On scale and perception

A crucial component of everyday cognition is the ability to think about scale: how big something is in relation to how big something is represented. 

Scaling is what allows an architect to represent an entire floor plan on a poster-size sheet of a paper. Scaling is how geologists represent billions of years on one timeline. Shrinking enormous sizes down to the scale of human perception allows us to engage our visual and spatial cognitive systems to reason about things we would otherwise have to represent abstractly. (Have you ever seen 1 billion of something all at once?) 

My lab, in particular, has been working on strategies to foster scaling ability and learning whether that ability can transfer from the abstract to the concrete. The strategies we’ve used have tapped into a learning technique called alignment, that is nicely demonstrated with this visualization which made its way around the internet last week (not to forget the classic Powers of 10).

I began thinking about posting on this topic after seeing this video (posted on flowingdata.com) about the inequitable wealth distribution in America. What struck me about the video is the comparison set up between what Americans THINK the wealth distribution is versus what it actually is. While I think the video is an excellent demonstration of the power of visualization, I take issue with the premise that what people THINK a distribution is reflects a desire to attain that distribution. An alternate hypothesis is that people THINK the distribution is less skewed than it is because representing enormous scales (and scale discrepancies) is difficult, and not something we are trained to do. 

Scaling is an important component of spatial thinking, one with ramifications on public policy. Think about the enormous time scales on which global temperatures have changed before the past hundred years compared to the shockingly short time scales on which global temperatures are changing now. Take a moment today to exercise your scaling skills, and change the way you think about the world.

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