Visualizations that relieve a constraint

“How can visualisations aid thinking?” This was the central question at a small symposium on Think Tools last weekend. IMO, they can probably relieve a certain constraint which one might identify to constrict thinking.

Consider a very early stage of thinking about the three concepts symbolized in green, red, and blue. You know them already and have them in long-term memory, but you don’t yet know the relationships between them: No connectors yet shown between them in the upper left part of the picture.


1. Before a plausible pattern of relationships emerges, you may need to juggle the items around and try out various hypotheses about their proximity and their connections.

  • In short-term memory, the arrangement and linkage is perfectly flexible; you can mentally rotate and rearrange them as you like (just as the sense of directions and orientation is handled there).
  • But once you add more concepts to the mental picture, you find yourself wanting to fix some of them as if their links were already more familiar, like assured knowledge in the long-term memory, or as if they were solid tangible objects.

With a sheet of paper, you can make them tangible and physical (well, at least their handles/representatives/stand-ins, their names). And if you use a virtual sheet of paper, like a blank slide of a visualization application, you can move the textboxes around with their current connectors sticking.

So, if one’s worst constraint in a thinking task is the limited flexibility to shuffle around and rearrange (#70) one’s long-term memory content, then visualizations are the remedy to elevate this constraint.

2. Another constraint might exist if the number of items grows too large. The short-term memory is said to be limited at magic 7 items, and one may see the visualization space as a simple extension that allows to keep additional items. Probably this explanation it too superficial. But some sort of such number and space limitation may probably be a major constraint for a certain type people who love to have everything available on a single, comprehensive, closed collection on large surface or window.

This latter style can often be observed when working with the PC. I think, the desktop (in the narrow sense, i. e. the special folder shown as background at startup) can, in a way, be compared to the short-term memory (see right-hand side of the graphics). It holds cues to the long-term memory: shortcuts to the folders on disk or (more general:) representatives, handles, stand-ins that link to details that are currently hidden/zoomed-out.

Different people have different attitudes towards this sort of hierarchically collapsing/expanding, hiding/showing, or zooming. Perhaps this difference is congruent to the filer – piler dichotomy. Perhaps,

  • for “pilers”, above constraint (2) comprehensiveness, number, size, is more constricting, while
  • for “filers”, constraint (1) rearrangeability is more important?

In any case, one needs to find out for oneself, and elevate the corresponding constraint.

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