… according to a new study from two psychologists at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, anyway.
This Scientific American article describes their elegant experiment to see how people react when something “feels” difficult. They presented two different groups of college students with printed instructions for a regular exercise routine. While the wording was the same in both sets of instructions, one group received instructions printed in a hard-to-read Brush font (a font that looks like brush strokes) while the other group received instructions printed in good ol’ fashioned Arial.
The results were crystal clear. People who received Arial instructions were more enthusiastic about the exercise routine than the Brush font folks, and predicted it would be much easier. The psychologists tried the experiment again using a sushi roll recipe and saw similar results.
From the article:
Apparently the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for the ease of actually doing push-ups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.
There you have it — scientific evidence that when you’re explaining something, even peripheral confusion can make the content of your message seem more complicated.
My parents bought me The Way Things Work when I was 12, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. So I’m very happy to see Macaulay at it again. And sheesh, what a subject. I’ve explained aspects of human physiology before, and it’s a killer. It will be great to have this master explainer’s effort on the reference shelf.
There are many things to love about Macaulay’s work. Just a few:
He uses witty and helpful visual metaphors, but never lets them take over. Some of the machines in The Way Things Work are giant-sized, with little people and mammoths operating them. This subtly makes very small things less intimidating and makes explanations more memorable. But Macaulay doesn’t bend over for the metaphor by tacking on a story-line or the like. The new book sometimes uses the same small-people technique (sans mammoths), but Macaulay resisted the urge to cast the whole thing as a Fantastic-Voyage-style tour of the body. Instead, he deploys a metaphor only when it works (for example, the above drawing showing the circulatory and respiratory systems as a roller coaster). For some body parts, he draws straight-forward anatomical pictures.
He starts with the core components and works his way up. In The Way We Work, he opens with an explanation of atoms, so he can explain molecules, so he can explain proteins and acids, so he can explain cells, so he can explain body parts and functions. Lesser physiology overviews jump straight to labeling the parts of the body, in “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone” style. But if you don’t understand DNA and cells first, knowing terminology won’t help you understand anything significant about the body. It’s nice that he lays a foundation of fundamentals.
He respects expertise but is not an expert. His extensive research included consulting with several physiology experts, and even observing operations. He also brought a science writer, Richard Walker, as a co-author. This is an ideal combination — as a reader, you can count on the book’s accuracy, but the explainer can relate to your layman’s ignorance. Macaulay went on a six-year journey to understand the body, using only standard-issue, non-doctor knowledge, and this is his report on what he found out.
I noticed there are some lukewarm reviews from Macaulay fans on Amazon. The main two complaints so far are that the colored illustrations fall short of his past work and that the text is too advanced for kids. There’s something to both of these points, but I think Macaulay had good reason to make these choices. I do like the aesthetic quality of the hard ink lines of The Way Things Work better than the fuzzier colored-pencil style in The Way We Work. But biology doesn’t have the hard lines you see in machinery, so his approach makes sense to me. Here’s artwork from each, side by side:
As for the age-appropriateness, I expect Houghton Mifflin is responsible for marketing this as a kid’s book. Macaulay told NPR that he didn’t have any age in mind for his audience, but wrote it for himself (adding “I don’t know how to do it any other way.”) To me, it seems like his priorities were to be explicit, thorough, and accurate. In any case, the book will certainly be tough for younger readers, but that’s inherent in the subject matter. Better to challenge some readers than dumb it down, I’d say.
Don’t leave good metaphors lying around unattended, or somebody might get hurt. Up to a certain point, a good metaphor does wonders to facilitate understanding. But as you get deeper into a subject, a metaphor will become less and less accurate. And if you don’t toss the metaphor when it starts to go bad, it will actually block deeper understanding.
So, metaphors get you over a learning hump, but you can’t be too devoted to them. They’re like training wheels that… . That one fell apart before it even got started.
Anyway, one of the biggest, hairiest, most useful and potentially most troublesome metaphors of our time is the idea that computers are brains (and vice versa). This one is so mighty, in fact, that it’s easy to forget it’s actually a metaphor. And if you take it too literally, you’ll fundamentally misunderstand both computers and brains.
In a new smarty-pants post on Developing Intelligence, Chris Chatham puts computers and brains side by side and rattles off 11 metaphor-busting differences between them. In the process, he sheds a lot of light on both. For example, difference number 8 is that in the brain, processing and memory are handled by the same components. One effect of this is that you can easily overwrite a memory with an inaccurate version in the process of remembering it. Please, remember with care.
In addition to the illuminating explanations throughout, I really like how Chatham gets some more use out of a metaphor before chucking it. Once you’ve learned all you can by seeing two things as the same, see what you can learn by investigating how they’re different. Good trick.