In this post, I dissect two key modes of sense-making: narrative and ruminative:
- Narrative Sense-Making
- The narrative mode, often our default due to its vivid place in our experiences, unfolds in a linear, guided fashion, much like a predator hunting its prey.
- However, I argue that its reliance on human experience can become a limitation, especially when it cannot draw on pre-existing knowledge. In a way, it narratives are parasitic on our experience.
- Ruminative Sense-Making
- As a counterpoint, I introduce the ruminative mode, drawing inspiration from the grazing and digestion habits of ruminant animals.
- This mode encourages us to revisit and ponder over information in a non-linear, iterative manner.
- Practical Examples
- To illustrate this ruminative mode, I present the examples of economist Tyler Cowen and quantum computing researcher Michael Nielsen.
- Both these thinkers read in clusters, revisit content, and integrate new insights into their pre-existing knowledge base.
Drawing from these insights, I propose a balanced approach incorporating both modes:
- Initial Exploration (Ruminative Mode)
- This involves broad exploration of a wide range of information, akin to grazing.
- It is non-linear and may often feel like cheating, bit is in fact essential to developing understanding where we don’t have rich prior experience.
- Finding a Narrative Thread (Narrative Mode)
- Once a sufficient level of understanding has been developed, we can trace a narrative thread or path through the information, akin to hunting.
- This is where the traditional deep or close reading takes place. But it is rarely possible on first ‘narrative’ pass.
The ultimate aim of this balanced approach is to cultivate a rich mental ecosystem that employs both modes for optimal learning and understanding.
Note: This structured summary was composed by OpenAI’s ChatGPT with edits and additions by me. You can see the whole conversation with ChatGPT and continue to explore further.
Hunting for sense and cardboard gazelles: The limits of a narrative
“Humans are story telling animals”, “The argument has to tell a story”, “A consistent narrative is the most important part of composition.” “We learn the most from stories.” These are all the kinds of statements we hear in a variety of contexts. Production of materials, expectations of teachers but also of students, readers of books, viewers of films.
Narratives are indeed very powerful and every man, woman and child can come up with an example from their own experience of developing an understanding as they followed the unfolding of a story. Stories not only help us make sense of things, they make sense.
But narratives are not the only way through which we make sense of the world of things and ideas. In fact, if anything, they are parasitic on a much more ubiquitous but underrecognised mode of sense-making which I’d call ruminative.
There are many metaphors for what a narrative does: it unfolds, it takes us on a journey, transports us into different worlds, let’s us see through others’ eyes, builds up a picture.
The basic schema of a narrative is one of journey and destination, construction and product, guidance and guide. But it also contains within it a sense of passivity. Being taken by the hand, shown a view, guided through. And that implies a loss of control. We are just along for the ride, we follow a path set by others.
Yet, the experience that probably every human can relate to is a profound sense of understanding, the almost revelatory experience at the end of a story. And such is the power of that experience that we are loath to tell others of what lies at the end, they must follow the same journey, give themselves over to the same guide because after all, there is only one way to tell that particular story. Peeking at the end is cheating, skipping important parts is missing a step, how can we understand the end, if we did not follow along with the story. So the loss of control is not only worth it, it is necessary to achieve the desired end.
Stories work. We know because we’ve all heard a story. We’ve experienced it. We know there are good and bad stories, easy to follow and confusing ones, but for every destination of the mind, there is a narrative that will get you there, if only craftfully enough composed.
But the question that does not get asked as part of this metaphor is how stories work. What is it about them that makes them work? Narratologists, rhetoricians do ask the question but their answers do not get folded into the metaphor to help us understand its limits.
I’d like to formulate the narrative principle in the starkest terms: stories work as a medium of human sense making because they are parasitic on the human experience. And as soon as they can no longer draw on that experience, they break down and become not only ineffective but directly detrimental to sense making.
Why do we understand stories? What do we learn from them? Stories work because they rely on the rich understanding we have of the world that we develop through the process our life (and, yes, this does circularly include listening to other stories). We know people, their desires, experiences, we have pre-existing schemas and rich images that embody the rich patterns of physical and social causality, we know what happens next.
As we follow a story, we learn many things. Names of protagonists, their goals and desires, their backgrounds, their personalities, relationships to other people, specifics of their environment. But we don’t learn those things from nothing. We simply integrate them into our existing world of knowledge. This leaves space for learning the important things – the dangers of making assumptions about the motivations of others, the complexities of relations between people and things, the existence of tragedic circumstances with no good outcomes, the possibilities of the comic, different ways of experiencing joys and happinesses.
And much of that does not take a lot of learning, we already know many of these things and looking at them through the lens of a new story is no different to looking out of the window on the first morning in a new house. We see the same old things in new configurations. This leaves ample room for additional learning. Names, terms, concepts, geographies, even words in a foreign language.
At the end of Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Rings, or Shogun the reader feels as if they learned much of a new language, lay of the land, customs and habits of another culture, just by following the story. At the end of a book on interstellar travel, the reader is full of knowledge of relativistic speeds, and will feel nothing but smug contempt for those who think that ‘light-year’ is a measure of time. They have learned something just by following a story.
This experience is so powerful that many feel that it unlocks some special key to the complexities of learning. Good example is this discussion of the Didactic Fiction and Michael Nielsen on Discovery Fiction. But they ignore the parasitic nature of most of the power that narratives hold. Narratives are like bridges. Most of the material in a bridge carries the weight of the bridge itself, not just the thing on the bridge. So it is with narratives. To follow the progression, the twists and turns of the story, we already have to understand almost everything else that is inside that story. Change the proportions, and the learning disappears.
Just imagine that you take a story and replace every Nth word with a word in Esperanto. What is the value of N that would allow us to not only to still follow the story but also learn all the new words? How long before all your effort is spent on trying to remember what that particular word meant in Esperanto and the meaning of the story disappears? How long before you’re essentially reading a story in Esperanto and have to go away and learn some Esperanto?
Or you are reading a book about mathematics – there are a plenty of popular books like this. You follow nicely along with the story. Each new paragraph builds up nicely on the previous ones, ties them together with a nice narrative sequence. But then it suddenly stops making sense and there’s almost nothing you can do to get the sense back. You still follow the story about the math but no longer the math. You’re a lion chomping down on a sugar-flavoured cardboard cutout of a gazelle.
We see this very same phenomenon when we look at a traditional textbook introducing a subject. It too tries to tell story and introduce new concepts in a cumulative way that takes the reader on a journey as it unfolds yet another part of the road festooned with enticing morsels of knowledge. But nobody ever learned a completely new subject by reading an introductory textbook from beginning to end in a weekend. The progression of the textbook is not enough.
Often textbooks are actively harmful to their readers because they try to structure the learning as a narrative – find a progressive inner logic in the story of the subject. The problem is that the world of ideas (or even human affairs) is not linear in the way that the world of stories is. It is multidimensional, best described by topological rather than Euclidean means – connections being more important than distances. We cannot make sense of this multidimensional world by following a story, a single path through it. We need to develop a sense of what the world is like to live in by living in it. Real, unvarnished, messy life.
[Aside: A perfect illustration of the limits of this approach is Sheldon teaching Penny physics in Big Bang Theory. Penny wants to learn enough physics to get a better understanding of what her boyfriend does. But Sheldon starts with a story of physics but the ‘narrative’ is only a conceit, a fig leaf that leads directly to abstract concepts that could not have been learned through following his story, or any single story. The Big Bang Theory – Sheldon teaches Penny Physics – YouTube]
Getting the sense back in a field of grass: The potential of the ruminative node
Earlier I said there’s nothing you can do to get back the sense of the story when you lose track of the math plot in a popular book. But that’s not true. You can stop, take out a pen and paper and crunch some numbers. Maybe go away and read some other explanations about the concepts that will offer a different perspective, then come back to the story. Who, after all hasn’t experienced the strange feeling of returning to an old book with a new understanding? You can actively seek that feeling out.
To help think about it, I’d like to offer an alternative or rather a complementary metaphor of sense making that in opposition to ‘narrative mode’ I’d like to call ‘ruminative mode’. This was inspired by Michael Nielsen describing his approach to reading and re-reading a paper as ‘grazing’. Rumination then plays a dual role in this metaphor. On the one hand, it wants to evoke pondering, or literally ‘chewing over’ but it also wants to lean on more of what ruminants do.
The process of how ruminants acquire nutrition to grow and prosper is a much better analog to the process of learning than following stories. In fact, it perfectly describes the sort of learning that must have happened prior to the possibility of any story being understood.
A ruminant (cow, deer, sheep) does not follow a single path to acquire sufficient food for sustenance, growth and reproduction. It will wonder around a field and graze in batches. Nor does it swallow what it finds whole, it chews it a bit first, lets it sit in one of its stomachs for a while, regurgitates and then chews on it some more before finally swallowing it to get all the nutrients out of it.
Both the process of acquiring and processing nutrition for a ruminant is profoundly anti-narrative. It does not unfold, cover ground according to a predefined path to reach a final destination, it jumps about. Sometimes spending time grazing carefully in one place, moving away, returning, rushing off across the field and stopping again for a while to graze some more. And then it takes its time digesting and deriving the benefits.
On the other hand, the way the carnivore acquires sustenance is the embodiment of a narrative. It lies in wait until potential food walks by, then it stalks its prey slowly and carefully following its movement trying as much as possible to remain unseen. The after a mad dash, it pounces and if the ‘narrative’ was successful, has its fill of all the body has to offer. It then lies around digesting the food without any additional effort.
This is often what learning through narratives resembles. Waiting for a good story to come by, following it and then pouncing on it and sucking it dry for all we can get out of it and then going in search of another one. The thrill of the chase is exhilarating but once we’ve made the epistemic kill all we can do is lie around and doze off.
So what does a ruminative mode of sense making look like in practice? We have essentially two related models to look at emulate that we can exemplify with two people who shared their approach economist Tyler Cowen and quantum computing researcher Michael Nielsen.
The main difference between them is what they graze on. Cowen is much more interested in getting an overall sense of an area. That’s why he reads in ‘clusters’ in a way that support understanding. His example is to read two thirds of a book and then go read parts of another one and come back to the first one. He does not take notes or highlight. Although he writes a lot, so that contributes to his processing. His approach is similar to that described by Eric Drexler in How to learn (about) everything.
Michael Nielsen, who gave me the metaphor of grazing, takes lots of notes. And not only that, he puts them into Anki, a spaced-repetition flashcard software and reviews them every day. But he does not read in order at all. He simply ‘grazes’ over the core paper he is reading and takes note of key or interesting concepts every time he goes over these. He then enters these into his flashcards set and reviews them all the time. He adds other concepts from about 10-30 other papers (again reading in clusters) to his card deck and reviews those, as well. At the end of the process, he has a much deeper understanding of the core paper and the field than he could ever have just by reading a single paper.
Both Cowen and Nielsen share the conviction that reading something you don’t understand more slowly or even twice in a row will not help you understand it better. You need to go read widely, before you can read narrowly. Cowen’s approach may sound very scary to many people but Nielsen shows that it can be systematised and focused on a single paper, not just general background which is what Cowen and Drexler advocate.
Mind red in tooth and claw: Bringing narratives and ruminatives together into a single ecosystem
Now, it’s easy to construct scenarios in which one or the other approach to acquiring sustenance (both literal and metaphorical) would be superior. But that would be the wrong lesson to take from the metaphor. The advice is not to become a ruminant or apex predator. The metaphor is not about who you are but about what is happening in your mind. The lesson should be to try to make one’s mind into an ecosystem where both carnivor and ruminant strategies co-exist with one another. And perhaps (for those teaching and writing) to reflect on how we construct sense-making experiences (also known as teaching).
Often, purely narrative learning resembles the release of a ravenous wolf into a field with a few emaciated sheep. Too soon, the sheep are dead and there are no more stories to tell. The wolf has starved itself by succeeding too soon. The predator is in a sense parasitic on its prey, its success depends on the success of the prey to feed and predigest the energy of the plat into something it can sink its teeth into.
Watching a single YouTube video or a TED talk on a subject has that effect. The carefully constructed narrative powers through any gaps in actual understanding a simply leaves a sense of understanding without any ability to make inferences of the understanding. I analysed some examples of this in Explanation is an event, understanding is a process: How (not) to explain anything with metaphor.
But simply unleashing the ruminants onto a field to feed and reproduce indiscriminately is also not a recipe for success. They soon lose all sense of restraint, eat everything in sight and the whole herd becomes weaker as a result. It needs the predator to keep its activities in check (although any individual prey might differ on this point). Something to limit where and how much it can graze. In other words, it needs a narrative.
Rumination is, it turns out, also a technical term describing a symptom of excessing thinking about a negative emotion, dwelling on trauma to the point of emotional and physical exhaustion. And similar lack of focus in academic matters is commonly identified as a cause for failure in doctoral programs (I’ve been there).
What does that mean? Let’s take poor Lex Fridman as an example. He shared his reading list of books he’s like to read in the upcoming year and received no end of abuse and ridicule. His critics made fun of the unbalanced randomness of the books, the strange commitment to reading one every week and thought it was a poor approach to achieving true wisdom.
The critique was coming from both directions. There was no coherent narrative to the books and no book was given its proper context, left no time to chew over it. A lot of the criticism was in bad faith, an attempt to take a public personality down a peg or two but some of it tried to make an educational case. After all, how much better is it to list the top 100 books in a Canon such as this A Non-Western Canon: What Would a List of Humanity’s 100 Greatest Writers Look Like?
How, then, should Lex Fridman go about ‘improving his mind’? To start with, what he’s doing is just fine. Reading random titles from the canon and get a sense of what’s out there. Maybe he’s trying to just say “I’ve read 1984” and that’s as fine a goal as anything. But what would it mean for him to learn about say what Machiavelli was after in the Prince (one of the titles on his list)?
Reading the Prince very carefully would probably not be a great place to start. He might want to skim the book, graze around, take note of some key phrases, terms and concepts. The move around a bit. Have a look at what others have to say about it. Read some modern analogies that will put it in context. Maybe something about history. Then come back to the Prince and read it again now that some of the hard bits had been pre-digested. Now, you can chew it more carefully.
Do all of that above for a while, fatten a field full of juicy sheep. Then see, if he can find a single thread to follow, hone in on a narrative, unleash the wolf to cull the herd some. Tell a story about it. Just going straight for the kill, will not be sufficient. Do what it takes to make sense of the field, then find a path through it.
Or you can follow a guide that does it for you. Here’s a description of a year-long course on How I Taught The Iliad to Chinese Teenagers that essentially tries to construct a more systematic approach to reading a difficult and in many ways ‘alien’ text. In this way, the narrative and ruminative modes co-exist nicely side by side. The narrative is there to provide a path but there are many opportunities to graze and chew things over.
In a way, Michael Nielsen’s approach I described above was focused on a very specific paper from a field in which had some background but was very much a visitor in. He needed the ruminative approach to develop a sufficient understanding to follow the story and then write about it for people who hadn’t done all that work.
The paper in question does tell a story. It has the typical paper narrative structure of introduction, methods, results and discussion (IMRAD – slightly modified for its own disciplinary needs) that tries to take the reader on a journey. But that only works for a reader who’s already done enough grazing in neighbouring fields. Somebody who has sufficient knowledge of the world in which the story is taking place to only have to fill in a few gaps. To a new comer, it will feel like every third word was in Elvish and by the time they looked it up, they forgot what the last word was all about.
Narrative sense making and ruminative sense making are both part of the human epistemic universe. Because narratives are so salient and vivid in our experiential histories, we automatically focus on the story-telling mode of understanding to the exclusion of the alternative. After all, it has good story to tell. So, here I tried to tell another one to see if it will make any difference.