“More help with the sorrows of the digital age…”

Holmes, Jamie. Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Crown Publishers, New York, 2015 (322pp.$27)

“It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense,” Chekhov wrote to a friend. “Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything…and if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity…” What Chekhov the artist knew instinctively is now confirmed by a half-century of research by social, cognitive and evolutionary psychologists, as well as considerable laboratory work by neuroscientists. Having first dug Freud’s scientific grave, modern science is now demonstrating how human brains fly largely on automatic pilot, exercising “control” over a world of sense impressions by imposing preconceptions and automatic response systems in the face of a life that is largely uncertain or ambiguous.

Read if you will, the following paragraph: “Aoccdrnig to research at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in what oerdr the ltteers in a word are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit porbelm.”

If you’re like most people, reading the two sentences is a piece of cake, even though the individual words are nonsense. In every practical sense, we should be happy that the brain works this way—filling in gaps, resolving discrepancies, and making small conjectures because, as psychologist Jordan Peterson explains, “The fundamental problem of life is the overwhelming complexity of being.” As humans we eradicate vast swathes of information, data, perception and detail in order to defer to working brain theories about what we’re going to encounter. “Belief,” as Flannery O’Conner once said, “is the engine that makes perception operate.”

Jamie Holmes’ new book, “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing” is a fascinating and high-speed romp through the latest research about how the brain processes our encounters with uncertainty (Which course of treatment will best cure my cancer?) and ambiguity (What does that expression on my wife’s face mean?) Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former research coordinator at Harvard’s economics department, holds an MIA from Columbia. His writing has appeared in major magazines, including “The Atlantic” and “Foreign Policy”. “Nonsense” is an easy-to-read but compelling gem of popular science writing that manages to functionally survey a broad range of research, while conveying surprising solutions to vexing questions of psychology by reference to such popular topics as disaster response, medical diagnosis, Absolut Vodka advertising, the Waco-Branch Davidian negotiation disaster, problem solving in Ducati motorcycle construction, mini-skirts in fashion and our modern-day fixation with conspiracy theory and radicalism in politics. Amazingly, each of these subjects is directly connected with our very human desire for clarity and certainty at any cost—in psychology, the so-called “functional fixedness” hard-wired into our heads.

Our urge towards clarity is prompted by physical pain. It hurts not to know. It is stressful. So it is that psychological pressures compel us to deny or dismiss inconsistent evidence, to seize and freeze on ideas and beliefs in areas of life completely unrelated to that source of anxiety. Sometimes we make decisions to resolve ambiguity by perceiving genuine ambivalence as calculating duplicity instead of realizing that ambivalence is more a natural state of mind that we realize. We might consider that wanting and not wanting something at the same time is so common that it is almost a baseline condition of human consciousness. Taking examples from the everyday world, Holmes’ book illuminates these ideas in practical ways not readily apparent at first glance. Our reliance on medical technology, for example, will never resolve the inherent ambiguity of treatment—in fact, the search for certainty carries its own risks. In politics, there are most often no “silver-bullet” solutions to problems like terrorism or poverty.

If there is a popular psychology “page turner” to be found, “Nonsense” is it. One brilliant modern experiment follows after another. Logic puzzles, mind games and perception challenges are all on display (What would you make of a deck of cards in which every spade was red and every heart was black?), making “Nonsense” both enjoyable and serious. But in important and significant ways, “Nonsense” transcends the popular bounds of its brief by exploring some genuinely troubling issues.

Our modern understanding of belief now shows that group decisions under a high need for closure mirror individual ones. In today’s ultra-uncertain world, with shifting economic and cultural realities, some groups naturally grab for far-fetched conspiracy theories while others fall back on hardline core beliefs. Experiments show that under time pressure to resolve an issue, groups marginalize members who voice opposition to a given consensus. Another study found that when stressful noise was introduced into decision-making group discussions, group members tolerated no opposition to their core beliefs. One 2012 study showed that the heightened need for closure has links to “support for militancy, torture, the use of secret prisons in foreign countries, and the notion that national security is more important than individual rights.” One can only see militant Islam as the quest for certainty in an uncertain modern world

If this sounds familiar, it should. Voters regularly lend an ear to any demagogue who offers simple solutions to profound problems by easing their supporters into a comfort zone of core beliefs and deep conspiracy. “The Jews”, Hitler told the Germans, “are the source of your problems.”   “Let’s destroy Saddam Hussein,” said George W. Bush, “and create a bright shining democracy in Iraq.” To counteract our need for immediate clarity, all of us should pause in our deliberations and dwell amid our feelings of uncertainty and confusion. Revisit our problems in different moods. Embrace confusion.

Henri Matisse once said that when he ate a tomato he looked at it like everyone else, but that when he painted a tomato, he saw it differently. By seeing the tomato as a collection of colors and shades, Matisse painted it faithfully.