How Do You Make Sense Of The World?


Maggie Sim

Maggie Sim

Have you wondered about this? Our brain receives million pieces of external information everyday. We are bombarded with information, sights, sounds, smells, thoughts from various sources in the world that we live in. So how does our brain make sense of the world given the sheer volume of information it receives every moment? How does it process all the information efficiently? As you can imagine, our brain has a way of processing all the information that it gets. When you know how the brain does what it does, you get an inkling of what is going up there.

What the brain does is this: it experiences the world by taking in external information and processing the information through our physical senses: Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory, Gustatory. The senses that the use to take in and process information are known as our representational systems. As you would expect, most people tend to prefer to use one or two senses (or representational systems) over the others when taking in external information. This is what it means when some people say – “I learn best by doing” or “I learn best by drawing mind-maps and flow-charts.”

With the information that comes in through our senses, our brain sieves the information further by distorting, deleting and generalising the information based on ‘our mental rules’ (also known as our automatic thinking patterns and beliefs) to arrive at an internal representation of what the external information means to us. The internal representation is the meaning we assign to the external information that we get.

Why do I need to know this?

So you might be thinking – “why is it important to know how my brain takes in and processes external information?” There are a number of reasons why you want to know this.

Why #1: Build better rapport when you respect other people’s ‘map of the world’

make sense of the world

What did you notice about this image?

When I saw this image, it meant CAUTION NEEDED. This is because my brain has processed the information and assigned the meaning of DANGER based on my ‘mental rules’. Someone else may see the same image and conclude that this sign means SAFETY.

People make sense of the world differently because their brains assign different meanings to the same thing depending on which representational system they use, and what ‘mental rules’ are used to filter the information. How different people (including our loved ones and co-workers) might interpret the same thing differently is what we refer to as ‘one’s map of the world’.

We build better rapport with people when we acknowledge that they have a different viewpoint of a different ‘map of the world’. We do not have to agree with their map, but we should respect it and not impose our map on them.

When you are struggling with a different viewpoint or a different ‘map of the world’, some helpful self-reflection questions are:

  1. What am I noticing about that person’s ‘map of the world’?
  2. How is their map of the world specifically different from my map of the world?
  3. What would be different when I respect the other person’s map of the world?

Why #2: Increase your personal effectiveness by tapping into the right representational systems

How you process external information impacts how fast you learn new skills and digest information, how you give meaning to the world around you, how you communicate with others and express love and affection to your family and friends.

We use the following senses or representational systems to experience the world:

  • Visual (sight): we look and see (colours, shapes, images)
  • Auditory (sound): we hear and listen (loud, soft, high-pitched, deep and mellow)
  • Kinaesthetic (touch): we touch and feel (rough, soft, smooth, hard)
  • Olfactory (smell): we smell scents (floral, nutty, spicy, fruity)
  • Gustatory (taste): we taste flavours (sweet, bitter, sour, salty)
  • Internal Dialogue, or Digital Auditory System (understand, perceive, evaluate)

This blog-post will focus on Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Internal Dialogue as these are the ones that most people use.

You might have noticed that ‘Internal Dialogue is not a physical sense, so what is it and how do people using this system make sense of the world? Internal Dialogue processing is about the language and actual words that we use to describe what is going on in our other senses. A person using the Internal Dialogue ‘processing system’ converts the information from his or her senses into language. They tend to use non-sensory specific language such as: “I think…”, “I know what you mean…”, I understand where you are coming from…”.

Learning style: how do you and others absorb information

make sense of the world

When you learn using your preferred representational system, you will most likely learn better and learn faster. If you are a Visual person, then you are likely to learn easily through pictures – for example, using mind-maps or illustrations. If you are a Kinaesthetic person, you are more likely to enjoy learning by doing, touching objects, or moving around in the room. If you are an Internal Dialogue person, you might learn best using logic and things link to each other.

To ensure that we keep up with this fast-changing world that we live in, wouldn’t we want to tap into the most efficient ways for us to absorb and learn new information, and make sense of this new normal as best as we can?

Besides knowing your own learning style, it is useful to also figure out what are the learning styles of people around you. Your children, your spouse/partner. Your co-workers. Your bosses. Imagine how much easier it might be for them to get what you mean when you tap into their learning styles?

When it comes to learning, my preferred representational system is Visual. I am fully aware of how I can use images to be more effective when I absorb and retain information. However, I tend to assume that everyone else has the same preference and this has had an impact on my personal effectiveness when working with other people. I will give you an example.

I had a boss who often requests for information to be given to him in a Powerpoint slide deck, but would not read the deck and insists that I talk him through the same information. This used to frustrate me as I felt that he was not appreciative of the time that I had taken to prepare the slides and was further wasting my time by making me repeat to him what had already been stated in the slides. Over time, I learnt that he was probably an Auditory person. He liked to listen to a presentation and acted on the information really quickly once he has heard what I had to say. Because I was a Visual learner, I had assumed that this was also his preferred style of absorbing information. I mean – how could anyone not like visually-appealing images and diagrams?? So I learnt to communicate with my ex-boss using his preferred representational system for learning and absorbing information. I would still prepare a slide deck for him, but it became a one-pager with several bullet points of text without any fancy diagrams. In this way, I cut down the amount of time that I spent on the slides by 80% and I became more effective at work.

Communication style: how do you relate to and influence people

Have you wondered why you find it difficult to communicate with some people and with others, getting the same message through to them is such a breeze?

make sense of the world

Everyone makes sense of the world differently because they process external information differently. When we want to be communicating effectively with other people, we would first establish good rapport with them, then we interact to them using their preferred representational system.

When you want to be more successful in conveying a new idea to a person (say, your boss, or a client, or your spouse), communicating the objective, outcomes or benefits using the person’s preferred representational system and how they make sense of the world would more likely move you in that direction.

I will give you another personal example, when I wanted to ask my boss for approval to take a course (that’s paid for by the company), I TALKED to him about it first, and I would articulate the benefits and outcomes of taking the course in our conversation. Previously, I would write him an email describing the benefits and outcomes, then get frustrated about being hauled to his desk to repeat in person what I had written in the email. I used to wonder: “Which part of my email does he NOT UNDERSTAND?” When I learnt about his communication style (Auditory), I began to talk to him instead of writing him an email or a Skype message which is MY preferred way of communicating at work.

Other people who have Internal Dialogue as their preferred representational system will most likely prefer communicating in a way that ‘makes sense to them’. They will probably look for data, information and logic in your conversations. Back to my personal example, an Internal Dialogue boss might ask me these questions: “Do you have any data to show me that the course will give you these outcomes?” Have you spoken to anyone who has done the course to get confirmation or feedback about the outcomes?” What is the cost-benefit analysis of the course?” You get the picture.

Some self-reflection questions about your communication style:

  1. How do you like to communicate and receive information at work and in your personal life?
  2. How has your preferred style of communicating impacted your personal and work relationships?
  3. What would you do differently?

Relationship style: what is your love language

It is super important how we make sense of the world even in personal relationships because we assign meaning to the actions, body language and facial expressions of our loved ones about HOW THEY ARE LOVING us.

Do you know how some people say that they don’t feel loved by their spouse/partner despite being showed with specially-chosen gifts and flowers? If you were to ask them why, they might say something like: “He never says that he loves me, that’s why. I want to hear him say that.” The guy would probably be puzzled as to what is going on and might even feel unappreciated for his gifting efforts.

Not only do we want to be shown love and affection in the way that is most meaningful to us, we would also want to do show love and affection to our loved ones in the way that is most meaningful to them. This prevents misunderstandings about what we want to convey and deepens the relationship when they ‘get the message’.

If you are familiar with the 5 Love Languages, you might notice that they are related to the representational systems:

  • Gifting (Visual)
  • Words of affirmation (Auditory)
  • Physical touch (Kinaesthetic)
  • Acts of service (Internal dialogue)
  • Quality time (any of the systems depending on what’s important to you)

My love language is Kinaesthetic and I value Quality Time over gifts and acts of service. What am I looking for in Quality Time? It is about listening to me and paying attention to what I say. When someone spends quality time with me in that way, I FEEL acknowledged, seen and valued. Other people may define Quality Time by acts of service (ie we do things together) or physical touch.

Some self-reflection questions:

  1. What is your preferred love language? How often do others show you love and affection using YOUR love language?
  2. What is your spouse/partner and family members’ love language? How often do you express your love and affection to them using THEIR love language?
  3. What would you do differently?

So how do I make sense of the world: what is my preferred representational system

make sense of the world

You are now interested to know your preferred representational systems and how you make sense of the world, aren’t you? While we might have a preferred representational system that we use most often, we may also shift to using other representational systems in different contexts in our lives.

Some self-reflection questions:

  1. How well do you know yourself, your learning styles, communication styles and love language?
  2. What do you think are your preferred representational systems?
  3. What would be different for you when you start to understand how you are using your own representational systems?

Do the Representational Systems Quiz!

You can find out your preferred representational system by doing a quick 12-question test HERE. Submit the test online and I will come back to you with the results shortly after. You will also be given a link to more information about the characteristics of each of the main representational systems discussed in this blog-post.

If you are my coaching client, you might have done the test before and know your representational systems. If for some reason you haven’t, be sure to take the test here and we will have a chat about the results when we meet!

Book a chat

If you like to know how coaching can help you understand better how you and others around you make sense of the wold, please feel free to contact me here or email me at maggiesim@holdingspace.sg .

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