Sense-Making: Why It Matters

Not all connections you make will be useful. It’s like brainstorming: some things will just become a bunch of “crumpled paper” among the notes in your mind.

Connect the dots. Put two and two together. Fill in the gaps. Connecting ideas is what we do all day long, every day. It’s what helps us match one thought to another, however different they might be, and arrive at something great. 

Neil Gaiman once wrote: 

“It is summer, and the grass is a peculiarly vivid shade of green: a wholesome green, like a cricket pitch or the welcoming slope of the South Downs as you make your way north from the coast.”

And there you have it: a connection. A simile, to be more precise. It’s fair to ask yourself “how the hell did he arrive at that?” when you have just read something you wouldn’t have come up with yourself. While it does take thought and a writer's mind to connect the slopes of the South Downs to ordinary grass, our brains are wired to do such things. 

Authors could grab that same exact concept (grass) and make another connection with another seemingly unrelated thing. They could do it for hours, yet this time conscious that they’re doing it. They’d have to spin a couple of wheels there and try to pull interesting associations from their memory. But, however complicated a connection may seem, landing on it isn’t based on thought alone. 

Creating connections requires stimulation and inspiration. It requires us to make sense of how two or more things work together. 

But don’t think you have to bang your head against a wall to do that. Forcing that connection and sense-making will only give you a headache. 

I have no idea how old you are, but you’ve only faced so many experiences in life, and therefore your knowledge is limited. I’m not calling you stupid, because the same thing happens to every person on Earth. All I’m saying is: at all times, your brain must be confronted with fresh information in order to perceive things in a new way.

The source of that information? People. Books. Movies. Experiences

Why do you think Mad Men’s advertising executive Don Draper advises his coworkers to step away from their work for a while? Because when they do anything else -- take a walk, talk to someone, or watch a film -- an unexpected idea is likely to pop right on their faces. After all, their brains will be receiving novel information that could result in unexpected connections. You should try it sometime, and let me know how it goes. 

Your brain is always whirring its engines, working in the background, and pocketing useful bits and patches that will be useful later on. When, exactly? I don’t know, and neither do you. You will, when you make a new connection and go “huh, that’s interesting.”

But are those connections easy to make? A lot of times, yes. But definitely not when your brain is a mess. 

It’s Hard to Make Sense of Things During the Era of Information Overload 

Your brain sure can store a lot of information, but it’s not an infinite source. Interestingly, people compare brains to machines while forgetting that machines can overheat, particularly when there’s a bottleneck somewhere.  

Your brain is the size of an egg compared to the mounds of information available out there. So is mine, and that’s fine. We can’t expand it in size, thankfully, but we can expand it in content.

Although having access to all kinds of information is awesome, our brains will never be able to absorb all of it. That’s humanly impossible. Yet, we also tend to forget that our brains are like highly trainable muscles, which can strengthen their connections by consuming valuable, fresh content. By valuable and fresh content, I mean the “cream of the crop” of information or the things we’re most likely to remember and use in the long term. It’s even more helpful if this information challenges you. 

So, how do you do that? How do you strengthen your brain’s sense-making abilities?

First, you’ve got to give your brain time to make sense of things by decluttering them and removing any bottlenecks to fluid thought. It’s no wonder clearing your mind is the gateway to sharper focus. Whenever your thoughts get stuck, this interrupts your mental workflow and its ability to go smoothly from one thing to another. This barrier, in turn, prevents you from finding the thing you’re looking for, or the idea you never knew you could arrive at. 

In order to clear the path, you must take a step back and give your brain something to work with. You must give it new information.

But where can you find that information when there’s so much to look at? Just one source of information seems to be leading you to 100 more sources, and that branches into a smorgasbord of things that aren’t going to be useful (or remembered) at the end of the day. 

That's why you need to start curating your content. Smart content curation has the ability to share with you the best information each source has to offer. What goes into curation is already pre-selected knowledge -- something that’s already meant to be helpful and memorable in the long term cinched down into its most essential level. 

By consuming curated content, you can get memorable pieces of information, which will sink into your mind more easily and facilitate your connections. Whatever associations you arrive at, you’ll have collected them from one or multiple smart sources. 

Knowledge Alone is No Match for Sense-Making and Collective Learning

At its most basic level, think of making connections as that word association game you used to play as a kid during boring road trips. You know, that one where, when someone said “star”, you’d follow with a word like “moon”. And after “moon”, someone could say “night”, or anything else that relates to those two words. At the end of the game, you may find that a simple word such as “star” has another gazillion terms that relate to it. 

Another example involves creativity tests, like the Bridge-the-Associative-Gap test, also known as a “convergence thinking” test. In this test, participants are supposed to, as the name suggests, bridge the gap between two different words with a third word. The most widely used example is an association between the words “giraffe” and “scarf”, and the answer would be “neck”. The evaluator of the test can then determine the adequacy of the word chosen. If the participant passes the test, they’re rated high on a creativity score. 

These are just examples to say that, in all instances, it’s not the connection itself that matters. What matters is what you ultimately get out of it. 

What matters is, what are you going to do with the information you acquire, day after day? It’s not supposed to just marinate in your brain. It should get you somewhere, even if it is just a brief insightful moment. Bringing in novel information and relating it to something else is like a power shot for your brain. 

Connection after connection, we arrive at insights and learn something new, which is essential if we want to improve our memory and sharpen our minds

Now, if one brain is capable of incredible sense-making alone, imagine a bunch of brains thinking and making connections together. You’ll arrive at your “eureka!” much faster. That’s why collaborative learning and sharing of ideas are essential in every successful workplace. 

People often get a new perspective on something when they hear it from someone else and let that sink in. “I never thought of it that way” is one of the most valuable phrases that can come out of your mouth. 

Whenever you go through this perspective-shifting process, even if you don’t feel it, you can bet you just got a little bit smarter than before. It's an enlightening moment if you’re open to learning new things.

Knowing How Your Thought Process Works (and Uniting It With Someone Else’s) May Help You Make Better Connections

Collaboration software like Google Workspace has pretty much saved us during the worst stages of the pandemic. What we couldn’t do in person, we did successfully through the screen with a smart set of tools designed to make connections easier. 

Because collaboration is so crucial, more and more apps are building their features around it. Apps like Glasp Web Highlighter not only allow users to highlight articles online, but they can also share their learnings with other users. This way, they’ll be leaving a legacy while learning from other users’ curated knowledge. 

Roam Research is another interesting one. It’s a note-taking tool that’s all about exploring networked thought. The way it works is different from other note-taking apps in the market, as it’s the one that mimics the neurons of the human brain. 

Roam and Glasp does what your brain does: it creates smart links between different concepts. Put simply, users can connect their ideas to someone else’s ideas in the form of a shared graph. This is collective sense-making in a nutshell. 

As you already know, our brains go from one thought to another seamlessly -- that’s how it works. Yet, the majority of apps work the opposite way. All of our important files are scattered throughout different folders and docs, which you could call the “file cabinet” approach. If you’d like to connect ideas using that approach, you’d have to multiply your mental effort.

First, you’d need to look for the information. Then, you’d need to sift through different files, tags, and names. Although so many apps work hard to optimize our time, it’s not the amount of time it takes. Instead, it’s the process that’s outdated. 

Our brains work through associative thinking, and Glasp does a similar thing. It’s a tool for building personal knowledge graphs but at the same time, the user can also share and develop their knowledge with like-minded people. It’s designed to make connections between previously unrelated ideas. 

This way, there’s no need to segment your thought process and hamper your fluid thinking. Following your natural thought process is much less time-consuming. Of course, no app will reach the immense intricacy of the human brain, but they can get close. 

Some Things Will Make No Sense. But Others Will. A Lot. 

Not all connections you make will be useful. It’s like brainstorming: some things will just become a bunch of “crumpled paper” among the notes in your mind. Other notes you’ll simply forget about because they weren’t that useful, to begin with. But along the way, you’ll find the golden bits you could never have come up with by yourself. 

Sorry to break it to you, but you never come up with things yourself. No one does. Making connections is never a one-sided thing. The easiest way we can make sense of this world around us is by sharing our knowledge with other people and having them share theirs with us. 

In your brain, you have a sea of wandering pieces of information that, without being connected to something else, is nothing. They’re like viruses, which can only survive if they’re inside a living host. There’s another connection I wouldn’t have come up with, hadn’t I exchanged a couple of words with my Biology professor back in High School, but this post is getting long so I’ll keep this for next time. 

See you next time

Kazuki