Lumping and Splitting

Combined Jewish Philanthropies; Photography by Elisif Brandon


I was fascinated by an article titled “Head Space” by James Somers, in the December 6, 2021 issue of The New Yorker (yes, I’m a bit behind in my reading). Somers spends a lot of time talking with Ken Norman, Chair of the Psychology Department at Princeton University, as he learns more about thought decoding. Norman describes the way his former student, Sam Gershman, “likes using the terms ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’ to describe how the mind’s meaning space evolves. When you encounter a new stimulus, do you lump it with a concept that is familiar, or do you split off a new concept?” I recognized this at once as central to my design process, to my understanding of the world, and to my approach to teaching architecture and interior design students. It even applies to learning Spanish!

Let’s start with Spanish. When I see a new word, first I look for similarities to other words in English or French.  Sometimes that gets me in trouble (frio is cold not hot like fried), but often I can glean enough meaning to understand the sentence.  If I don’t see similarities to other words (lumping), I then put the word in the unique pile (splitting), with the understanding that I will have to memorize it.  Here is lumping in Spanish: teatro is theater.  Here is splitting is Spanish: ajedrez is chess.

Now let’s apply the concept to teaching.  The student’s work looks like a hot mess, but it won’t be constructive to say that.  I look for the bits that are similar to the work of other well-known architects, especially the work of the 20th century masters, so the students can look at their work and begin to understand what they may have been trying to achieve.  I also look for the bits that are unique.  Sometimes those are the parts that are making the project look wrong, but if you can take away the parts that are similar to the work of others, the unique parts may have the most potential. The student can decide how to develop the design, not to fit to my tastes, but to understand how to make their intentions clearer.

Finally, how do I “lump and split” when I am designing? I usually do both in a single project! I guess I intuitively understand how the brain processes information. If there are too many elements that call attention to themselves, the person going to a space (especially for the first time) will not understand how to navigate the space. We want to control where you look, and how you proceed through a space.  We want you/your brain to “lump” the parts of the space that we don’t want to call attention to by using more typical design solutions. People recognize those elements as things that they’ve seen before and mostly ignore them. The parts that we want to grab your eye, we want to “split” off from the lump that is recognizable.  It is the one thing that doesn’t belong with the rest. Now I have your attention!

Ken Norman and his team are working on decoding the brain, now you can start decoding space.

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