Week 9: The Effects of Making Sense

When scientists find something totally new–like something alien–they start doing stuff to it to see what happens. Systematically, they are testing its causal properties. Eventually, this effect-to-cause reasoning gets at a pretty good explanation of what the alien thing is–its “causal aspects” (Paul 2004; remember the aspects pictured in Week 5?). So, let’s do that with sense making. Like scientists, let’s ask: what effects does sense making cause? Or, as I asked my poster audience,

“What happens (to/within/beyond/around/etc) you when you make sense of something?”

The picture shows what they responded with (BTW, these were mostly cognitive science grad students). The yellow sticky notes are my labels for clusters of their responses. What do you notice?

IMG_20160610_152554822OMG! Most people responded with feelings! Is sense making most powerfully an emotional event?? In a distant second, several noticed the mental clarity effects of making sense, but only one person noticed the use of knowledge that makes sense.

It may be that some kind of internal structure to sense making (as a process) is most fundamentally about how the knowledge can be used. However, the most noticeable aspects are how it makes us feel. This may be due to how our psychologies work, not to the “essential nature” of sense making. That is, emotions may not be the foundation but the apex of sense making. Or maybe not. To test this, we’d have to try to isolate emotions from sense making to see if it still happens. My hunch is that it doesn’t!

So, experientially, sense making creates the following effects: feelings, mental clarity, and actionAs scientists, we should therefore ask, “What causes these effects?” That is, what about sense making causes such strong emotions? Such mental clarity? Such action?

Reasoning like a scientist, I wonder what else has been known to have such effects? And immediately I think of the effects the arts & humanities have upon our emotions, and–at times–upon our thinking and our actions. Sense making appears to have much more in common with a ballet, a painting, and a poem, than with a scientific report. Despite our tendency to believe sense making is solely about being rational, sense making is apparently and more fundamentally about being human.


Paul, L. A. (2004). Aspect Causation. In J. Collins, N. Hall, & L. A. Paul (Eds.), Causation and Counterfactuals (pp. 205–224). Cambridge, MA.

2 thoughts on “Week 9: The Effects of Making Sense

  1. Love that feelings came up the most! Hurrah for emotional scientists! This makes perfect sense to me! It always feels good to make sense of things. Confusion feels much less good, and in some instances decidedly ungood. This is great stuff, Bethany! Looking forward to what comes next!

  2. Thanks, Jean! Yes, so cool to see scientists admitting their emotions. It reminds me, however, of the dangers of convenience bias: that we mistake what feels good for what is true. So, we clearly can’t rely solely upon our “feel good” emotions to judge whether or not something makes good sense. But, we do need feelings! Without feelings, I suspect we can’t come to a conclusion; as though “I feel good” is one of the many criteria for whether or not something “makes sense.” So, sense making tools should support appropriate emotions and reflection on those emotions. What kinds of tools would do that?

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