The power of abstraction

♾ phil

In 1931, a young Russian psychologist named Alexander Luria wondered if changing people’s work might change the way they think. The Soviet government had started forcing all agricultural land to become collective farms and began industrial development. There were, however, some remote villages that had not been touched by the warp-speed restructuring of traditional society. Those villages became a control group to test his ideas about abstraction.

Here are some excerpts directly from Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein,

Some were very simple: present skeins of wool or silk in an array of hues and ask participants to describe them. The collective farmers and farm leaders, as well as the female students, easily picked out blue, red, and yellow, sometimes with variations, like dark blue or light yellow. The most remote villagers, who were still “premodern,” gave more diversified descriptions: cotton in bloom, decayed teeth, a lot of water, sky, pistachio. Then they were asked to sort the skeins into groups. The collective farmers, and young people with even a little formal education, did so easily, naturally forming color groups. Even when they did not know the name of a particular color, they had little trouble putting together darker and lighter shades of the same one. The remote villagers, on the other hand, refused, even those whose work was embroidery. “It can’t be done,” they said, or, “None of them are the same, you can’t put them together.” When prodded vigorously, and only if they were allowed to make many small groups, some relented and created sets that were apparently random. A few others appeared to sort the skeins according to color saturation, without regard to the color.

Geometric shapes followed suit. The greater the dose of modernity, the more likely an individual grasped the abstract concept of “shapes” and made groups of triangles, rectangles, and circles, even if they had no formal education and did not know the shapes’ names. The remote villagers, meanwhile, saw nothing alike in a square drawn with solid lines and the same exact square drawn with dotted lines. To Alieva, a twenty-six-year-old remote villager, the solid-line square was obviously a map, and the dotted-line square was a watch. “How can a map and a watch be put together?” she asked, incredulous. Khamid, a twenty-four-year-old remote villager, insisted that filled and unfilled circles could not go together because one was a coin and the other a moon.

No amount of cajoling, explanation, or examples could get remote villages to use reasoning based on any concept that was not a part of their daily lives.

Our elementary education naturally prepares us for abstraction. We use abstractions to transfer concepts from one aspect of our lives to the other, effortlessly. But it is extraordinary, that only less than a century ago, abstraction was a tool that was alien to the common populace. Much of our scientific progress is a consequence of developments in mathematics, and mathematics is nothing but putting abstract ideas to real observations. The examples quoted above are the perfect example of why abstractions are powerful. Although, this has its own challenges as Epstein puts in a metaphor,

…premodern people miss the forest for the trees; modern people miss the trees for the forest.