Symmetry: The Calm before the Structure

Random seems to be the new default for organizing information.  In my workshops, I mention a shopping Website that wants to sell everything, including books.  Books, of course, come with some major competition.  This site has about 60 subject categories that are displayed in no particular order.  While random may ease their Website designer’s workload by a few minutes, forcing customers to struggle with a disorganized list of subjects is certainly an inefficient sales tactic.

As a skilled organizer, I find this descent into random to be nonsensical.  Personally, I even organize information so I can organize it better.  My first step in the process is to arrange the material into a simple pattern.  This helps me identify characteristics and determine the final display structure.  Usually, but not always, that initial pattern is the alphabet.  Even when I know the final arrangement will not be alphabetized, I view the material first in alphabetical order.

Why is that?  In a certain sense, alphabetical order is just a variation of random.  It’s an arbitrary assignment of place based on how a word is spelled.  I once thought the alphabet helps by arranging similar concepts together, accidentally or not, and that is true in some cases.  It’s a big advantage if you’re organizing by author, but less valuable with titles.  In addition, the physical process of organizing material into a simple structure draws a picture of the entire set and helps reveal emerging patterns.

These are both benefits of alphabetizing, but they aren’t the real reasons.  The chaos of random imposes a mental struggle.  So I alphabetize to calm my brain.  This helps me recognize intricate qualities in the material that may be different from the alphabet.  I create the simple pattern to see the complex pattern.

Mario Livio reinforces this concept in his book, The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved:  How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2005), where he states, “From friezes of classical temples and pillars of palaces to carpets and even birdsong, the symmetry of repeating patterns has always produced a very comforting familiarity and a reassuring effect” (p. 15).  Livio describes a type of symmetry called “translation” (p. 16), which is the repeating pattern.  For example, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor contains a musical motif that adjusts by one step in the scale and then repeats (p. 18).

That’s what alphabetical order does.  It adjusts by one letter and repeats.  Start with the first letter.  Words beginning with “A” are listed according to society’s agreed arrangement of the alphabet.  Move one step to “B,” following the same arrangement of Roman letters that users begin learning at about the age of two.  Take another step to C.  It’s as elegant as Mozart.  According to Livio, the psychologist Christopher W. Tyler has found an area of the human brain whose only apparent purpose is the detection of symmetry (p. 37-38).   Is it possible that the symmetry of the alphabet goes straight into the brain?  Perhaps alphabetical order makes us smarter.

Alphabetizing is so easy we don’t recognize the elegance of the process, but there’s the beauty.  Unlike the chaos of random, which forces users to fight with the structure, the alphabet is not intrusive.  We know what comes next.  Perhaps it calms us because we learned our letters at an early age and a part of our brain is now stimulated by their symmetric repetition.  Whatever the reason, the alphabet’s familiar pattern clears your mind for creative thinking.

Feb 2006