Hypotheses and the synthesis process

I started this mini-series on synthesis with a post on moving from summaries to synthesis. This was the excerpt of the post that talked about the difference.

When we write a good summary, we ask ourselves the question – what were the main points of what I read/heard/saw? A good summary boils what we read, heard or saw into a few bullet points that outline the central thesis.

A good synthesis, instead, involves asking the question – how do I make sense of what I read/heard/saw? This is a fundamentally different exercise because a good synthesis involves combining ideas to form a theory or point of view.

But, this post raised the obvious question – how do we synthesize? Or, put differently, what tools can I use to transition from summaries to synthesis? We touched on the first tool yesterday – theories. A theory is an idea or a system of ideas that are intended to explain something. Theories aren’t intended to explain everything about the topic. But, they explain enough for you to understand it. I mentioned that theories are one of the tool good synthesizers use.

The other more dominant tool is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for the next investigation. The synthesis process typically involves tons of hypotheses because it isn’t easy going from something you just read/heard/saw to a theory. Hypotheses bridge the gap. Below is what the process looks like.

Let’s work with a live example. I saw a talk with Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson on their new book – “Altered Traits.” Altered Traits is about what they’ve learnt from a lot of the scientific research on meditation. I’ve thought of and tried practicing meditation for over a year. When I reflected on both what I read about meditation and my experiences around meditation, there were 3 hypotheses that emerged –

  • Meditation feels like a route to mindfulness and equanimity
  • Writing every day feels like meditation to me
  • There are multiple ways to meditate or get to mindfulness – we should find a way that works for us

Ever since the hypotheses emerged, I’ve been looking for various ways to test these hypotheses. And, as I listened to the two authors speak, I found my hypotheses to be consistent to how they described the benefits of meditation. I expect to continue to find ways to test these hypotheses (I am in no hurry for now, of course). Over time, I’d expect a theory around meditation and mindfulness by writing to come together.

A hypotheses driven approach to life sounds, on first glance, like something that would only work in a lab. But, in truth, our life is the grandest experiment we run. Like all grand experiments, it is the sum and product of many small, daily experiments. We can choose to unintentionally stumble through them or do our best to be intentional about them.

And, should we choose to be intentional about them, it is critical to go into experiments with a hypotheses and learn from them. That’s what the process of synthesis helps us do.

That is also why it is a very powerful habit in the long run.