Explorations in Cognition

While it may have been published in 1973, and is likely one of the least exciting reads you could venture through, Explorations in Cognition by Donald A. Norman brought up a point I felt was eloquent and often overlooked. It’s nothing new, complex, or earth shattering. Instead, it’s a simple concept: A single word holds infinite information and meaning.

What’s Really Hidden In a Word

Take the word “John” for an example. We can reasonably assume it is a living being of some sort and likely human.

We can also assume, for instance:

  • the being is likely male (or identifies as such by western cultural standards)
  • a biped
  • capable of movement
  • a receiver of action or the doer of action
  • similar and different to other beings
  • affected or unaffected by events

We assume he is alive, and because he is alive, he will die at some point in the future. Between those times, he will have feelings, and likely even hopes, dreams, friends, and loved ones. And then, there are the things we don’t know. For example:

  • the accuracy of our assumptions
  • what John is doing (or what is happening to him)
  • what brought him to our attention
  • details about his appearance, beliefs, values, personality
  • his location

All of this information and all these questions originate with a single word. Perhaps most interesting for me, however, is that all of this information is as much a reflection of “John” as they are of us. It reveals what we know, think, and assume about the world around us. And in that moment, we’re connected to “John” and the writer of that simple word.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anais Nin

The Important Information Left Unsaid

Norman’s book also introduced the idea of how much information can be hidden in a basic sentence. When we see the sentence “The ball rolled off the table”, our implicit knowledge and experience with the world allows us to fill in the missing information.

If it rolled off the table, we know someone or something placed there at some point. We know it’s not on the table now (it moved on its own), and that the table is uneven. We can even assume the ball made contact with the floor or something lower than the table. Simple, and boring, but the implications of this are important.

When asked to draw a floor plan of a familiar room, Norman explains in the book, the process is the same. We know windows are on outside walls. There are walls inside and along the perimeter of the building, and a door somewhere in one of them. There is a floor below, a ceiling or roof above, and items like staircases have to be in the same location on both (or all) floors. In short, the basic knowledge of buildings and the world around us make it simple for us to construct a primitive image. To finish it off, our minds only need to fill in the details we can’t determine through basic rules.

I’m fascinated by this idea when I consider the implications of it in the real world, and how if affects our interactions with that world and those we encounter. Again, it’s not a new concept. Poetry and literature were based on this fundamental concept. I think it’s something we forget about, however, when we write, speak, or look at the world around us.

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