In defence of summaries: A response to Iain McGilchrist’s critique

Summaries have a critical part in play in effective explanation.

I have just written an article on the benefits of summaries. Below is a summary.

Acclaimed writer and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist argues that summaries are often detrimental because they exclude too much nuance, richness and implicit knowledge.

While this can be the case, it’s important to strike the right balance between summary and detail.

The world is such a complex place that we don’t begin to have enough time or cognitive energy to deal with all the detail that we encounter. As a result, we are continually having to choose where we want more summary and where we want more detail.

Some of the main benefits of summaries include:

1. Finding simplicity on the far side of complexity

2. Providing introductory information

3. Reducing cognitive load

4. Helping the process of reading.

Summary and detail should be understood as existing on a continuum.

It’s also important to realise that there are trade-offs at every point on the continuum. Having a greater level of detail allows more complexity and the inclusion of more richness and depth. However that also means that the content is less easy to grasp and requires a greater investment of time.

On the other hand, having a greater level of summary will make the content easier to grasp and quicker to read. However that comes with the drawbacks of less richness and depth and less nuance and subtlety.

The way to solve these trade-offs is to provide content at multiple levels on the continuum – what I call multi-level content.

The full article can be read at

Date published: June 5, 2019.

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