9/05/2012

A global-to-local continuum of thinking: Where are you?

I've been thinking a lot lately about "global" and "detail-oriented" thinking styles.  I'm not satisfied with what I've read on the subject, because it conflates having a global style with being spatially bright but verbally less talented and having a detail-oriented style with the reverse.  It also conflates global thinking with preferring to take in information visually and detail-oriented thinking with preferring auditory input.  I see this as a mistake, and not only because I believe myself to be a global thinker with verbal talents, spatial weaknesses, and difficulties with auditory learning.  More convincingly, one might consider the enhanced perceptual processing of autistic people to be both detail-oriented and highly visual.

However, I do think such styles exist, and deserve to be more rigorously characterized.  Here's my first pass at doing so.

I see global thinking as:
1) Global thinkers learn by starting with a whole and working towards the parts.  For example, when studying the events leading up to the American Revolution, one might think about "events that led American colonists to stop seeing Great Britain as the benevolent mother country they aspired to be and start seeing it as a threat to their way of life."  One might then think of the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, and so on.  Depending on the whole one chooses to explain something like the American Revolution, one may choose to start and end with very different events (e.g., starting with the first colonies vs. starting with the French and Indian War; ending with the end of the Revolutionary War vs. the adoption of the Constitution).  In addition to relating parts to a whole, one can also relate parts to each other within the context of a whole.

One downside is we don't "learn by doing" very easily.  I hated doing science experiments in school because they seemed pointless to me as a global learner.  If they didn't come out right, which they typically didn't, they wouldn't illustrate the concept.  If they did, I still wouldn't have seen the point because without knowing the principle, I wouldn't have known what to look for.  But if I already knew the principle, then there would be no point in conducting the experiment anyway, because it wouldn't tell me anything new.

2) A global thinker cannot understand, or remember, the parts of a concept without relating them to a whole (or to each other within a whole).  Someone who plays Dungeons and Dragons can effortlessly remember vast tables of statistics for the various types of characters because they can compare, say, the rate at which a fighter and a wizard increase in physical strength and relate this to their role in the world.  Someone less familiar with the game would have difficulty keeping track of the hundreds of numbers involved.  Many people have difficulty with subjects like history because they seem like a set of isolated, meaningless facts.  If they were able to figure out a larger context or narrative, the subject would become easier.

3) As a result, global thinkers have less to remember.  They can often derive facts from known principles.  This can make studying and test taking a lot easier.

4) When global thinkers encounter a new fact or instance, they always wonder what larger conclusion or principle can be drawn from it.  For me, two or three similar-looking instances are enough to make me wonder about a larger pattern.  I'm always having to remind myself that 2-3 examples may be enough to suggest a hypothesis, but it's not enough to count as evidence for anything.

5) Global thinkers will generally be correct if they have a natural bent for a subject, and incorrect if they don't.  This is especially true if they learn by making "mental leaps" rather than taking one step at a time.  In my case, I could instantly spot "important passages" in novels such as The Brothers Karamazov that would be brought up in class, but my intuitions regarding physics would generally be wrong.  

6) Strengths: Global thinkers are good at building theories and conceptual frameworks.  They can do a lot with very little information.  They can integrate information and theories across disciplines because they can see similarities and differences in how different fields deal with the same topic without getting bogged down in the millions of related details that do not directly relate to these. 

7) Weaknesses:  Global thinkers can "jump to conclusions" from insufficient data" because they're always looking for a larger pattern.  It's important to train global thinkers in critical thinking so they can overcome this tendency.  A global thinker who hasn't developed their logical abilities or is closed to new information comes off as fuzzy-headed and muddled.

8) Weaknesses: Proofreading or managing citations for a large research piece are the bane of our existence.  While we can do it, and even do it well, it takes a lot more time and energy for us than it would for a more detail-oriented person, for whom mistakes and citations to check seem to stand out a lot more.

Here's how I understand detail-oriented thinking.  This section has somewhat fewer examples because I'm not detail-oriented myself, and know a lot fewer people with this thinking style.
1) Detail-oriented thinkers learn by starting with parts (facts, details, instances) and putting them together to form a whole.  To use a fancier term, they excel at "learning by induction."

2) They need to know the parts to understand the whole, and at least in some cases, cannot understand a whole except in terms of its parts.

3) They have a lot more to remember, because instead of remembering one or a few principles and deriving myriad facts from it, they remember many facts and derive a few principles.

4) When a detail-oriented thinker encounters a new principle, they're always alert to its underlying factual basis.  In psychology or scientific areas, they might ask: "How was this tested?  How big is the effect size?  How many people were in the study?  How many studies did they draw this conclusion from?"

5) Strengths: Detail-oriented thinkers draw more accurate conclusions.  They know exactly what support there is for a conclusion, and can generally tell you.

6) Strengths: Detail-oriented thinkers are born specialists.  My brother can tell you the statistics to any type of Dungeons & Dragons character from any of several dozen several-hundred-page rulebooks.  Furthermore, while he doesn't spontaneously explain the conceptual framework on which these statistics are based (perhaps thinking we can all induce them as easily as he), he can do so quite lucidly if asked.  On a more practical front, Michelle Dawson has an encyclopedic knowledge of autism research and can instantly take apart the methodological flaws of a new study, despite lacking the formal PhD training where most people learn these skills.  If I wanted to know how best to conduct a study, or how seriously to take a finding, she'd be one of the first people I'd ask.

7) Weaknesses: They have more difficulty explaining their conclusions, because they may feel they must list every piece of supporting data.  For this reason, people with autism are often misunderstood as "not knowing what's important" or "seeing everything as equally important" in a typical classroom situation.  While teachers present information in a part-to-whole fashion ideal for detail-oriented learners, they seem to expect it to be explained whole-to-part, as is natural for global thinkers.

8) Another weakness is that, because one requires more information to reach conclusions, one may never feel like one has enough information.  Since one can always read more books or conduct more experiments, one can always get better support for your conclusion.  This may be one reason some graduate students have difficulty making it out of the researching stage and into the writing stage.   Just as global thinkers need to learn to check their work, detail-oriented thinkers need to learn to live with a certain amount of uncertainty.

Detail-oriented thinking is great for scientists because it supports close reading and critical evaluation of scientific papers.  Detail-focused thinkers also tend to be better at evaluating or critiquing others' work.  While a global thinker with good logical ability or methodological expertise can instantly identify that "something's wrong here," a knowledgeable detail-oriented thinker can tell you exactly where you went wrong, both methodologically and logically.  Some of the best, most detailed feedback I have ever received came from detail-oriented thinkers.

I believe that detail-oriented and global thinking are opposite ends of a continuum.  I think people on the autistic spectrum are generally on the extreme detail end of the continuum, while dyslexic people are more often on the extreme global end; most NTs are in the middle, but closer to the global end.  Some who are familiar with autism research might be surprised that I do not place NTs at the global extreme.  Both from experience and reading, I'm well aware that NTs often have difficulty understanding the thought process of either extreme group, and neither fits well into the typical classroom. 

Global thinkers can have difficulty understanding information presented in school because they need to know the concept first in order to understand and remember the facts, but teachers generally present in the reverse order.  Global thinkers' poor rote memory (despite good conceptual memory) can get them in trouble on tests if they don't know how to use their traits to their advantage.  They make seemingly "careless" mistakes on their work, even if they work hard to check it, so their grades may not reflect their abilities.  They may also instantly see what the answer to a problem has to be, but have difficulty showing their work because they didn't build it up piece by piece from the supporting evidence.  Instead, they have to go back and look for the supporting evidence that a more detail-oriented thinker would use.  Global thinkers seem to "go off topic" and have difficulty organizing their work; if they do not realize that the links between concepts that they perceive so clearly aren't obvious to others, they may not state them explicitly.  If, like me, they are aware of this tendency, they may write overly-long papers explaining everything in too much detail, not knowing what can be cut versus what must remain to satisfy more detail-oriented thinkers.  Lastly--and most notably in dyslexics--global thinkers may have a relative weakness in decoding (though they may do well in absolute terms), but comprehend what they read relatively well using context. In short: the average person is not an extreme global thinker.

Extreme detail-oriented thinkers are also misunderstood.  For example, those with Aspergers are seen as having difficulty picking out which information is important, overfocusing on details that don't matter to the teacher, not making enough inferences, and having difficulty with abstraction1.  (The latter point should be taken with many grains of salt, given the number of Asperger's students with special interests in highly abstract scientific topics).  While detail-focused learners start by learning facts and then build a conceptual structure around them, some complain that Asperger's students do not automatically make these generalizations, or else make the wrong ones.  Detail-focused readers have excellent decoding skills, but their comprehension lags behind (although it may still be good, in absolute terms).  Hyperlexia--early, self-taught decoding without equally good comprehension--is especially common in ASD, and is the extreme example of detail-focused strengths and weaknesses in reading.

Note that this meditation itself, both in content and process, is an example of global thinking.  It comes from two big-picture concepts: a dissatisfaction with current accounts of global and detail-oriented thinking, and the idea of a detail-to-global continuum with the average NT somewhere in the middle.  It was triggered by a real-life experience working with detail-oriented people, as well as recent reading.  I then thought through the subject by considering: a) What facts do I know about this?  What experiences have I had that could be used as examples?  b) What fine logical distinctions would clarify my point? c) Can I think of any obvious counterexamples?

In other words, as a "global" piece, this entry suffers from all the weaknesses of limited information that apply to this style of work.  So--especially if you're a detail-oriented thinker--please share any relevant information I might have missed, or counterexamples that didn't occur to me.

1
--> Myles, Brenda Smith, Barnhill, Gena P., Hagiwara, Taku, Griswold, Deborah E. & Simpson, Richard L. (2001). A Synthesis of Studies on the Intellectual, Academic, Social/Emotional and Sensory Characteristics of Children and Youth with Asperger Syndrome. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 2001, 36(3), 304-311