Questions & Closure
How does the ability to instantaneously access information affect our thinking?
“... a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”
― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
"Live in the question"
For 20 years, a cat served as mayor of a town. Where?
What made spider webs viable as bandages in ancient times?
If someone tried to sell New Zealand on eBay (someone once did),
how much would it go for?
What is the weight of the average cloud?
These questions do, in fact, have answers--but I won't reveal those to you just yet! Until I do, your brain will frolic in a place of ambiguity and uncertainty, tumbling these questions in its mind, perusing thoughts and memories that may get you no closer to any verifiable information. Frustrating... or thrilling?
In psychological terms, this desire for information--that urge to take out your phone and search for the answer--is called “cognitive closure." Though our brains’ desire for cognitive closure evolved many eons ago, the means by which we achieve this closure has changed drastically in the so-called "Information Age." We have a question—we are uncertain—we surf internet networks of seemingly limitless information—and, eventually, we become certain. We have, essentially, outsourced—or even skipped!—the very enriching steps between uncertainty and certainty: we have perhaps forgotten, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, how to “live in the question.”
On the panel of The Reality of Reality: A Tale of Five Senses, neuroscientist Beau Lotto announces to his audience that, by the end of the talk, he "wants you to know less than you think you know now." Why? Well, for a very simple reason, he tells us: "Because nothing interesting begins with knowing; it begins with not-knowing…I hope you will know less and understand more.”
Studies have shown that people have different tolerances for “living in the question,” so to speak. If you can’t quite remember the name of an actor in a movie, how long do you search your brain for the answer before turning to your smartphone? For how long do you examine landmarks or stop for directions or engage in some conversation with a local human inhabitant when you get lost on the road? If you feel the immediate need to know when the ballpoint pen was invented, how much time do you spend wondering about market conditions, World War II, ink technologies, the death of letter-writing, the emergence of literacy, before looking up this one small fact?
It is in the state of living in the question that a host of lovely wonderings can arise. As with the uncertainty of the provenance of the ballpoint pen, this can take us to all sorts of memorable and interesting places in our thoughts—through information that we already know, and uncovering along the path little stones from underneath which scurry out other questions we didn’t even know we had. Much is illuminated, much unsettled. Next to this, the information itself (the ballpoint pen was invented in 1888, at least according to the first hit on Google) seems meagre and anticlimactic.
This month, I ask you to consider what it might be like to live in a society that values questioning as much as our society seems to value answers. Imagine if we built machines that fed us questions instead of answers, or if we created mysteries in our free time instead of solving them! How would we measure progress or success if we lived in a Mythology Age or a Wondering Age; if we valued how many questions a person could ask rather than how many answers they could find?
How might our minds function differently—and what stories might we create or witticisms might we exchange—if we waded comfortably in questions instead of making beelines for answers?
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
HOLD THE PHONE!
Don't do any internet searches for a full day.
Instead, make a list of every question that pops into your head that you ordinarily would have pulled out your phone or your computer to answer. These can be mundane questions ("When are my taxes due?"), logistical questions ("What time does the grocery store close?"), or recreational questions ("What was the name of Green Day's last album?").
Chances are, you will contemplate the questions that are interesting to you for *longer* than you otherwise would have, perhaps uncovering thoughts along the way. The questions that are less important or relevant to you (that you were likely searching out of habit or muscle memory for Google before even recognizing what you were doing), you will likely blaze past and forget. This isn't a bad thing--we don't need every tidbit of information that comes our way. Sometimes, it's nice to use the time we would have spent searching for 50 random facts to instead probe one issue deeply and exercise our profound-thinking side.
At the end of the day, once you have completed all the wondering you are content to do, you can dutifully consult your informational avenues and search for the answers to every question on your list. You might be surprised to see how many questions you've unknowingly been googling on a daily basis!
GET LOST, IF YOU MUST
Go somewhere and try to find your way home without maps of any kind (please don’t do anything unsafe, and definitely not on the way to somewhere time-sensitive!). You might find that you’re noticing things in a different way when you’re not certain about your path—you may be more alert, constantly questioning yourself, noticing landmarks, thinking of memories when you turned this way or that. Importantly, you can become more comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing precisely where you are, or not knowing from the GPS precisely which minute you will arrive at your destination. Keep in mind that this exercise is not a lifestyle activity (maps are useful, and one would do well to use them when they are available). Rather, this is an experiment to see how you cope with the discomfort of living in the uncertainty and learning what tools you can muster to deal with this sort of ambiguity in your life.
WIDE OPEN SPACES
“Uncertainty is a quality to be cherished, therefore – if not for it, who would dare to undertake anything?”
― Auguste de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam
Why do people enjoy mysteries—why is Sherlock Holmes so enduring, even as our world becomes more and more different from his fictional one? It is because questions are enduring; the state of desiring an answer but not getting one is gripping. As soon as the conclusion is reached, the story is over! Many such stories delight in the space of questioning with the promise of answer that is yet unknown. It is not the answer that is as scintillating as the prospect of one, delayed. Why is it less enticing, from a suspense standpoint, to watch a mystery the second time around? It is because we are not anymore living in the question—we are living in the answer. Obviously, a story is a safe space to do this; it is happening to someone else, not us, and we know exactly when to expect an answer (in 15 pages, in 150 pages, in 20 episodes, at the end of the film, etc.). We do not have to live with the regret of wishing we had had more information earlier, reflecting that we would have done something differently if only we had known. As we know, uncertainty in real life is not all curiosity and excitement. There is a reason we avoid it. After all, if you ask any group of children their greatest fear, at least one of them will tell you they are afraid of the dark. But what is it about the dark that makes it so ubiquitously monstrous? Is the natural dark of night-time actually dangerous to us--does it sting, does it bite? Dark, in fact, is rather innocuous. The fear is, at heart, a different one--the fear of not being able to see the reality around us. “Uncertainty is a close relative of anxiety,” Brandon R. Reynolds writes in the article There’s a lot of Uncertainty Right Now—This is what Science Says That Does to Our Minds, Bodies. Every age has its own ebb and flow of uncertainties, and we are arguably living through one of the greatest such periods of uncertainty in our lifetimes. The past two years have seen a global pandemic wherein we don’t know what our daily lives will look like on not only a year to year but almost day to day basis—employment, technology, climate. Everything has been upended (for our lifetimes and for those that follow), and though we may have our guesses, the probabilities are harder to calculate in the shakeup. Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, points out that in moments of uncertainty, "we have to expend effort in trying to predict what will happen in addition to preparing to deal with all of the different outcomes." This means that uncertainty is actually taxing on our bodies and minds (a fact that many of us likely recognize from experience). Let's look a bit more deeply into what happens in the brain during moments of uncertainty: Mazen Kheirbek, associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF, did a relevant experiment on mice. The mice in the experiment were provided with two choices: an enclosed space and a wide-open one. Researchers observed that the mice's so-called “anxiety neurons” were activated when they faced the prospect of the wide open space, so the mice tended to choose the enclosed space. Apparently, these anxiety neurons were a sort of knee-jerk reaction on the part of the mice, not necessarily leading to the most rationally desirable choice of rooms. Avoidance behaviors were triggered by the hypothalamus, not giving higher-order brain regions a chance to weigh in on the decision. To contextualize their results, the researchers took it one step further. Suppressing the mice's “anxiety neurons," they found, caused the mice to make a different choice. When they weren't ruled by this anxiety, they chose to explore the wide open spaces in a low-anxiety state. Mice aside, this serves as a relevant lesson for us humans. We are primed to perceive uncertainty as threatening, and therefore anxiety-inducing, in some way. We have knee-jerk reactions that involve getting rid of this uncertainty. What if instead, when given the choice, we take a moment to pause and rationally consider the benefits and risks of walking into the wide open space? Questions open up our minds; answers close them. We can take this experiment literally when it comes to uncertain choices in our lives, but we can also take a lesson on how to process the information we do receive. Just because it looks like an answer doesn't mean it is an answer, even if you badly want one. While it is our instinct to rush to quell the uncertainty by clinging to the first answer we find, we might do well (for the sake of ourselves as well as our societies) to hold out, look into things further, keep an open mind... Maria Konnikova writes in "Why We Need Answers": "In our rush for definition, we tend to produce fewer hypotheses and search less thoroughly for information. We become more likely to form judgments based on early cues (something known as impressional primacy), and as a result become more prone to anchoring and correspondence biases (using first impressions as anchors for our decisions and not accounting enough for situational variables). And, perversely, we may not even realize how much we are biasing our own judgments." In other words, when we are convinced we are holding definitive answers instead of questions, we might in fact overlook the very information we are seeking--and not because it is more or less valid, but merely because we were introduced to it later. If you'd like to become aware of your own level of "Need for Closure," you might try a brief quiz by psychologists Arne Roets and Alain Van Hiel, who adapted it from Webster and Kruglanski’s original comprehensive list of criteria.
And finally, as promised, a link to the answers to the four questions (and more!) that we asked at the beginning of this newsletter.
“I stopped Googling everything, and this is what happened to my brain” by Dana McMahan In an engaging and personable voice, McMahan describes her personal experiment. The answer is encouraging, and may not be what you’d expect! “Why We Need Answers” by Maria Konnikova (The New Yorker) This article relates the need for certainty to many things, both neuroscientifically and to coverage of political matters for journalists—it touches on the ideas of spreading misinformation and the holding fast to opinions in a desperate need for closure.
Nonsense, the Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes Holmes explains how not knowing can inspire “learning, creativity, and even empathy.” “How Well Do you Handle Uncertainty? Take this quiz to find out.” by Jesse Singer (The Cut) This article contains an embedded quiz that will help you find your NFC, or tolerance for uncertainty. Then, it includes a bit of history and some practical insights as to how to handle rational decision-making in life and business based on your NFC.
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