“Nonsense”: On Uncertainty Without Closure

How can we “use uncertainty to our advantage?” is one of the main questions author Jamie Holmes explores in Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (2015).

From a Nonsense book excerpt on his website:

The mind state caused by ambiguity is called uncertainty, and it’s an emotional amplifier. It makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable. The delight of crossword puzzles, for example, comes from pondering and resolving ambiguous clues. Detective stories, among the most successful literary genres of all time, concoct their suspense by sustaining uncertainty about hints and culprits. Mind-bending modern art, the multiplicities of poetry, Lewis Carroll’s riddles, Márquez’s magical realism, Kafka’s existen­tial satire—ambiguity saturates our art forms and masterpieces, sug­gesting its deeply emotional nature. Goethe once said that ‘what we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us produc­tive.’ So it is with ambiguity…

Kirkus Reviews states that “Holmes explains that we are all naturally ambivalent. When we are confused, our minds either snap shut (relying on preconceptions) or unlock (allowing us to innovate).”

…Offering innumerable examples, the author describes instances in which we try to avoid uncertainty and have a dangerously high need for closure—a critical negotiation, inconclusive medical results, or a changing business environment—and others in which we try to maximize the benefits of harnessing ambiguity, whether to help students solve problems with no clear answers or to discover new ways to cope with failure and success…

Our culture actually puts an undue emphasis on closure, says Holmes.

How he explained to Scientific American his emphasis on increasing our ability to handle a lack of closure:

What I find really fascinating is how our need for closure is affected by the situation we’re in. So, our need for closure rises when we have to act rather than just observe, and when we’re rushed, or bored, or tired. Any stress, really, can make our discomfort with ambiguity increase. And that matters, because a high need for closure negatively influences some of our most critical decisions: how we deal with perceived threats, who we decide to trust, whether we admit we’re wrong, whether we stereotype, and even how creative we are. So much of the book focuses on the dangers of a high need for closure, strategies for lowering it, and ways to learn from ambiguity rather than dismiss it.

Selected Quotes from Nonsense

Both empathy and creativity spring from the same source: diversity. Empathy, after all, is a fundamentally creative act by which we connect previously unimagined lives to our own. The path to embracing other cultures has to traverse the imagination. That’s why studies have shown that a high need for closure hurts creativity. 

Not knowing doesn’t leave us without a compass, in some relativist nether land. Owning our uncertainty makes us kinder, more creative, and more alive.

The roots of prejudice can be traced to a general cognitive outlook characterized by the hunger for certainty.

Ambivalence is a more natural state of mind than we ordinarily assume. Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is so common that we might even consider it a baseline condition of human consciousness.

Lasting knowledge earns its keep by allowing itself to be persistently questioned. In any field, we gain true confidence when we allow our ideas and successes to be continuously challenged.

Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes: “From women’s hemlines to Nazi spies, Henri Matisse to Anton Chekhov, Holmes is an entertaining guide into the vagaries of our comprehension of reality—and the power we can derive from nonsense, if only we give it a chance.”

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