Sunday, August 23, 2009

Certainty and mystery

Want a quick answer to a problem? Go to and use this "computational knowledge engine" to give a unique/definite/correct answer to a closed, finite, factual question. What's the wavelength of blue light? How far from earth to the sun? What's the probability of a Royal Flush in poker?

It will save you stretching the neurons, going to the library or rummaging through Wikipedia. And probably ruin Trivia Nights at the pub.

Despite its' fancy new name, this kind of technology has been around for yonks. It's call an expert system, a carefully cultivated database of factual information, computational rules and questions framed in natural language, rather than the more formal language of computer programming. In this case, the designers have created a web portal to access the software that drives the system instead of a software application resident on a stand-alone computer.

But there's a problem with this kind of knowing. It's totally boring. And in the same way that any lengthy bout of conservative or radical politics often leads to its polar opposite it's likely that an era of absolute certainty will lead to a thirst for mystery. And where do you find more mystery? By expanding the range of possibilities. By inventing new worlds, new denizens of these worlds, and new relationships between the participants, no matter what the species.

Our brains are designed to deal with uncertainty, to struggle to make sense out of what we don't know and what we don't know we don't know. New concepts and new ways of seeing the world.

When danger lurks or a new problem presents for which we don't have an instinctive or automatic response the right frontal lobes take control. Our own personal Google helps to find stuff from all over the brain, as well as the latest updates from our senses. And it very helpfully creates brand new solutions.

Once we get it right the left frontal lobes take control and play automatic routines for us so we don't "go bananas" and live a groundhog day every day. Routinely dealing with the same complex problems over and over again. Like

Curiosity about mysteries may well be what drives human cultural evolution. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues that humans have evolved from ancestors who survived because they became skilled at inventing and exploring and were thus able to deal more successfully with the unpredictable. The discovery of novelty engages the brain and evokes a pleasurable experience and that without the motivation for enjoyment there would be no evolution of culture.

So here is a workshop to explore the mysterious?

1. Describe what for you is a mystery?
2. When you discover a mystery what do you feel? What do you want to do?
3. What happens when you start exploring the mystery and get stuck? When it becomes too hard to solve?
4. How do you feel when you solve a mystery? Immediately? A few minutes later? The next couple of hours? The following day?
5. How could you re-invigorate your life using mysteries just a bit out of reach?
6. How could you tackle the really obtuse/remote/complex mysteries, the ones that cause you to become frustrated/bored the first time around?

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