In praise of confusion and uncertainty

by Jun 24, 2012Brain, Mental Health0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 3 minutes
A new study  [1] has found that being confused is an important part of learning. The work undertaken by Sidney D’Mello with colleagues at the University of Notre Dame discovered that by deliberately but carefully inducing confusion in a learning session about a complex  issue, people in fact learnt more effectively and were also then able to apply their knowledge to new problems.  For example subjects were introduced to debates about scientific matters such as whether a drug will or won’t be effective in certain conditions. They then were exposed to various views, some of which contradicted each other and the subjects had to decide which opinion had more scientific merit using incomplete and sometimes contradictory information. The subjects in whom such confusion was induced scored higher on a difficult post-test than a control group and could more successfully identify flaws in new case studies. “We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion,” D’Mello said.

Such ideas do not fit neatly into current views about how we gain knowledge, nor those about educational policy, with its increased focus on rote learning or teaching to predict exam questions and aiming to maximise grades. The danger in such an approach is that it kills off curiosity and interest and the hunger to learn. Curiosity, uncertainty and what Keats called Negative Capability  ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ [2] are, many think, the bedrock of true learning and thinking. D’Melo’s study would resonate well with the work of Iain McGilchrist on the left and right hemispheres of the brain [3]. For those not familiar with his work, he has found extensive research to suggest that our cerebral hemispheres tend to specialise, each having a different perspective on the world. He argues that we are increasingly living in a left hemisphere dominated world. The left hemisphere specialises in certainty, clarity, detail, logicality and is less good at broader sweeps and gestalts, and struggles with uncertainty and openness to new experience. Most creative and new ideas, as McGilchrist and others have shown, depend on the right hemisphere, and when things work well these new ideas can then be passed to the left hemisphere to work through the consequences. Yet it seems right hemisphere openness is less and less valued and in addition our right hemispheres are not so good at  measuring and quantifying, nor at precision and certainly not at clear and rational argument, skills which the left hemisphere is most adept at and which are increasingly dominant in society. Interestingly of all the emotions, the ones the left hemisphere is dominant for are aggression and confidence, and indeed people with strokes that disable right hemisphere functioning tend, for example, to have unwarranted amounts of confidence. This too links with the dangers of too much confidence that D’Mello has flagged up. Yet the left hemisphere is persuasive, and controls language use, and indeed it is what McGilchrist calls the ‘Berlosconi of the brain’ as it controls the media. It is hard to argue against confidence and certainty.

This issue is central in many areas of life, whether political agendas or the NHS or mental  health services or education. The target led culture of recent years is protoypical of the left hemisphere in action. Clients getting psychological help might be suffering a similar fate at a time when NICE guidelines and evidence-based practice rule and when clients are often shoe-horned inappropriately into diagnostic categories that don’t fit and treatments delivered with little heed to real needs. The danger is that we do not see the actual people who need our help, nor retain genuine interest and openness about their lives, and we quickly jump to certainty about what we believe they need and deliver this. Empathy of course and being in touch with another person’s feelings is also a right hemisphere dominant capacity, but one that can quickly be cast aside in the interests of ‘efficiency’.


[1]        S. D’Mello, B. Lehman, R. Pekrun, and A. Graesser, ‘Confusion can be beneficial for learning’, Learning and Instruction, 2012.

[2]        J. Keats, The complete poetical works and letters of John Keats. Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1899.

[3]        I. Mcgilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Reprint. Yale University Press, 2010.

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