian physics or analytic chemistry.
However, this does not stop us from trying to combine unsituated facts in the real world using the tools of lower level cognition. When we do what emerges sounds rational and logical, but can be deeply problematic. The results are often paradoxical and contradictory. This thinking can 'go around in circles' resulting in ‘over thinking’. It can escalate cognitive distortions such as over-generalizations, stereotypes, reductionistic thinking, and outlandish inferences as we see in cases of cults, brainwashing, propaganda, misinformation, conspiracy theories and false memories. There is support that it is also foundational to many forms of psychological distress.
In contrast, we have what appears to be a limitless ability to do conceptual blends with situated information and represent a complex and dynamic world accurately, without cognitive distortions. Because of this, our ability to do conceptual blends is recognized as a form of higher level cognition. This kind of thinking gives us the scientific models, mechanisms, hypotheses, theories, insights, foresight, the ability to do longer term planning and simulation, as well as the understanding that is the quiet foundation that all of our current technology advancements rest on. This means it is the only form of cognition that is qualified to apply to most of the real world. And when it comes to making sense of life, it should come as no surprise that we need to actively engage higher level cognition to avoid and correct distortions and reach quality insights about our lives.
The Prevalence of Unsituated Systems of Thought
As it stands, unsituated systems of thought have become the backbone of modern industrialized society through mechanized technology, rule of law, prediction, verification, control, measuring, consistency, automation, and more recently the explosion of AI and ‘big data’.
Adding to the problem is that higher level cognition has been grossly misunderstood up until very recently. Somewhat ironically, from the perspective of lower level cognition, higher level cognition historically appeared to be irrational and biased. As a result, it was actively discouraged in scientific areas of study. This has only just turned around very recently, as higher level cognition’s superiority to purely analytic, logical, statistical, rational thinking in determining causality has been formally understood and demonstrated through showing that higher level cognition can be formalized to *encompass* lower level cognition. In other words, you can derive the rules of lower level cognition from scenarios formulated for higher level cognition. This is similar to how Quantum Mechanics does not negate Newtonian Mechanics, but instead encompasses it.
Now that higher level cognition has been recognized as encompassing lower level cognition, fundamental ideas around cognitive biases, false inferences, and logical paradoxes are being re-examined and challenged. They are understanding how research that showed this suffers from systematic errors of not considering the full cognitive context of the test subject or setting up the experiment to only contain isolated facts out of context, that can only be processed using our lower level cognition - thus inducing biases and blocking our ability to make sense of the world around us.
And more generally, it is being recognized that it is the act of restricting thinking to lower level cognition that actually creates the illusion of cognitive biases, false inferences, and logical paradoxes, and higher level cognition actually restores the necessary context to remove the induced biases, negate the false inferences, and resolve the logical paradoxes introduced by lower level cognition - and not the other way around.
The timeliness of this realization by the cognitive sciences couldn’t be more prescient. We are in the midst of a crisis of epic proportion around the widespread creation and propagation of misinformation, ‘fake news’ and propaganda. Our ability to think clearly and make sense of information has been intentionally hijacked by ‘facts’ that are taken out of context, and presented in an unsituated, but otherwise logically consistent manner, with the express intention to distort our thinking.
We are continuously bombarded with this kind of unsituated information in the form of over-generalizations, over-simplifications, folk explanations, sound bites, stereotypes, and statistical facts. They form the basic ingredients for fake news, propaganda, sales pitches, sound bites, and misinformation that actively blocks our ability to make sense of the world around us.
The most insidious example is the rampant presentation of probability statistics (lower level cognition) without any understanding of the dynamic system they are representing (higher level cognition) within the oil company funded ‘climate debate’. The carefully constructed climate skeptic's arguments intentionally leverage the weaknesses of lower level cognition and center the arguments around statistical information that appears to contradict other statistical information as a way to challenge the understanding of the climate scientists that understand the earth system using higher level cognition.
Using situated cognition with an understanding of the climate, both sets of seemingly contradictory measurements can easily be explained in a complete story. But without the ability to engage higher level cognition in response to these false arguments, it is impossible to resolve the apparent paradox or contradictions they frame. Which allows the argument to persist. The success of this strategy, along with similar ones deployed by tobacco companies, set the playbook and have now been deployed widely, creating a new form of existential threat.
Modern cognitive science is only now coming to realize the reliability, power, and centrality of higher level cognition, as well as how it is the cornerstone of scientific discovery and it is fundamental to overcoming this induced shortsightedness that is threatening the long term survival of humanity. Society is only now coming to recognize the dangerous effects of presenting information without context, information that is designed to leverage the biased nature of lower level cognition to distort our thinking.
The social structures that taught us how to think and be in the world have mirrored these misunderstandings about higher and lower level cognition. In most ways they have failed to sufficiently exercise and enforce higher level cognition, accepting the framing that this form of cognition is biased, and have instead exalted the use of unsituated, artificial systems of thought.
Most of the industrialized world is well steeped in the mistaken cognitive science of the 20th century. Our participation in a large, industrialized, hierarchical culture also indirectly or directly discourages higher level cognition as it can reveal nuance and deeper understandings of situations that would be naturally disruptive to systems that have become too rigid to adapt.
These misunderstandings have reached all the way down into our morality. Many of us are actively discouraged from engaging higher level cognition as it is ‘biased and flawed’, and taught instead the virtues of lower level cognition, and particularly lower level cognition performed by Artificial Intelligence because it will be ‘unbiased’, which we now know to be false.
The psychology of the 20th century also reflects this thinking, by actively engaging lower level cognition to attempt to behaviorally correct cognition by replacing truth statements and facts with other truth statements and facts using lower level cognitive tools of analysis, synthesis, and rational thinking. Only in this century is psychology starting to recognize how the over-application of lower level cognition, not the truthfulness of the statements can result in widespread painful states of psychological distress, pointing the way towards the application of the tools of higher level cognition as the remedy.
Taken as a whole, many of us have come to believe that engaging lower level cognition is the best way to make sense of our lives and the world around us, which leads us around in circles and brings us no closer to understanding. As a culture, we have a lot of learning and undoing to do to restore these habits that have been actively trained out of us that we desperately need to restore.
Conceptual Blends and Higher Level Cognition
Recently, cognitive scientists have come to recognize that the foundation of higher level cognition is engaging our imagination constructively through what is called ‘counter-factual thinking’. During counter-factual thinking, we artfully know how to bring together different aspects from different scenarios that didn’t actually happen at the same time, and create what is called a conceptual blend in such a way that we reliably reach new insights.
We use conceptual blends virtually non-stop in our everyday communication. They are the foundation of how we make sense of analogies, metaphors, and similes - all linguistic forms where it is assumed that we implicitly know how to perform conceptual blends to convey the intended meaning without being explicitly told.
For example, if I say imagine Oprah was the Prime Minister of Hawaii, you would automatically know things like, Hawaii would need to no longer be part of the United States to have a Prime Minister, and Oprah would likely have to be a citizen of this new Country of Hawaii. I didn’t have to explain that, you took it directly from your conceptual blend, naturally bringing in what you know about how the world works. This ability to reliably know what to bring in and what to leave out, is what makes conceptual blends the highest form of cognition.
This ability to perform conceptual blends in a manner that is consistent with the real world and without introducing distortion is why they are the jewel of science, typically known as ‘thought experiments’. Consistently under-recognized, conceptual blends in the form of thought experiments have led to the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.
While these are newer concepts in cognitive science, it turns out that higher level cognition is not a new concept to humanity. When considering the pragmatics of our complex lives, it maps on very well to our age old concept of ‘wisdom’ or ‘wise reasoning’ which has historically been defined and formally studied as our highest level of cognition.
When fully engaging our higher level cognition through wise reasoning, we see things clearly, in all their complexity and nuance, as they are, with savvy, compassion, equanimity, and perspective. And unlike other measures of cognitive function, such as intelligence, wise reasoning is linked to greater life satisfaction, less negative affect, better social relationships, less depressive rumination, and greater longevity.
The connection between wise reasoning and higher level cognition makes sense, as wise reasoning is tied heavily to the ability to ask oneself the right questions to bring a nuanced understanding to a situation. This is the same as being able to construct a good counter-factual conceptual blend as a thought experiment to find insights.
With how valuable this kind of reasoning is, we may wonder, do some of us have more or less of it, like IQ? Can it be turned on, like a switch? Or can we grow it, like a skill? Researchers have shown that they can consistently measure wise reasoning, and as a result they are able to systematically address these questions. While still an active area of research, so far they have found that the ability to engage wise reasoning exists independent of age, IQ, race, gender, socioeconomic factors, verbal abilities, and personality traits. So it appears to be equally available to all of us.
The next question would be, if wise reasoning is available to all of us equally, like athleticism, is it exercised the same amount or can it also be trained and developed? There is a lot of evidence suggesting it can be exercised and cultivated. It can change based on what culture we are part of and, over the long term, there are higher amounts if we choose to make sense of our lives after a hardship.
And now, given that we know we can develop wise reasoning like a muscle, does it also operate as a mode that we switch into, like sedentary versus active? It appears it does. Wisdom researchers have shown that after just 5 minutes of solitary reflection, we naturally increase wise reasoning by ~30%! And we change our level of wise reasoning based on our ability to self distance.
In summary, conceptual blends are a form of higher level cognition that is akin to wise reasoning. We can increase our capacity for it by making sense and being aware of not following social conventions of thinking. And if we put ourselves in the right environment with the right kind of questions and the ability to self-distance, we switch into it naturally.
Engaging Our Natural Born Scientists
More and more evidence from the developmental sciences suggest that we are natural born scientists. It appears that infants and scientists share the same basic processes for sensemaking. Both gather information and create a model of reality. They then use this model to navigate and make predictions based on a sense of intuition. If they discover gaps and inconsistencies in their model, they follow a sense of curiosity to collect the information needed to resolve the inconsistencies. New solutions are developed through the use of creativity. These solutions are evaluated for truthfulness using a sense of insight.
Finally, infants and scientists both use experimentation and rational thought processes to test any new rules, patterns, hypotheses and theories against different scenarios where they'd expect a specific outcome using the same machinery of thought experiments that are the jewel of scientific discovery. When they don’t get the answer they expect, a gap is revealed in their knowledge and the process repeats, driving their understanding of their lives forward. Education research supports that this is the sensemaking process we use for learning, asserting both that teaching requires a model to be effective and that once someone has been exposed to a domain, the best way to learn it is to follow one's natural curiosity.
In this way, we all have an innate cognitive 'engine' designed to continually make sense out of life by ‘scienceing’ the world. This suggests that enhancing our ability to make sense of life isn't so much about learning a new skill. Instead, it is about learning how to strengthen, restore and exercise abilities we already have, and apply them to investigate our lives.
Restoring the Habit of Situated Cognition
To make sense of things, we must create a kind of internal simulation in our mind. Within this internal simulation, we situate concepts into some kind of meaningful context. This process is called 'embodied cognition' and is well established in modern cognitive science as the basic architecture we use to make sense of anything. We use natural language to give instructions to ourselves and to others on how to construct these simulations. But not all simulations are created equal. We can choose to create meaningless simulations, such as when we try to memorize facts by rote or when we take in a fact without any context. In these situations, we really haven't made sense of the fact, and are in danger of walking around with an endless list of conflicting and confusing facts instead of gaining a real understanding of how something works.
Alternatively, we can choose to create a meaningful simulation by situating each fact into a context and seeing how it fits into a larger whole or 'putting it in perspective'. We do this through creating a kind of meaningful simulation in our mind. Research in cognition shows that when we take the time to create a meaningful simulation, we think faster and reason better.
Inqwire gives you many visual based interactive tools that invite you to situate life aspects in different ways relative to each other to help with this process of putting things in their place so we can keep things in perspective and can more easily see the forest for the trees.
Restoring and Re-enforcing what we Know
We need to review or 'replay' parts of our lives to learn from them and strengthen them in memory. But when does that process end? Contemporary neuroscience says it is most likely a never ending process. The more we recall something in different contexts, the stronger it will become in our minds. And if we don't recall something, it will fade over time.
Everything around us is competing to control how we think and how we see the world. When we choose what we think is important and bring that to mind in a conscious way, we strengthen what matters most to us and let the rest fade away. This gives us the possibility to take back control and become artists of our lives.
Restoring the Ability to Navigate our Lives
When it comes to a healthy body, we understand there are basic nutrients we need to thrive. But what about a healthy psyche? Can we think of a basic set of psychological nutrients that we need to thrive?
According to well accepted theories of the psyche, there are. And critically, it's widely accepted that these essential nutrients aren't something we are born with, they are something we actively seek out and satisfy ourselves.
But, just like essential physical nutrients, we may not notice we aren't getting these basic psychological needs met, especially if the people around us and the culture we find ourselves in don't value them.
So, just like we may need to begin to pay attention to our diet and what nutrients they contain if we want improve our physical health, if we want to thrive psychologically, we may need to learn how to pay attention to different aspects of our lives and learn to notice what basic psychological nutrients they we are deriving from them. But how?
With basic psychological needs, Self-Determination Theory asserts that we have various senses 'built in' that help us. In order to improve how well we get these needs met, we simply need to tune into these senses. This is where noticing our 'Life Outlook' comes in. Life outlook is our moment to moment sense of how well we can navigate life. Our Life Outlook changes based on the circumstances we find ourselves in, and which aspects of life we bring to mind. If we can't make sense of life, then we can't navigate to getting any of our needs met.
So, if we find an aspect that erodes our Life Outlook, that means we haven't made sense of it sufficiently to navigate it. And as we make better sense of challenging aspects of our lives and learn to navigate them better our Life Outlook improves. Depending on what makes sense, we may navigate these challenging aspects various ways, we might find a way to transform them, escape them, 'come to terms' with them, make peace with them, reach equanimity or acceptance around them, or even surrender to them.
The Life Outlook measures you find throughout were designed to be simple to recognize and use, while capturing the breadth of basic psychological needs reflected in theories of Self-Determination, Resilience, and Well-Being.
Engaging Natural Counter-Regulation
Life has its ups and downs. When life knocks us down, it can be hard to bounce back. Resilience researchers are finding that our ability to bounce back, or resilience, doesn't depend on some objective measure of our lives, but instead is very specific to us and depends on how we feel about our lives. And rather than try to find ways to 'control' our way to thriving, we must find our self-determination to find our way back to thriving. This means that it is especially important to listen to ourselves and not fall into a 'one size fits all' way of thinking and tune into our Life Outlook.
Resilience researchers have also found that when we find ourselves in negative (or positive) state, the way we bounce back is by finding something meaningful that makes us feel the opposite in a process called 'counter-regulation'. This means that if we learn which aspects of our lives support these feelings and which aspects diminish them, we can learn to strengthen our resilience so it's easier to bounce back in the future.
And resilience researchers also point out that this is very specific to us - there is no reason to believe any two people should feel the same about the same thing. So a key part of learning how to be more resilient is noticing how our Life Outlook is affected by different aspects of life.
Further, research on resilience shows that it is better to face the hard truths about our lives than to hide from them. Even though this means we may suffer more in the short term, once we come to terms with hard truths, we are better off in the long run. These studies support the idea that resilience is a natural outcome of learning your life, allowing you to more easily navigate through and adapt to changing conditions.
Strengthening the Ability to Self Distancing
Sometimes we find it hard to "step back and see the forest for the trees." There is a lot of evidence supporting how essential this ability is in helping us make sense of our lives. It makes emotions less painful and helps us maintain mental health, exercise wise reasoning, and exercise self-control. Throughout Inqwire, interactions are designed to help you exercise this innate ability.
Restoring Mental Clarity
When we articulate something by giving it a name or a label, we improve our ability to think about it. Articulation allows us to communicate things to ourselves and others. In folk psychology, the act of articulating is often considered the fundamental part of a therapeutic process. Researchers in cognition have shown that articulation increases our perceptual abilities, which results in faster and more accurate recall of information. It follows that if we practice articulating what matters most to us, we can become better at recalling and holding that information clearly in our minds.
In this way, putting things in our own framework, finding our own voice and listening to it is an essential part of making sense of life.
We just looked at ways in which the culture we find ourselves in may have dulled our natural ability to engage the higher level cognition necessary for making sense, as well as given us a habit of turning to lower level cognition to try to make sense of our lives. We also saw how we can take steps to strengthen and restore this natural capability and leverage it to make sense of our lives with Inqwire. In the next section, we will examine how to further amplify those abilities by using technology to overcome natural biological limitations.
We can Overcome Biological Barriers
The process of making sense of life requires us to artfully put together different meaningful aspects of our lives, and identify how different aspects connect to each other in ways that reveal insights and patterns so we can piece together a cohesive understanding of our lives and navigate it effectively.
Because our working memory is so limited, our memory recall is so slow and unreliable, and what we remember is so contextual, we have intrinsic biological limitations that can make this process slow to impossible if we just tried to do it in our heads.
Increasing the Likelihood of Insights
Insight is that magical 'Aha!' moment, where everything falls into place and a problem is now solved. Insight researchers suggest that the key to finding insights is all about rearranging data. And some researchers argue that this rearranging process is algorithmic. This implies that the process for generating insights is learnable. Recently, insight researchers have shown just that. They were able to teach people to ‘think outside the box’ by training them to use new ways to query a problem that resulted in more insights.
This is completely separate from teaching a rational process. In fact, recent experiments show that rational processes actually interfere with reaching insights. This is consistent with more general research that shows how certain cognitive processes can interfere with perceptual abilities. Inqwire leverages these principles through teaching modes of inquiry that are consistent with insight generation and creating tools for collecting, selecting, and arranging data in ways that both facilitate and increase the likelihood of reaching insights.
Speeding Up Memory
We rely on our memory to learn and make sense of life. But memory is slow - taking on the order of minutes to recall something we haven't thought about for a long time.
However, we recognize information much faster, in a fraction of a second. And when we create a symbol or label for something, it enhances how accurately we bring it to mind later. This means simply the act of creating a kind of 'external memory' is a powerful way to accelerate our thinking. Written language, symbols, diagrams and calculating technologies have all been invented and used as 'arts of memory' to help us more quickly and easily bring to mind what's important.
The process of making sense of life requires us to review life and recall aspects of life we may not have thought about for a long time. Inqwire helps with this process by walking the associations of your mind to help you recall these aspects more easily, and then uses algorithms to present what it captured back to you in the context of another question - to further accelerate the process and overcome this natural memory limitation.
Overcoming the Maze of the Associative Mind
Memory is unreliable. We don’t have access to all of it at any given time. Parts of it can also go away temporarily. This ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomena has been measured to last for days. Memory is filtered by mood as well. When we feel good, we remember good things. When we feel bad, we remember bad things. Memory is stored sequentially in time. So to find the information we want, we must play it forward or backward in time. You can experience this yourself by trying to recall parts of a song or remember which letter comes before which in the alphabet. This makes looking up information incredibly slow. Taken together, we can see how if don't find a way to overcome these effects, we would have the experience of living in a maze - only seeing what is right in front of us.
Research on decision making suggests that when we have a sense of the entirety of a maze, or see how everything is connected, versus a sense of being in a maze, we make better long-term decisions. So how do we learn the maze? Memory researchers tell us that when we learn, we make more associations between concepts. This explains how we are able to think faster and better as we learn a topic. Cognitive scientists now believe that in order to think at all, we have to arrange things relative to each other. And researchers have found evidence that concepts have an intrinsic place where they belong in our 'map of reality'. So in a very real way, just like when we show up in a new town and it feels like a maze until we map it out, in all aspects of our lives we are moving from mazes to maps.
Integrating across Moods
Memory researchers find that memory has a mood bias. When we are happy, we notice and remember positive things. When we are sad we notice and remember negative things. This means that we may have parts of ourselves that have never 'met' or been in our mind at the same time. When we hold things in our mind at the same time that don't go together, we experience a resulting state called 'cognitive dissonance'. Cognitive dissonance is essential to learning. It makes learning stick, and has been shown to be the most powerful tool of behavior change.
Contemporary theories of resilience assert that the way we 'bounce back' is to find life aspects that make us feel opposite to how we are currently feeling. Taken together, this means that if we can reveal these opportunities for cognitive dissonance, the next time we experience something that evokes strong feelings, it will be easier to keep things in perspective and even become more peaceful.
Enhancing Memory Through Integration
Memory research shows that if something has more associations, it's easier to remember. This suggests that if we want to make it easier to remember what matters, we have to make more associations to it. We know that we make associations by bringing things to mind. So, if we bring important aspects to mind in many different contexts, those aspects should become easier to remember.
And it works both ways. The meaningfulness of something in our lives comes from the various contexts we have associated it with. So every time we bring something to mind in a way that fosters making new connections, it too is transformed by the process, moving us towards a more integrated world view and deeper sense of meaning.
Revealing Cognitive Dissonance
When we notice when things don't 'add up', we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. When we experience cognitive dissonance, we naturally get curious. Finding these areas of dissonance is extremely valuable. Cognitive dissonance is essential to learning. It makes learning stick, and has been shown to be one of the most powerful tools for behavior change.
Everyone has different areas of their lives that don't 'add up'. To find these opportunities to learn, we need to be able to freely explore. But without doing so in a guided way, the search for these opportunities can turn into a search for a needle in a haystack. The inquiry-based model of cognition used by Inqwire is designed to provide the guidance to accelerate this search.
We just looked at ways in which the right tools and processes can overcome many of our biological barriers to making sense. In the next section we will examine the nature of social barriers to making sense and mechanisms to help overcome them.
We Can Overcome Social Barriers
Humans are social animals and the benefits of social interactions are well documented and unquestioned. We rely on social interactions for things like warmth, safety, acceptance, understanding, care, companionship, solidarity, family, levity, mentoring and the overall richness of deep and meaningful relationships. With all these benefits we may think that there is never a good reason to be alone.
Because of this, when we turn to others for help with these processes, it is not always helpful and can even be harmful by creating even more barriers to making sense.
Even while holding the best intentions, it is very easy for others to accidentally introduce distortions to our thinking that can leave us more muddled or confused. Or even worse, it can send us in the wrong direction that we only realize much later, if at all. We are also all vulnerable to becoming who others think we are or 'stereotype threat', that can radically change our abilities to make sense of things.
And if that weren't bad enough, we see many examples of others leveraging these mechanisms in large scale ways to intentionally distort other people's thinking for personal gain through various forms of manipulation such as demoralizing, hazing, brainwashing, and peer pressure.
Fortunately, when it comes to making sense of life, the essential components are by their very nature solitary activities. Articulating and expressing our most personal thoughts, asking ourselves clarifying questions, finding new ways to interpret or understand our lives or 'story editing', making sure we listen to ourselves about what to explore, when, and how, each of these activities all involve working with the information coming from within ourselves - so that is where we need to place our attention.
Simply having a process to follow is often enough to work through things on our own. This is exemplified by the incredibly therapeutic effects of simply being alone with one's thoughts through reflection, meditation, time in nature, and journaling.
Further, if we can share the wisdom of our life experiences outside of a social context, and in such a way that we only speak directly to them without 'preaching', and in a manner that shows perspective and clarity, we can largely avoid these distortions. In sharing the information of our lives in this way, we allow the recipient to enlarge and understand parts of life better and intrinsically find more ways to make sense of it.
Overcoming Stereotype Threat
Researchers have found that our identities are plastic. We can be 'primed' to think of ourselves a variety of ways. Astoundingly, who we imagine ourselves to be affects our abilities in a very large way. We take on the abilities of who we imagine ourselves to be. We even change how we think, leading to different performance in different scenarios. When we are in a social setting that puts us into a stereotype, the effect is called 'stereotype threat'. This effect is a key component to the systematic and unfair treatment of people who are lumped into negative stereotypes.
When we examine our identities, it gives us an opportunity to reflect ways in which we are bigger than our identities. This also allows us to examine how we might be applying stereotypes to ourselves, creating artificial limitations..
Personal Writing and Health
The therapeutic effects of writing are well established. Some researchers even argue that writing is the most empirically supported form of therapy. There have been endless studies that reveal how best to do it and when to avoid it. Strong evidence suggests that to get the benefits of writing, we must listen to ourselves for guidance. We should pay attention to how we want to write and when we feel like writing about specific topics. And instead of having a goal about how we want the writing process to make us feel, we should pay attention to how the process of writing actually makes us feel in the moment.
Questions that lead to Clarity versus Distortion
The ability to use suggestive questions that distort each other's thinking is well known in the cognitive sciences. It is at the heart of verbal overshadowing, confabulation, and even full blown false memories. The kinds of questions we ask, how we formulate them, what we suggest, and how we provide suggestions must be done with extreme care to avoid these distortions and potential self-deception.
The questions in Inqwire, and the way they are presented are carefully designed to eliminate or minimize these negative effects in ways that human interactions cannot. Further, people more often than not know when their thinking has been distorted and can use this sense as their guide.
Reconstrual and Health
Our ability to navigate towards health and away from harm depends on how we make sense of the world around us. In other words, it depends on or how our world is 'construed'. Researchers have even found large correlations between the state of the part of the brain that makes sense of the world and a battery of positive health outcomes. This process of making sense of our lives is foundational to developing a sense of meaning. And meaning is also strongly correlated with a long list of positive health benefits.
As we make sense of our lives, we 'reconstrue' to improve our ability to navigate. Current understandings in cognitive science suggest that, like making a map, how we situate our lives into these construals isn't arbitrary. Instead, each part has an implicit correct place relative to everything else, so it is less like spinning a fantasy of our lives, and more like putting together a puzzle. Reconstrual is argued to be the most effective form of psychological intervention. And current research suggests that a shift from ruminating to meaning-making is the key mechanism. This shift has been shown to happen through interactions and questions designed to promote 'psychological distancing', or trying to step back to 'see the big picture'.
Going at Your Own Pace
Making sense of life is not always immediate, sometimes it takes time. Researchers have shown that there is such a thing as writing or intervening too soon after a painful or disruptive life event. And researchers in meaning-making point out that more is not always better and that it is a complex process that relies heavily on individual needs. Memoir writers often have rules of thumb about the amount of time we should wait to share a topic. This is often described as the level of maturity around a topic before it is 'ripe'. Some psychological theories even suggest a need to take the first half of life just to get clear enough on how one should spend the second half. And current research supports that our past never stops serving as a rich source of understanding throughout our lives. This all suggests that we can reap great benefits by harvesting wisdom from the ripened experiences of our past, when it is time.
Charting your Own Course
Planning can be a fantastic way to achieve our goals under the right circumstances. But when we feel blocked or constrained for time, a rigid plan can hold us back. There are times when we are better off being flexible and open to alternate paths to our goal. This means that there is no one-size fits solution for planning. When it comes to determining when and how to make a plan, it is all too important to remember to listen to yourself.
Sharing the Wisdom of Life Experiences
There is no substitute for 'street smarts' or the wisdom of our life experiences. Wisdom is foundational to a strong culture, giving each of us a sense of history and place. And through a process called 'story editing' sharing our live wisdom may also contribute to the psychological well-being of others.
J.D. Frank, a famous psychologist, hypothesized that the job of the therapist was to do just this - challenge a person's assumptions about the world, or their 'story', and offer them more possibilities.
Each life is unique and the wisdom we glean from it is specific to each individual. So we each have valuable perspectives that may contain an essential piece of the puzzle for someone else. Through sharing our stories, we offer an opportunity for others to learn through from our experiences and make their own world larger. And for those who might be facing similar challenges to ones we have overcome, we can offer solidarity, validation, potential solutions, and most importantly, a source of hope.
But the story isn't over. As science learns more, we will keep this guide updated and continue to incorporate the latest understanding into the Inqwire technology. If you enjoyed this collection of research and want to read more, check out the Inqwire curated list of references.
In the science story to come, we will see how Inqwire's integrated process model of cognition, serves as the scaffolding to integrate these key concepts from cognitive science to create more powerful algorithms and suggestions. And we will see how Inqwire's cognitive modeling solution can continue to learn and adapt to the information you give it to improve its algorithms or 'recipes' for addressing these barriers to making sense of life.