Have you ever heard somebody talk about something that was so foreign to you that your mind just went blank? Don't worry, it doesn't mean you're dumb. You probably just lacked a coat rack. Sounds weird? Let me explain.

Storage solutions

Your brain consists of about 100 billion neurons. Neurons are electrically excitable cells that process and transmit information to up to 10,000 other neurons, by electro-chemical signaling.

Because of this, your mind is fundamentally a network of connections. And as such, the storage features of your brain work more like a relational database than like a bucket.

What do I mean by this?

A bucket is an unceremonious catch-all storage solution for nothing in particular. Any shapeless, formless object that's small enough will fit in there. We use a bucket as an easy way to store our kid's toys, for example. Cloud providers also use the word 'bucket' to refer to digital storage solutions for blobs: amorphous chunks of data that don't fit into any categories.

A database, on the other hand, is very different. A database is essentially a sophisticated filing system. The point of a filing system is not that you can just toss whatever you want in there. The point of a filing system is that you can quickly and easily retrieve information when you need it, because all the data is systematically structured and stored in such a way that you know where everything is at all times.

So, your brain is not like a bucket, a catch-all that will just retain whatever you toss at it. Your brain is an incredibly sophisticated filing system that requires a lot of context to effectively and systematically file stuff away in such a way that it's quick and easy to retrieve later on.

Coat racks

A friend of mine recently sent me a scientific article he just got published and asked me if I wanted to read it. But when I did, I had great trouble understanding what I was actually reading.

The title: "Exploring Learning Patterns and Decision making Logic in a System Consisting of Multiple Autonomous Agents."

As I was trying to read this article, my brain was racing and struggling to find the context I needed to deal with the abstract stuff I was reading. What the heck was this about?! Without context, I just could not make sense of any of it, no matter how hard I tried.

In my native language (Dutch), we often say that people are looking for a “haakje”, when they're clearly struggling to understand something, like I was.

A “haakje” is a little hook/peg such as the ones found on a coat rack. And I think this is a very apt metaphor for your brain's need to attach new information to some existing framework of understanding.

When you can't seem to find a peg on one of your coat racks of understanding, the new information you're hearing will have nowhere to go but right out the window.

  • You can’t learn the pythagorean theorem in the abstract. You have to link it to your existing knowledge of shapes, angles and arithmetic.
  • You can’t learn calculus in a vacuum. You have to link it to your existing knowledge about algebra and basic math.
  • You can’t understand a nation's culture by itself. You need to link it to its history and collective memory.

With any and all information, your brain is looking to standardize, systemize and categorize; because that is how brains work. It wants to file this new stuff away where it belongs.

Connection

This is why understanding is all about connecting. You need to find context so that your brain knows which other neurons this new neuron should be connected to.

That's also why we say you're connecting the dots; or something finally clicks. The feeling of an aha-moment is very similar to the feeling of putting the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle where it belongs.

So, to facilitate understanding, you need to find that coat rack of understanding.

One of the greatest ways to do this is by using story and narrative. A good story is one of the greatest ways of explaining something, because it provides its own context for understanding. This makes stories engaging, relatable and easy to understand.

This is why the best communicators are storytellers.

Metaphors are a particularly interesting application of storytelling. Metaphors are figures of speech that help the listener to think of something in a different light. They are extremely powerful tools of understanding, which is why it's no surprise that they have been used throughout the ages; from biblical times until now.

Even meme culture flows out of metaphors. Memes are essentially simple, reusable formats for creating narrative. And the sport of meme culture is to find as many applications as possible for the same metaphor.


A wise man once said: "if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough".

Great educators can make the most complicated stuff seem easy, by either finding a coat rack of understanding in their audience, or by creating one of their own, through storytelling or using apt metaphors.

So, next time you're trying to get someone to understand something; remember how the brain works. Remember to provide context.

Remember the coat rack.