When I was a child there was a TV quiz show in which contestants examined a really zoomed in close-up of one tiny part of a larger object. They had to guess what the larger object was while the camera slowly zoomed out. As more of the picture was revealed it became easier to identify precisely what was being observed until one of the contestants pressed a buzzer to make a guess. If they were correct the camera zoomed all the way out to reveal the object. If not, the slow zoom out and curious observation continued.
The challenge in this game was to identify the object in the picture with the least amount of contextual information. The game serves to illustrate how increasing contextual information makes it easier to identify what you are looking at. This is an important principle to bear in mind when you are trying to understand what is going on in the world.
It’s obvious that if you are looking through a magnifying glass at a tiny part of something extremely big, that you are not going to appreciate its full nature while examining that minute part. If your investigation remains focused through the magnifying glass and preoccupied with details, it would be impossible to determine exactly what entity all the small details were a part of. Only by stepping back and clocking the entirety of the thing under observation, as well as a close examination to understand the details, can its true nature be known.
In our everyday lives, we are more used to the practice of zooming in and examining things in ever greater detail. And our education can leave us predisposed to this too. If you want to know why your car isn’t running right, for example, as you lift up the hood to examine the engine you already know that it is a car that you are examining. You are starting with a relatively big picture and zooming in to identify details. But when we are looking out into the wider world things are different. We are the microcosm. In terms of global politics or society as a whole, we are the tiny detail and we have to mentally zoom out to see the bigger picture that is the context in which our lives are unfolding.
The private investigator must necessarily assemble a bigger picture of the issue at hand. But he must also zoom in to examine details. It is the combination of these two that results in the acquisition of knowledge.
Let’s remind ourselves that increased overall understanding is always an attempt to expand our mental picture, to make the picture bigger. There is no definitive BIG picture that is fixed and complete, there are always things happening to complicate the situation further. But this doesn’t mean that you need to know every detail to understand what is going on.
The way to examine how things inter-relate with each other is to mentally join the dots by asking yourself questions such as “if this is true, what else might happen?” “How does this issue affect such and such?” Often a quiet period, in which you can allow your subconscious to process the request, is needed to gather any thoughts and insights that your current knowledge already affords.
Joining the dots is a process of integration in which any additional information or newly arrived at conclusions are consciously assimilated into the sum of your knowledge. It takes deliberate effort. This kind of mental activity does not happen automatically, it has to be initiated by you. You have to literally ask yourself “What other issue is affected by this one?” or “What else might be affected by this?”.
Examples of context affecting choices
If you are buying a car – what is your financial context? This will help determine what is the right car for you.
If you are choosing what clothes to wear – what is the occasion? Whether you are going to bed or to play tennis or going out to a black-tie dinner, the occasion is the context that helps determine the best choice of attire.
If you are going wildflower collecting – what season is it? The season of the year will have a huge bearing on whether or not you will actually find any wildflowers at all!
Taking into account full context means joining the dots in your mind between different ideas that have a relationship with each other. It requires asking questions to explore the nature of that relationship. Observing context is about broadening your overall knowledge because your existing knowledge is the context in which you seek to understand the world around you. The broader it is the better your chance of success.
If you make a habit of continuously acquiring knowledge – one of the key habits of ‘right living’ – you are always expanding your context and making it easier and easier to understand new ideas and experiences.
Treehouse Farm, July 12th 2020