Consider this sequence of numbers: 7, 24, 153.6, 7, 25, 153, 7, 26, 154.2, 7, 28, 154.4, 7, 29, 155.6, 7, 31, 154.6, 8, 1, 154.6. What do these numbers mean to you? Seems there’s a pattern there, but perhaps their meaning isn’t clear.
What if I show them to you like this?:
I’m willing to bet this layout changes everything. When seeing the numbers in a two-dimensional matrix, your brain starts making distinctions. There are three columns of numbers, which are related somehow: the numbers in column one are of a type, and so are the numbers in columns two and three. The fact that some of the numbers in column three have decimal values also hints at their belonging to a family, but you could’ve gotten that from the original list. Still, the 2-D matrix layout does much to help you make sense of the distinctions between the numbers.
So a layout change has helped you know there are three types of numbers here. But what are they? There’s no header row with labels, after all. Well, you can make educated guesses from looking at the range of numbers. Let’s take the first column. There are six 7s, followed by an 8. Apparently, this isn’t a random list; there is some relationship between these numbers.
Perhaps that relationship isn’t clear by just looking at column one, but column two offers another strong hint: here the affinity between the numbers is much stronger. Even though two steps are missing, the numbers in column two appear to be in a sequence. Moreover, the sequence resets at 31 — at which point the number in column one increments by one. This offers a strong hint that columns one and two represent dates on a calendar.
Knowing that they’re dates on a calendar immediately alters the meaning of the numbers in column three. Perhaps you still don’t know what they are, but you can make an educated guess that they’re data points taken over several days. Measurements of what? Again, you can guess: they could be temperatures, for example. But of what? Not knowing the unit of measure means you can’t easily figure it out. You think about what units could reasonably be in this range and vary by these amounts over a series of days.
Whether you’re able to guess the answer to this riddle depends on cultural factors: If you’re in the United States, which uses the imperial system of measures, you may have guessed these are weight readings for an adult male. If you’re used to taking such readings in pounds, these numbers may seem reasonable. But this wouldn’t be the case if you usually measure weight in kilos or stones.
What’s the takeaway here? As my friend Andrew Hinton likes to say, “context gonna context.” Our minds are pattern-matching machines, geared towards finding meanings in things. In the absence of explicit contextual cues, we make up the difference by examining the relationships between the things we perceive. Among other factors, these hypothetical meanings are informed by our cultural backgrounds. This obviously opens the door to misreadings. So establishing a clear context is key to successfully conveying meaning, and labeling things goes a long way to creating the context for them to be understood.