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The Science of Sensemaking

Learn about the science of making sense.

Total Read Time: 30 - 60 Minutes

Making Sense is the Most Important Life Skill

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Having the sense that one’s life has meaning and purpose is believed to be an outcome of having "made sense of life", also known as "meaning-making", and it has been shown to be correlated with everything in a colored circle and anti-correlated with everything in a grey circle.

We are born with a full capacity to make sense because it is fundamental to navigating our lives. But far from rudimentary, science has only recently come to understand that our ability to make sense is actually the highest form of cognition, and essential to our long-term well-being. Tragically, based on outdated science, most of us have been taught to ignore it. This makes restoring and strengthening this capacity to make sense the most pressing and important life skill.

For many, the idea of making sense of life is as useful and fruitful as trying to answer philosophical questions like "what is the point of it all?", or "why are we here?", or "what is the meaning of life?". And reflecting on life is seen as the kind of thing that some people just like to do and others don't, with no real tangible outcomes.

But far from optional, making sense of life is something we are all doing, all the time. And as we shall see, not only is it considered by many to be the highest form of intelligence, how well we do it is fundamental to navigating our lives and is key to long term well being.

Sensemaking is Fundamental to Navigating Our Lives

When we can't make sense of our life, we may feel that we are lost, that life has lost meaning or purpose or that we are unable to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes, we may find ourselves wondering what the point of it all is. We may feel a need to 'sort things out in our heads' or to remember 'the big picture'. If these feelings go on for a long time, we may even start to feel hopeless or despairing. When we can't make sense of life, it becomes much more difficult to navigate out of painful life circumstances and towards what we care about. It also becomes harder to bounce back when life throws us a curve ball.

It's no surprise that researchers who study meaning-making find that the ability to make sense of life and resulting feeling that one's life has meaning correlates with just about every measure of well-being and anti-correlates with a variety of illnesses, diseases, and disorders, suggesting that when we make sense of life we are more proactive about our health, which makes sense. When we make sense of something we can exercise more foresight.

Brain scientists are seeing similar evidence. The Human Connectome Project found that the one commonality between 500 measures of health and well-being, was high connectivity between areas of the brain that are responsible for higher level cognition - or the parts of the brain we need to make sense of life. Many researchers are coming to the conclusion that restoring health and well-being isn't about isolating a 'broken' part of our brain, it's about restoring connections that enable our brain to make sense. Some even predict that this will be the future of how we think about psychological health.

Making Sense of Life is the Key to Long Term Well Being

Life is not fair. Many of us will face debilitating, horrific, or relentlessly painful life circumstances. We will face tremendous sources of loss, regret, and betrayals. We may wonder how these difficult life circumstances affect our long term well-being and if we have any control over the effects. While it can be hard to conclusively say what leads to long term well-being, a number of powerful studies point at the importance of making sense of life.

In the famous 'Nun Study' researchers found that they could predict which nuns would get Alzheimer's disease, simply by looking at the quality of their writing in the entry essays they wrote as young women joining the convent. They found that the more dense the ideas were and complex the sentence structure - signs they had thought through the decision to join the convent more thoroughly - the less likely they would develop signs of Alzheimer's decades later. In another study, a computer program was able to predict which teens would later develop psychosis, again by looking at the quality of their speech and noticing when things 'didn't add up' or 'make sense'.

Long term studies of people who lived through the Great Depression examined how life circumstances affected life satisfaction in old age. They found what predicted life satisfaction wasn't if we suffered adversities or not. What mattered was if we had the intrinsic capacity to make sense out of those adversities and transform them into personal wisdom. So, if we do succeed in making sense of our adversities, we actually turn out wiser. And in the long run, we become more wise than people who haven't suffered any kind of adversity. But, if we don't succeed in making sense of our adversities, then we can expect to find ourselves worse off in the long run than others.

Researchers also found that the resulting wisdom from making sense of life, if present, was also the top predictor of life satisfaction later in life, even over life circumstances, such as health, economic status, or even social relationships, implying that this investment of making sense of life continues to bolster our general well-being.

So can we train our ability to turn adversities into wisdom? A separate study of making sense through a cognitive skill called 'wise reasoning' found that after only 5 minutes of solitary reflection, people on average increased their wise reasoning skills by an astounding 30%. It has also been found that different cultures have different propensities for wise reasoning, implying that we can cultivate it.

But making sense of life may not be easy. Researchers who looked at genetic testing for diseases found that people who decided to get tested and found out they were going to develop a life threatening disease later in life, suffered from lower levels of subjective well-being in the short term than those who weren't tested - and therefore didn't know. But as the group that got the prognosis made sense or 'came to terms' with their situation, they consistently had higher overall well-being than those who decided not to know whether they were going to develop a disease later in life. And across the board there was no increase in distress in the long term for people that tested positive for life threatening diseases versus those that tested negative, demonstrating the power of our ability to come to terms with the largest life adversities.

Taken together, there is a lot of support for the idea that the best investment in a high quality of life down the road, is to start making sense of life as soon as possible.

Making Sense is the Highest Form of Intelligence

There are many different kinds of intelligence and researchers currently do not agree on a single definition. But intelligence researchers do agree that the most challenging kind of intelligence to recreate in the lab is the intelligence we need as living organisms to make sense of our environment and learn how to thrive within it, what researchers call natural intelligence.

Natural Intelligence is what we used as infants to teach ourselves how to understand language and ultimately navigate our physical and social environment to get all our basic needs met. Researchers on development now hold that in order to do this, we are all natural born scientists. And our greatest human achievements are simply an extension of this natural intelligence.

We create new tools and languages that continue to extend our ability to make sense beyond our physical senses. We do this through scientific models, mathematics, the arts, music, and computer simulation. We use these tools to make sense of complex, dynamic systems, such as societies, biologies, celestial bodies, the earth's life support system, and ecosystems. And as we do this, we increase our ability to thrive within these systems as we increase our ability to make sense of life.

But as our technological power increases, we impact these systems in larger ways. And if our natural intelligence does not keep pace, we have the capacity to harm or destroy the very systems that keep us alive. Where Artificial Intelligence has surpassed human intelligence in some areas where the rules are well defined and don't change, such as games, statistics, and static pattern recognition, in areas that depend on natural intelligence to continually make sense of a dynamic environment, Artificial Intelligence is in its infancy.

This means that we must continue to rely on human intelligence, and cannot turn to Artificial Intelligence to create a world that makes sense. Our ability to impact our environment is currently out-pacing our ability to make sense of those impacts and make naturally intelligent decisions, leading to dangerously short-sighted thinking across the planet. Now more than ever, cultivating natural intelligence, both in ourselves and in others will be essential to making sense of our rapidly changing world and finding ways to survive and thrive, both individually and collectively.

Can we Increase our Intrinsic Capacity to Make Sense of Life?

With how fundamental making sense of life is to the well-being of ourselves and the world around us, increasing this capacity would be the single most powerful thing we could do to effect positive change in our lives. But how? Modern cognitive science has revealed a variety of obstacles to making sense of life, and corresponding principles for how to overcome them. Principles that are ripe for harnessing and amplifying with technology.


Contact Support

If you need help, want to give us feedback, want to suggest a topic for a topic, or need to report a bug, use this form to send us a message and we will get back to you as soon as possible.