The relief, and comfort, of learning what you don’t know

I get a rush out of using my brain that is similar to the rush people crave from roller coasters and bungee jumps. I like learning. I really get a whiz out of being wrong; that is, someone finding the flaw in my argument. If I was independently wealthy and didn’t have children to rear, I think I’d always be in school.

For the first half of my life, I read books and went to school to get smarter. To become “well read.” To amass facts and data. To master concepts, skills and to become competent at my craft. But, heading for 55 this summer, I find myself attracted to more and more reading and learning with a different goal. Now I study to get stupider.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” author Robert Pirsig writes, “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something that you actually don’t.” This quote nails my feet to the floor. Yeah. How do we know that we know what we know? This is a vital question for us. When I was in my 20s, I knew that I knew a lot. I always blush when I remember that guy. Thirty-five years later, I’m grateful that at least a few friends saw me through the insufferable pride of my youth and are still around.

I read “The Invisible Gorilla” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. If you read it, and are then ever called to serve a jury at trial, I think you’ll have a much more guarded view of eyewitness testimony. Because, especially in crisis, eyewitnesses don’t see some things standing right in front of them, and literally make up things that aren’t even there. And it’s not because they are stupid or because they are lying. It’s just how the human brain sorts things under pressure.

“The Invisible Gorilla” discusses the illusions of attention and memory. Turns out we cannot and are not able to pay attention like we think we can. Our brain actually makes up memories for its own purposes. It describes “change blindness,” the failure to notice what was not there before. Then it describes “change blindness blindness, because people are blind to the extent of their own change blindness.” Sheesh. It leaves me wondering why I didn’t step in front of a city bus long ago.

It was simply embarrassing to read the chapter on the illusion of confidence. It turns out that, when you’re really mediocre at something, you tend to think you’re very good at it. Whereas when you really become skilled, you are eminently self-critical and aware of your limits. Well, that explains “American Idol,” yes?

Lastly are the illusions of knowledge, cause and potential. You’ll be embarrassed if you’ve ever spent a lot of money on self-help human potential gurus, or purchased the CDs and booklet from an infomercial. The bottom line is, very little of what those popular Rah-Rah You Can Do It people say effects any real change in you whatsoever. You’ll wince to learn about social causes that have stirred our hearts, opened our wallets — and just aren’t true.

And then there’s “You Are Not So Smart” by David McRaney. I’m speechless. The research is clear: Our brain just makes stuff up because we crave order to be comfortable with life. We are intolerant of randomness and coincidence. This book truly is an amazing read.

As one reviewer said, “That which cannot be overcome is a part as vital to the human experience as that impulse to try even harder to overcome nature.” In other words, McRaney’s book invites us to embrace an ordinary humanness. Ordinarily limited. Ordinarily a mere creature floundering along in the bigger picture of life and its mysteries.

In Latin, the word “mystery” is an invitation to solve a puzzle. If you buy a mystery novel, the goal is to turn the pages until it’s no longer a mystery. But when I say “mystery” above, I mean the Greek “musterion.” It’s not an invitation to solve; rather, to respect. It’s immutable. You only embrace through humble silence.

These days, I am finding relief, comfort and humility in learning what I don’t know. I am making peace with what I can’t know. When you learn what you don’t know, you get … smaller. Less eager to judge and virtually never again willing to condemn.

Others or yourself.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.

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