The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis at Work: Labeled Folders and Working Memory

Posted on August 13, 2008 by

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Benjamin Lee Whorf said this

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way

Essentially, nature is what it is, reality is what it is, but we create thought about nature and/or reality based on how we label it. We label things the way we do because we’ve learned it from some type of institution, be it family, school, church, or tribe.

I learned that it’s usually best to be as specific as possible when in the process of organizing things and labeling.

However, why exactly I needed to be specific when labeling something wasn’t clear until recently.

It hit me when I was filing hard copy foundation information away for my old job…

I had two choices to make when filing away this information. Either

a) make a hard copy labeled manila folder specifically for the foundation
b) dump it in a general hard copy folder

If I did “option a” and made a hard copy labeled manila folder specifically for a foundation, there would be room for it to accumulate information. I could add all the stuff related to that foundation including its annual reports, its 990s, its Foundation Center search page. With that information all tucked away into one folder, we’d have a very good snapshot of this foundation. We could learn about the foundation’s giving patterns, giving amounts, etc.

Conversely, if I didn’t make a labeled folder, all this information would accumulate in the general folder, “option b”. Dumping things in the general manila folder would save me time and resources. I usually did this for foundations that did not provide much information. One more manila folder saved, one part of a tree saved!

However, using this method, distinguishing pertinent things between foundations could be somewhat more difficult, especially if I just started dumping all the information available in the general manila folder.

As the swath of information grows, I’ll be less likely to peer through any specific foundation information unless I really have to. So it essentially becomes this big pile of crap that I don’t want to deal with. The annual reports, the 990s, the Foundation Center search pages might get scrambled with another foundation’s information. Things would be worse if some of the information was unlabeled and could not be attributed to one foundation.

Essentially, if I created the new manila folder, I allowed a foundation’s folder to accumulate information. I could put as much stuff in there without it getting mixed up with another foundation. Up to a point where it doesn’t seem like a mass of information, I can potentially keep adding and growing information. I could add more and more, that is until it becomes difficult to actually use the folder in carrying those papers. Best of all, I can recall the information simply by pulling up its folder and getting what I want out of it.

If I overuse the general folder to the point where I can’t even lift the folder with the papers, the items in the folder become one big mass of information. If I overused, even though I knew the information was in there, I’d still take time to dig through the information.

So from that point, I decided to be as specific as possible and consume more manila folders on behalf of the organization.

By doing this, I could help the organization do two things: 1) grow the specific information it had on foundations 2) expedite the process of information retrieval.

Growing specific information.

Expediting information retrieval.

Two big concepts that existed if I built a new labeled folder. Broken down, a new labeled folder is just a depot for me to get whatever I think is “specific” information, and get it quickly.

Making metaphors to my own human memory, if I could simply take that concept of building new “labeled folders”, I too, could also grow information into my head and expedite information retrieval. But how the heck do I build “new labeled folders?” in my own mind?

When I first starting using delicious to save important and interesting web pages accessible anywhere I went provided I had internet connection, I learned pretty quickly that I was interested in the “brain.”

I saved a lot of things under the self-created category “brain.”

But now that I look back at my delicious page, and currently the category “brain” has 538 items under it. I bookmarked 538 items under the category brain, which is kind of intimidating. It’s a whole mass of shit to deal with! Interesting information, but I’ll need a whole lot of energy to go through it again. Unless I was paid to navigate my own shit trail, I would never be able to navigate this endlessly broad category again.

To chomp on that information, however, I developed a plan. The same plan I had when I was making new labeled Manila folders. The “brain” had obviously become that overstacked “general” folder. All I needed to do was “create more folders.” Creating folders within a delicious bookmarking context means creating more “tags” or categories. Instead of just “brain” accumulating everything, all I had to do was be more specific about what part of brain it had to do with…whether it’s been “brainimaging”, “memory”, “perception.”

Why did I not just label things specifically from the start?

It’s simply because when I started delicious account, I only had a general interest in the brain. There wasn’t too much distinction for me to make between an interesting study on alzheimer’s disease and an interesting study on autism. It was just all “brain” to me.

But now that I have more distinctions to make between items pertaining to the brain, I now have the necessary room to grow…grow into that scholar of memory who knows the categories, the labels, the symbols and can retrieve that information quick enough to be in the conversation.

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