Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Coping with the Unknown

Try a thought experiment.

Imagine yourself in a new world, one very different from the one you are familiar with. Where do you begin? How do you cope?

You have no mental model of this world, no image of how it works, no idea of what it offers or unfolds… Can you deal with the challenge? The stretch it means from the familiar comfort?

Sounds intimidating, but that is precisely what we have all done at least when we were born! Many of us live through such challenges many times over since that day we came on to the world that we grew so familiar with! Those of us who are more adventurous, or have simply retained our childhood ability to learn, actually seek out stretches from our comfort worlds, exploring the unknown.

As new-borns we explored the world we find ourselves in, experienced breathtaking stretches from the comfort of our mothers womb. Every act that resulted in a recognized repeat formed the basis of reinforcing our understanding, building a cause-effect model in our minds.

But how often have we looked at the very way we learn, the way we unlearn, and the way we form our mental models?

What if a Martian landed in your world, where should she begin? How will she cope?

Let’s simplify our thought experiment a bit. If our Martian found herself looking at a game of chess, what would be the learning? What would be the mental model of our world?

Oh, she may say, here is a world that is flat with pieces that move and disappear in almost a compounding pattern with every few moves a piece makes! Maybe they are collectively integrated in some way!

Then of course she notices the colors and talks of two species which seem to compete with each other for some invisible resource and declining their population with every few moves in search for the resource…

Perhaps as she grows more observant she notices 6 kinds of pieces, each with a different probability of disappearing in the next move. Yes, it is possible to bet, based on the rules of thumb, about which piece will disappear next.

Oh, there is a pattern about the disappearing piece; it is always replaced by a piece of the other color. As moves proceed the movements that cause replacement, or avoid replacement, seem most likely! So this seems to be some kind of a war dance? A battle?

But then each kind of piece seems to have a different movement pattern. Some move straight, a step at a time, others diagonally, yet others in more complex steps. Then there is a rhythm, first the white ones move, then the black. There is still a randomness about which one of the white or which one of the black will move.

Then she notices the two players who actually move the pieces! Now that is like god’s hand? Or are these two larger pieces? Are there larger ones? Looks like these two large pieces move things in a pattern and sometimes show some expression unlike the smaller pieces…

But then what is the purpose of these smaller or larger pieces? What would it be to survive in this world?

Do you have additional models our Martian visitor may have?

Is it any surprise that the ability of our Martian friend to cope with the chess world with different mental models is radically different? How can the Martian decide on the model that would make her most effective? Is there any other way? What makes the most effective model effective?

Like your Martian visitor, how do you make your stretch to cope with the new world unfolding today?

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