Sunday, February 18, 2024

Cognitive Processes (Cont'd)

We are often not fully aware of how our experiences shape how we approach new problems.  Would an increased awareness of how our experiences shapes our cognitive schema enhance our ability to problems solve?

Cognitive Schemas

Our cognitive schemas—mental frameworks helping us organize and interpret information—are intricately woven from our experiences. They play a pivotal role in how we perceive new situations, tackle problems, and make decisions. I don't spend a lot of time analyzing my own mental frameworks but once in a while, I become aware of the connection between a recent insight and a prior experience.  

The trigger for this post was one such insight.  I was exploring a specific aspect of the knowledge graph I am building, and I had one of those little Haha! moment when a new idea or concept emerges.  These little learning moments deserve more attention than they tend to get.  In the excitement of writing down the idea or exploring it further, it can be challenging to pause and ask "Where did this insight come from? What is the source?" The idea is that if I understood more about the cognitive processes that lead to an insight, I would "simply" create the conditions and environment for more insights to emerge.  In fact, building a knowledge graph from my notes is an experiment to see whether and how it will facilitate "insight mapping". 

Here are some ways our cognitive schema impact how we approach problem solving:

Pattern Recognition

Our brains are wired to recognize patterns based on past experiences. When faced with new problems, we subconsciously search our memory for similar situations or outcomes. This can lead to faster problem-solving but also biases our approach to what has worked or not worked in the past.  I keep a digital folder for ideas that failed because you never know when they might need to be resurfaced for a second try under new and different conditions.  Many are probably ideas whose time hasn't come yet and it would be a shame to dismiss them.

Expectations and Predictions

Experiences influence our expectations and predictions about future events. If past experiences have been positive, we might approach new challenges with optimism and confidence. Conversely, negative experiences could lead to apprehension or pessimism, affecting our willingness to take risks or try new solutions. By consciously shifting my perspective, I've learned to approach problems with renewed vigor, informed by the past but not shackled by it (or move on and totally unshackle myself).

Heuristics and Biases

Heuristics are mental shortcuts we use to make decisions quickly. While they can be efficient, they are also prone to biases shaped by our experiences. For example, the availability heuristic makes us overestimate the importance of information that comes to mind easily, often based on recent experiences or emotionally charged events. The advice to "sleep on it" resonates with me as a reminder of the emotional undercurrents that often drive our decisions. Giving ourselves time to detach and reflect can unearth patterns and solutions previously clouded by immediate reactions.

Creative Thinking and Innovation

Diverse experiences can enrich our cognitive schemas, making us more adaptable and creative in problem-solving. Being exposed to varied situations and learning from them can broaden our perspective, allowing us to draw on a wider range of solutions when faced with new challenges.  What if we more consciously asked ourselves simple questions like, "Where and when have I encountered a similar challenge?" "How is the similar to or different from this prior experience?"  I was reminded of this in the recent podcast I did with Enterprise Knowledge, during which Zach noted that I had acquired over my career, a great diversity of experiences around KM. That is very and deeply informs my approach to KM -- it may also inform why I am often frustrated with small-scale efforts that touch on a very narrow KM scope. 

Learning and Adaptation

Our ability to learn from past experiences and adapt our schemas accordingly is crucial. Reflecting on what has worked or failed in the past and why can help us approach new problems more effectively, avoiding previous mistakes and being open to novel solutions.  The challenge is that while learning from past experience is key, we often don't do it well and unless we are more conscientious about our approach to learning, we don't necessarily learn the right lessons, or we generalize too much and miss the point that most lessons are very contextual.  When they are not context specific, they are common-sense and of limited value. 

Our experiences are invaluable, yet without mindfulness, they can narrow our vision and stifle creativity. Recognizing and reflecting on the myriad ways our past influences our present can empower us to face new challenges with a balanced and open mindset, ready to draw from the past but eager to forge new paths.

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