I work at an open plan office (🤢🤮) and I can’t help but to overhear conversations about a project where the beam on grid line H is in conflict with some double height ceiling, and how they can’t just move it over by a few feet because then it would conflict with the HVAC, etc, etc, etc…
If I pay even a little bit of attention I can fairly accurately construct a mental visualization of the space and conflict in question. No drawing needed, no sketch, just words, and some imagination I guess.
But how? How am I doing this?
Where does this ability come from and how is it developed?
I can’t answer these questions, but there is no harm in speculating. Let’s start by reading what Leon Battista Alberti says in his book On Painting.
“Mathematicians measure the shapes and forms of things in the mind alone and divorce entirely from matter. We, on the other hand, who wish to talk of things that are visible, will express ourselves in cruder terms.”Alberti, L. B. (2004). On Painting. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Before I get into the quote, the bit about “cruder terms”, what is he saying here? What he means by this is that in his book when he talks of points, lines, and planes; he actually wants us to think of these abstractions as real objects in the physical world. To be observed, manipulated, and documented for the creation of a painting.
Ok, back to the quote. Alberti suggests two types of expression, one that sees “shapes and forms” but only in the abstract world, the other sees these same “shapes and forms” but wants to bring them to the physical world.
What I am talking about thought doesn’t really fit into either of these modes, does it? I want to know how Person A can translate a spatial condition into words and using only those words to then tell Person B who should then construct their own mental image of this spatial condition.
Sounds kinda fucked when I put it like that, but let’s keep going.
A. Ericsson and R.Pool in Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise , present a concept that they call “mental representations”.
“A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.”Ericsson, K. A., & Pool, R. (2017). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
According to Ericsson & Pool what I am developing is a mental representation of the shapes and forms that I have overheard. My knowledge and familiarity with these products and how they are assembled eg. 2×4, hvac ducts, beams, etc. allows me to construct a mental image of the scenario at hand.
Further on in Peak, the authors explain, “Mental representations [are] very domain specific” further on in the text, “We saw this with Steve Faloon: the mental representations he had devised to remember strings of digits did nothing to improve his memory for strings of letters.” What we can gather from this is that we have to build on our mental representations. while the skill will not transfer from one domain to the next we understand that creating a mental representation is the key. Which means we have to constantly be observing and taking note of how these “shapes and forms” are rendered over time, space, and scale to build up a network of mental representations.
Two takeaways, one this is an actual skill that is consciously practiced and can be improved. Two, it is domain specific, while I can do this for buildings I’m unlikely to apply the same mental representation for a motor. I don’t know how motors go together and I don’t know all of the names of the parts.