Monday, December 17, 2012

On Structure, Function, and Asian Numbers

Asian numbers?  Unlikely as it may seem, the approach taken in some Asian languages to naming numbers can help illustrate an important behavior dimension.

When you try to get someone's attention (the intended consequence), you might wave your hand, lift an eyebrow, cough gently, or just call out "Hey you!"  These behaviors have very different structures, but the same function.  In a way, just as the many nature-nurture factors always work together, so do structural and functional factors.

Structure includes shape, color, intensity, timing, etc.:  the "what" questions about something.  What is Ellie doing?  Running at quite a clip, and we can measure what her speed is.  Function deals with the "why" questions: Ellie might be running for a train or training for a run, for example.  Same structure, different function.  You get the idea.  Any behavior influenced by consequences has structure, and so do signals for consequences. 

OK, so where do Asian numbers come in?  In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell noted that the Chinese number system, to take one of several examples, has a more logical number naming system than does English:  no irregular names like "eleven."  The numbers are also shorter to say, making it easier to remember a series of numbers.  (Imagine if instead of "one," "two," "three" we had to remember "shigaroomph," "taranug," and "froomjokey.")  These are structural features.  Given comparable consequences and (relatedly) motivation levels for learning numbers and doing mathematics with them, it would be surprising if there weren't any advantages to the more logical system, especially during initial learning.  The same principle applies to the format of the numbers themselves.  How many people would be willing to enter a math contest if handicapped by having to use Roman numerals?  How long does it take to decipher dates in Roman numerals on historic buildings?  (Do architects still follow this practice? . . .  If so, I wonder about the function!)

The structure-function interaction can be found in many places:  anatomy (structure) and physiology (function) in the biomedical sciences, for example. The science of consequences is inherently focused on function, but necessarily incorporates the structural side as well--such as how best to design an effective, rewarding online math tutoring program, or tailor a coaching session for a soccer team.  Correspondingly, psychologists who focus on structural questions--such as cognitive scientists--are also necessarily dealing with function.  Just as our new knowledge of the nature-and-nurture system with its ubiquitous interactions has immensely expanded our understanding of its flexibility and potential applications, a better understanding of how structural and functional principles interact is bound to bring many benefits.  More on this in future posts . . . and comments are welcome!

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