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No. 83 (May 2005)

Coming to Our Senses:
Abstractions Need Sensory Referents

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Senses and Science
Photograph by Elan Sun Star

Abstracting, by bunching lots of situations and phenomena into labeled categories, saves a lot of time and allows your formal conscious mind to reduce special considerations, simplifying toward the famous 7 plus or minus two that one is supposed to be able to hold in mind at one and the same time. But its drawback is that it removes you from the realities with which you are trying to deal.

Like fire, abstracting is a wonderful servant and a terrible master.

Science — and especially physics — have been seeking to bunch all phenomena into describable abstractions which we call "natural laws." This is a wonderful thing to do, even though we've still an unbelievably long way to go on that before we have it right.

If we don't have solid sensory referents for what these abstractions mean, though, we're in trouble. They slide away from us. We can't quite grasp them. We can't accurately manipulate them to arrive at correct new abstractions. We get badly confused.

Science, especially physics, is taught largely through its abstractions. To make that work for you, you have to rebuild back in some of those sensory-based referents, one way or another. The part of our mind and brain that knows best how to do so is also the part which handles nearly all of our experience and in a sensory-associative way — the part of our brain and mind which we can consult through Image-Streaming and related processes. This side of Image-Streaming are all those other sensory and imagination-stirring ways, some in the first chapter of Beyond Teaching And Learning and some discussed at ImageStream@yahoogroups.com .

It's ironic that science has become the most timid of professions, people desperately afraid of losing their funding (and thus becoming unable to practice today's highly capitalized "science") if they were seen thinking wrong thoughts or even talking to the wrong people.

Amazing that through most science today, the authoritative source of a hypothesis counts for so much more even than the scientific testing which is what "science" used to be about, an egalitarian democratic access to the evidence for all. Remember back when? — when what "science" was for and was uncovering, was anathema to all authority? I'm grateful that what was "science" then, won. Then.

What all that means for now is that scientists and students of science who find themselves stranded high and dry on the peaks of abstraction, without an intuitive feel and guidance where to go from there, generally don't know anything of what we've just discussed here, and don't have access to techniques for, nor even the concept of, using sensory involvement, imagination, or intuition.

Anyone now a student of physics, nuclear physics, high-energy physics, or cosmology:  If you don't let on too much to your professors, classmates and, later, peers as to what you are doing, you may survive for that reason to become one of our major scientists. You may think your understanding of the cosmos and of high-energy physics is fragile and uncertain, but you are using the means that will repair and build that understanding, while those around you don't have that advantage and mostly would reflexively reject those means, were they offered them.

This, incidentally, is the main reason why nearly all physicists make such contributions as they do before the age of 30 and afterward either only teach or only take up space. They literally need to come back to their senses.

To give you further advantage in your pursuit of science, please let me recommend to you the following: Support for Higher Productivity in the Sciences and especially Idea Generator; Winsights No. 72, Effective Problem-Solving: Using What We Know; No. 44, Build Your Ability to Understand Everything!; and — of course — Beachhead. These will be a few of the special elements in our forthcoming book of creativity techniques for scientists.


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Win Wenger

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