How To Understand Things

How To Understand Things


Table of contents

In this episode, we discuss Nabeel Qureshi's recent blog post "How to Understand Things". We go through the post's main points, and talk about our own experiences of learning and understanding things, from school to university to today.

Here are some of the highlights from the blog post and our discussion:

What we call ‘intelligence’ is as much about honesty, integrity and bravery as it is about raw intellect. We usually equate intelligence to something like IQ but Nabeel argues that the IQ definition of intelligence is a hardware test. He suggests that hardware is part of our intelligence but another big part is our intellectual integrity, honesty and bravery and how we respond when it comes to facing concepts that we don’t understand – this is what he calls our software. Hardware traits vary greatly in the smartest people but the thing that they all have in common are the intellectual honesty, integrity and bravery that they really understand something before moving on.

People often claim that they understand concepts but true understanding is often illusory and their ‘apparent’ understanding might only be superficial. When you do understand something properly, it’s almost as if the structure isn’t there and the weight of trying to store this thing in your head just vanishes as clarity emerges.

It is uniquely easy to lie to yourself because there is no external force keeping you honest – only you can ask yourself if you really understand something. It’s easy to fall into the trap of convincing yourself that you understand something. But figuring out whether you actually understand it is quite hard and requires intrinsic motivation. This is why writing is really important because if you’re writing about something it’s hard to fool yourself into thinking you understand it because it’s hard to put it into words.

William Shockley – “Motivation is at least as important as method for the series thinker. The essential element for successful work in any field is the will to think”.

We don’t learn something by transmission, we learn it by reconstruction. Whenever we are taught something, we have to reconstruct that knowledge from the ground up, in our own way, in our own heads, in order to understand something properly. Taimur draws upon his ‘Dark Room’ metaphor to illustrate:

"The Dark Room Metaphor
Learning something new is like exploring a room. You don’t really know anything to begin with, so the room is pitch black. You slowly walk through, fumbling around. You bump into things. You trip over things. You’re not sure exactly what the things are, but you can feel out their shapes. You slowly build up a map of the room in your head. Eventually, you find the light switch and turn it on, and everything comes together — it all makes sense.
That’s one way to find out what’s in the room.
Another way is for someone to take a picture of what’s inside, and just show you. On the face of it, this accomplishes the same thing, much faster — you get to know what’s in the room. But in reality, this understanding is much more brittle. Chances are, if someone showed you a picture of the same room from a different angle, you wouldn’t recognise it.
This is one way to think about constructionism. By exploring the room on your own, you build up your own 3d-model of it in your head, and you can freely manipulate this model as required. Whereas if all you’ve seen is a picture — and this is what instructionism is closer to — you can’t use that knowledge in the same way".


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What is this? Not Overthinking is a podcast about happiness, creativity, and the human condition. We talk about things to help us think, do, and be better. Things like social interaction, lifestyle design, mental models...things that are hard to examine, but important to explore. And hopefully, things that make for a fun and interesting chat every week.

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Who are we?

Ali is a junior doctor and YouTuber working in Cambridge, UK. He makes videos about medicine, technology, productivity and lifestyle design. His links: YouTube, Blog, Newsletter, Instagram

Taimur is a data scientist and writer, working on his own startup Causal. He writes on his blog and as a columnist for Medium. His links: Blog, Twitter, Medium, Instagram

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