Friday, July 01, 2011

Horizontal vs Vertical Thinkers

I read this essay by Sebastian on zooming in and out of levels of detail in thought and I found something extremely interesting. But to explain what's so interesting about it, I'll have to provide a little context.

Creative (spontaneously creative, really creative) people are called horizontal thinkers for a reason. Despite the fact that synthesis (the cognitive faculty behind creativity) is something that functions strictly vertically. And if creatives are horizontal thinkers then analytics are vertical.

Second Order Effects

Now, obviously there's a second-order effect at work for creative thinkers to be more comfortable thinking horizontally while analytic thinkers prefer to move vertically despite logical deduction having nothing to do with more or less abstraction.

That's not surprising at all since there are many such second-order effects in the world. One of them is planting trees on the sides of roads reduces the rate of fatalities by exploiting perceived risk homeostasis. By making the road seem more dangerous, drivers take more caution so there are much fewer accidents, which swamps the increased fatalities when there are accidents.

Another second-order effect makes positive competition more destructive generally than negative competition despite the fact that negative competition (dragging the winner down) is by definition destructive. This is because at least negative competition allows for stable global solutions, whereas positive competition is inherently unstable.

Second Order Effects of Thinking Over Learning

The reason for this second-order effect seems to be that synthesis allows someone to create linkages that were previously unknown between seemingly unrelated fields. As opposed to simply following up on existing linkages. So the more unrelated fields a creative person knows, the more opportunity they have for their synthesis to kick in. Meanwhile, analytic people gain nothing from learning unrelated fields and so don't do it.

Or put more crassly, a horizontal thinker learns horizontally in order to allow their dominant cognitive trait (synthesis) to kick in spontaneously as much as possible. And a vertical thinker learns vertically in order to avoid relying on a faculty they don't possess. Okay, that may be uncharitable.

The polite form would be that they learn vertically so as to maximize their brain's opportunities for lateral (logical) expansion. Unfortunately, the polite form isn't true since going multidisciplinary would allow just as much lateral expansion as going vertical. And vertical thinkers avoid multidisciplinary work like the plague. They fucking hate it. And they despise horizontal thinkers.

(In fact, there was a paper in First Monday by specialists that measured how much they hate generalists. Of course, they claimed to be measuring how much generalists are inferior. In correspondence with one of the paper's authors, he justified their position by claiming they were RIGHT to hate generalists. This despite their acknowledging the empirical fact that multi-disciplinary teams are much more productive than uni-disciplinary ones.)

So the existence of second-order effects in horizontal vs vertical thinking is all very interesting but unsurprising. No, that's not what was really interesting about the essay.

Synthesis' Vertical Effect

What's interesting is that I've always assumed, and recently proven to my satisfaction, that synthesis moves both up and down without prejudice. When you synthesize from raw data, you are moving up a meta-level. So you're moving strictly upwards. But you need analysis just to perceive there's a difference between the level and meta-level.

People lacking in analysis (eg, Dan Simmons) end up saying crap like "what if love were a fundamental law of physics?" which of course completely baffles anyone possessed of analysis since between fundamental physics and love there exist 6 levels (macro physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, neurology, neurocognition). I mean seriously, WTF?!

So anyways, when you're moving upwards, you're engaging synthesis in order to move upwards, but you're engaging analysis just to SEE that you're moving upwards.

And when you perform that action philosophers call "analysis" which is "breaking things down" and so moving downwards, yes you are engaging analysis in order to produce the raw examples and counter-examples of an abstract concept you want to break down. But you are ALSO engaging synthesis in producing the sub-concepts from the scattered remnants of raw data.

So when you're doing what philosophers call "synthesis" you also do analysis. And when you do what they call "analysis" you also do synthesis! Imagine that, philosophers are out to fucking lunch. A not uncommon state of affairs for those incompetent brain-damaged nimrods. You might even call it Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.

An Entirely Different Phenomenon

What does this have to do with zooming in and out? Everything! Because until I read this essay, I never imagined that there could be a preferred direction along the vertical dimension. I never imagined that synthesis or analysis or whatever you want to call it, would go down more easily than it goes up. And do you know why? Because it's self-evident that synthesis doesn't work that way!

And yet, and this is the amazing part  ... it still seems to be true!! :D It really does seem to be true that people engage in downwards thinking, drilling down into more and more pointless details, than going upwards to see the big picture. Which immediately raises the tantalizing question of how the fuck is this possible?! The obvious answer to which is some completely different phenomenon is at work.

There is one obvious candidate for such a phenomenon but I'll have to explain. There is an Amazonian tribe (I don't think it's the Piraha but I must have read it in the same article) that thinks of time inversely from how Westerners think of it. You see, we all face the future and leave the past behind us. These benighted primitives, and they are primitive, face the past, and brace themselves against the unknown and unseen future coming at them from behind.

Interesting aren't they? Their metaphor for time is more accurate yet more fucked up. More accurate because they're entirely correct that you can't see the future the way you do the past. More fucked up because they're entirely past-oriented. They're uncomfortable with the future and 'moving into the future' would imply 'moving backwards' to them.

Psychological Association of Progress with Motion

Why is this relevant? Well when you move downwards in scope, in your thinking, you imagine yourself facing the problem and moving down it. You imagine yourself moving in the direction you're facing. And when you move outwards in scope ... you're still facing the problem but you're now moving backwards from the direction you're facing.

Could this be why all these worthless losers obsess over progressively more insignificant little details? Because of a psychological hang-up that associates downwards motion with progress? A hang-up that associates stepping back from a problem with moving in the unsafe direction?

It makes me fucking glad I'm a creative let me tell you. For me, progress is ... actually, it's expansion through the volume of possibilities. So I don't seem to have that little hangup at all.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Speaking of insignificant little details, the South American tribe you're thinking of is the Aymara.