Learning By Thinking

Tania Lombrozo in Edge:

LombrozoEdgeSometimes you think you understand something, and when you try to explain it to somebody else, you realize that maybe you gained some new insight that you didn't have before. Maybe you realize you didn't understand it as well as you thought you did. What I think is interesting about this process is that it’s a process of learning by thinking. When you're explaining to yourself or to somebody else without them providing feedback, insofar as you gain new insight or understanding, it isn't driven by that new information that they've provided. In some way, you've rearranged what was already in your head in order to get new insight. The process of trying to explain to yourself is a lot like a thought experiment in science. For the most part, the way that science progresses is by going out, conducting experiments, getting new empirical data, and so on. But occasionally in the history of science, there've been these important episodes—Galileo, Einstein, and so on—where somebody will get some genuinely new insight from engaging in a thought experiment.

The questions that motivate my research concern how we come to understand the social and physical world the way we do. Why are we so motivated to get an understanding of the world? What does that understanding do for us? Those are pretty broad questions that have been approached from lots of different disciplinary perspectives. My own work is most informed by a few different disciplines. One of them is psychology, where people have been interested in the learning mechanisms that allow us to understand aspects of the world; another is philosophy. Traditionally, epistemologists, philosophers of science, have been interested in how we can get a grip on what's going on in the world, how we can effectively interact with the world, and when we arrive at something that we might believe is justified, true, and so on. Those are very broad questions, and part of the way I've tried to get a grip on them empirically is to focus on the question of explanation. People are extremely motivated to explain. If you start eavesdropping on your friends and your neighbors, you'll notice that a lot of what they do is try to explain things that happened in their experience. They try to explain why someone was happy or upset, or why things happened the way that they did.

More here.