On the Speed of Accommodating to Potent Ideas: Using one of Ron Burnett’s Knowledge Gems as an Example

A quick note about the speed and some characteristics of mental change in adults, using an example from Ron Burnett. Accommodation can happen quickly when the right conditions are in place.[1] Accommodation is the crown jewels of mental development, including many important forms of learning and knowledge building. It is what happens to your mind as it grasps a new concept, theory or set of concepts and can now see the world in a new way, in its terms. In Cognitive Productivity, I likened this to acquiring a new perceptual modality.

Most previous thinkers on the subject emphasized the purely “cognitive” aspects of accommodation. What strikes me however are the affective dimensions of many forms of accommodation. I.e., in accommodation one doesn’t simply perceive and think differently, but one’s value system changes. Information is now pertinent that didn’t use to be pertinent. Information gets internally connected in a valenced fashion in one’s mind/brain. One of my most important theoretical and practical concerns is to understand accommodation.

I have just read a blog post by Ron Burnett on NEW CULTURE/NEW REASONING. Yesterday, it’s author briefly provided me with the context (project) of this post. I won’t describe the post here. I will just pick out one of its knowledge gems:

What if all of these fragments, experiential, discursive and artistic, which combine the verbal and non-verbal with images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression and a reflection of their modes of thought?

I am struck by the fact that I have already become sensitive to this new knowledge gem: The new way of mixing fragments of information that are before us. Many of these fragment mixing phenomena were before me before yesterday; but I hadn’t really noticed them. It didn’t strike me that they were significant. I couldn’t see the relation to language and knowledge building. This mental change (involved in understanding the phenomena) is like acquiring a new word: one then notices it. But profound knowledge gems require much more by way of accommodation than new words.

So, now I see there is something huge happening in the world (the mixing of fragments…), which has all kinds of implications that I have yet to draw. I sense that I will begin to draw them. Why? Because I will be drawn to the phenomena. I will be drawn to understanding the phenomena about which Ron Burnett wrote; I will do so in relation to his concepts and mine. And I know I will also start to try to apply those concepts to the problems/phenomena about which my various projects are concerned: for that is where I apply my mental capacity the most. With the new concept in mind, I will go back and forth between my phenomena of interest and the phenomena that Ron Burnett discussed.

But what is the engine of accommodation? It is first to notice that an idea (such as young people communicating by rapidly combining multiple fragments of information in different media) is a potentially quite helpful knowledge gem — CUPA helpful: high Caliber, Utility and Potency.[2]

However, the CUPA features of a knowledge gem, by themselves, are not enough to drive accommodation. Accommodation takes mental work, mental time!

What else is needed? Often,[3] the idea needs to become a cognitive motivator — one that is sufficiently insistent and intense. When a motivator has these properties, it tends to drive thinking and action. It has functional autonomy. Then its progress no longer relies on its instrumentality — being a means to an end. (Compare the 2014 “Selfish Goal” BBS paper by Huang and Bargh). Knowledge gems compete in the internal ecology of mind.

Back to the question of velocity of accommodation. The initial “ah ha” was quick. But I wouldn’t have understood Burnett’s idea, or it would not have seemed important, unless a massive network of knowledge wasn’t already in place. I needed to be ready. (Compare child development.)

But, as I alluded to above, the drawing out of implications of big ideas take time. Inconsistencies need to be detected. Old ideas may need to be replaced. The mental work required for knowledge gems like this, I think, is mostly done offline, decoupled from seeing particular instances to which they apply. This is because they involve not just basic-level knowledge (knowledge of particulars) but higher-level, problem-based knowledge.

Accommodation proceeds at different rates and often requires motivators. The factors and processes needed to account for the time course of accommodation need to be spelled out more systematically and precisely.

I have remixed a lot of ideas myself in this post, and used hyperlinks; but I (now) can’t help but notice that I haven’t felt compelled to splice diagrams, bits of music, or other little bits into this post. That would require a lot more accommodation…


1. The concept of accommodation comes from Jean Piaget, whose work has been roundly criticized by many. But Piaget had important insights for cognitive science. He didn’t get it all right. And there were many gaps. He didn’t properly explain assimilation or accommodation. However, no one had so clearly made, illustrated and emphasized this distinction before Piaget, nor so likened it to biology and mechanisms. Sure, he didn’t get the “how this works” right. But if you understand the fundamentals of AI (which you need to understand to understand cognitive science and hence the mind), you know that understanding “what” is required to understand “how”. And both the “what” and the “how” evolve over time. So, in defence of Jean Piaget, recall what Warren McCulloch used to say “Don’t bite my finger, look where I am pointing”.

2 “CUPA” is discussed in chapter 11 of Cognitive Productivity. Potency is a measure of the extent to which one must accommodate to a knowledge gem in order to master it. Not all useful information is potent. Thus, potency is to be factored into the (acquisition) cost of a knowledge gem, cost being an aspect of utility, of course. The “A” in CUPA is for “appeal”. Appeal is sometimes dangerous –one can be seduced by ideas.

3. I say “often” because a knowledge gem might simply function as a means to an end and still drive mental change if the end demands it.

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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