Monday, March 15th, 2010...10:16 pm

Perplexity, Reality, and Learning

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America is rapidly becoming a nation psychologically unable to confront its problems. (Bryant Welch, “State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind,” p. 1.)

This provocative thought forms the first sentence of Dr. Welch’s book, “State of Confusion.” Dr. Welch lives in Washington D.C. where he practices two professions–(1) clinical psychologist in private practice and (2) attorney for the American Psychological Association. This unique combination gives him access to the inner workings of both the human mind and our political system. He connects the two in his book, claiming that the cumulative effect of the way the political establishment is able to manipulate the “reality sense” of many Americans has begun to undermine our ability as a nation to function in reality.

I mention Dr. Welch because the things he says about the way the brain works are relevant to our shared endeavor in the Honors program to become champion learners. The connection is complex, but let me try to clarify it.

Being a clinical psychologist, Dr. Welch understands not only that the mind creates its own “reality sense,” but that it does so differently from the way we commonly assume it does. It does not typically create its “reality sense” either by following the rules of logic (connecting A to B to C in a chain of causality) or by cognition (deciding how things are on the basis of accurate information). Rather, it does so by using associational logic, stringing together in a highly idiosyncratic fashion a series of otherwise unrelated symbols, feeling states, fears and wishes.

The-Temptations-of-St. Anthony-Salvador Dali

Dr. Welch puts particular emphasis on what happens when we become perplexed–the extreme psychological state that results whenever our “reality sense” no longer matches our actual experience of reality. He points out since the mind needs to feel certain about its foundational “reality sense,” perplexity is a significant psychological state because when we are perplexed, our brains automatically begin to adjust our “reality sense” so we can feel certain again. As Dr. Welch points out, however, “The reality we ultimately weave does not have to be a “correct” reality; it simply must feel like a correct reality, one that eliminates perplexity (p. 22).”

Often we will adjust our “reality sense” to diminish or eliminate perplexity by using associational logic to connect our fears with certain powerful cultural symbols, thereby making them easier to handle. For example, when grieving over the loss of a loved one, we might create a new “reality sense” in which the deceased is now an “angel” that communicates with us in spirit form. Similarly, when we learn our nation uses torture, we might attempt to escape the perplexity brought on by this revelation by creating a new “reality sense” in which the acts in question no longer constitute torture or in which the universal moral prohibition against torture does not apply to those we use it against.

Now to those unfamiliar with the findings of cognitive science and depth psychology, it might seem absurd to suggest that we seek on an unconscious level to create a different “reality sense” for ourselves when we are perplexed. However, there are two important qualifying points here. The first is that this is not to say the mind, whether in a perplexed state or not, cannot function logically and cognitively. Indeed, a main purpose of higher education is to cultivate the capacity for logical and cognitive reasoning–particularly in conditions of perplexity. The point is not to deny the possibility of accurate cognition and logical reasoning but to clarify that they are acquired skills, not automatic natural processes.

The second qualifying point is that the fact that the mind can create its own “reality sense” is not necessarily a bad thing. As Dr. Welch points out, The human mind is a wonder. It miraculously converts, organizes, and interprets a vast and infinitely complex bombardment of stimuli–from both inside and outside the mind–into a cohesive, subjective experience people call “reality”….This is done unconsciously, far from awareness, so efficiently and effectively that the very notion of “creating our reality” feels foreign to us. We assume that our senses simply perceive the world as it is objectively. Nothing could be further from the truth. (p.15)

The idea is that the mind’s ability to make sense, meaning, and purpose out of confusion by creating a new “reality” for itself is a mechanism for expanding our understanding. In that, it is a tool of survival. Accordingly, the problems associated with this tool are not inherent in the tool itself but are consequences of the fact that the tool can be manipulated to delude us. For that reason, it is important to understand the mechanism that makes the manipulation of our “reality sense” possible.

It all begins with the fact that when we are perplexed and can no longer maintain a coherent sense of reality, our brains will try to reduce the perplexity by creating a new personal reality. Dr. Welch points out that our brains not only can do this but must do so. For example, it is particularly perplexing to be deceived by a trusted political or religious leader. The natural tendency of the brain in such a situation is to work to reduce or eliminate the perplexity by creating a new “reality sense,” one with a fundamental core of simplicity and certainty we can feel absolutely certain about. Of course, if truth is the most important thing, we will admit to ourselves we are in fact being deceived. Since this admission is perplexing on a deeper level, however, there will also be the temptation to reduce the perplexity by turning to bogus certainty and false simplicity. In this circumstance we can be manipulated to accept a completely false “reality.”

Thus it comes about that the great strength of the brain–its ability to create a coherent reality out of the confusions and contradictions it finds itself in–is also its great weakness. Government operatives now know how to use this weakness to their own advantage, which is why they now routinely use their position to stimulate our fears and make us perplexed–for example, by exaggerating the threat of terrorism. They know that when we feel unsafe and in great danger we are more likely to accept into our “reality sense” irrational beliefs, illogical assertions, and implausible assumptions, validating the falsehoods and distortions on the basis of “faith” or “gut feelings.” As a result, “American politics is now a battle to shape what Americans perceive as reality (p. 8).”

Dr. Welch’s argument is that the cumulative effect of manipulating the “reality sense” of Americans to accept policies and an agenda they would not otherwise support has reached a tipping point and that the psychological well-being of the nation has been damaged. This is the disturbing truth behind the increasingly hostile division between Americans. The growing division is not a simple result of the fact we have different values and political affiliations. Rather, it is a disturbing consequence of the fact that the “reality sense” of many of us has been so dramatically manipulated that we no longer live in the same reality.

Of course, there are ways to prevent the politically irresponsible and spiritually troubling manipulation of our “reality sense.” Paradoxically, the key is not to try to eliminate our feelings of perplexity but to try to become more aware of how we respond to them. Remember, there is nothing wrong with a willingness and ability to adapt and evolve our “reality sense” when we feel perplexed by doubt and confusion. To the contrary, our ability to do so is of great evolutionary significance, being the brain’s mechanism for new understanding and cognitive advancement. The problem only comes in when fear overruns courage and, in a panicked recoiling from doubt and confusion, we desperately grasp for the comfort of simplicity and certainty–even if the simplicity is false and the certainty is bogus.

Revealingly, those who minimize their feelings of perplexity by adopting a patently false “reality sense” subsequently tend to defend their new “reality” with uncommon viciousness and aggression. Although they often describe their aggression as the “armor of truth,” it is in truth only a “defense of delusion.” To avoid this it is important to learn to disagree without getting angry.

Now as troubling as all of this is, I want to now switch our focus over to an educational context. Once again, the tendency of the mind to avoid perplexity by altering its “reality sense” is a mechanism of true learning and wellspring of scientific advance. Indeed, the deepest and most valuable learning occurs when our frame of reference and working assumptions are no longer adequate to the task at hand and our ordinary understanding breaks down. Although we then feel perplexed, this only indicates that a breakthrough into a new understanding is at hand. If we respond like the manipulated citizens Dr. Welch writes about and become overly frustrated and anxious, we will then be prone to try to end our perplexity by retreating into false certainty and misleading simplicity, thereby losing the opportunity to advance our understanding.

Unfortunately, school all too often cooperates with this destructive urge for false certainty by hastening always to replace the perplexing conditions of true learning with the false comfort of rote learning. This is unfortunate because a true learner must cultivate a psychological tolerance for perplexity in order to resist the seduction of false certainty and fake simplicity. In particular, a true learner must cultivate the courage to remain in uncertainty while continuing to investigate, having the patience to wait for new learning and breakthroughs. Ironically, a willingness to be patient in these areas often brings immediate results.

Of course, intellectual courage and patience are difficult virtues to cultivate and attain under any circumstances, but they are often even harder for high achieving students to attain. Why is this? It is because of the likelihood that high achieving students have successfully avoided perplexity in the past by mastering the false security of rote learning. In addition, they will almost certainly also have won honors and recognition for doing so, thereby making it doubly difficult for them to avoid the intoxicating seductions of false certainty and fake simplicity when they become perplexed in college.

This is why I say that being an Honors student means more than being responsible and completing your assignments on time and according to a strict standard of excellence. While these things are necessary, to be sure, being an Honors student also means cultivating the courage to rest in perplexity while having the patience for a new clarity to emerge.

What do you think about this?


  • Well, after writing a lengthy, thoughtful reply to this article, Submit Comment button erased it. I am indeed perplexed – how do I adjust my reality of seeing a blank space where there had previously been well thought out words? Hmmm…… pretty annoying, but I have had this happen before, more than once, and I always tell myself that next time I’ll save my work before pushing a button, but I don’t actually follow through on this promise, so here I am again, facing painful reality. What is that saying doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

  •   Peter
    March 17th, 2010 at 5:39 pm    

    You could also include the Tea Party movement in this psychological example. In times of stress and uncertainty it’s comforting to find simple villains and solutions.

    Rote learning is sometimes necessary to build the vocabulary and store of knowledge you need in order to have something intelligent to say. You must have faith grasshopper!

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