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7.4.5. Classification: Class-ification


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 7. How The Brain Works > 7.4. Classification: Making Sense of the World > 7.4.5. Classification: Class-ification

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When I see a pattern of a long, irregular vertical stem with smaller stems off it, I easily interpret it as a tree. This is very useful as it saves me from having to remember a separate chunk for every tree I see. Now I can recognise an instance of the class I call ‘tree.’ I can also create a hierarchy of classes, recognising oaks, beeches and sycamores each as a sub-class of the class of ‘tree’ and ‘plants’ as a super-class of tree.

This ability to see the basic patterns in similar items and consequently create generalised descriptions enables us to significantly reduce the chunks we would otherwise need to understand and manage our world.

When we do not have an appropriate classification box, then we have to either create a new box or approximate to the closest match. Creating a new box is a big thing as it disturbs the pattern of boxes we already have and admits that our previous system of knowledge was less than perfect. Too many boxes can also undermine the basic advantage of classification in the way that it simplifies our world. How, then, do we handle situations which do not fit into one of our existing boxes? Fortunately, we are pretty good at ‘fuzzy’ matching, fitting our experiences into a ‘good enough’ box, finding patterns that do not match exactly, but are sufficiently close to be acceptable.

Much of learning is about creating new classification boxes, along with appropriate rules for recognising and dealing with their contents. As our learning slows, we create fewer new classifications and we eventually may even forget how to create them. Creative people tend to have a large and expanding number of classifications, primarily because they never stop learning and finding new ways of viewing the world, out of which they can derive even more new ideas.


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