We all know that confusion doesn't feel good. Because it seems like an obstacle to learning, we try to arrange educational experiences and training sessions so that learners will encounter as little confusion as possible. But as is so often the case when it comes to learning, our intuitions here are exactly wrong. Scientists have been building a body of evidence over the past few years demonstrating that confusion can lead us to learn more efficiently, more deeply, more lastingly—as long as it's properly managed.
How can this be? The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. It evolved to identify related events or artifacts and connect them into a meaningful whole. This capacity serves us well in many endeavors, from recognizing the underlying themes in literature, to understanding the deep structure of a scientific or mathematical problem, to anticipating hidden complications and seeing their solutions in our work. Over time, exposure to these problem-solving situations gives us a subconscious familiarity with their essential nature that we can hardly articulate in words, but which we can easily put into action.
We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It's better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what's up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We're motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.
Here, three ways that researchers have deliberately induced confusion, and how you can adapt them to your own learning:
1. Expose yourself to confusing material. Reading a story by the surrealist writer Franz Kafka, or watching a movie by the eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, imposes on us a "meaning threat"—the uncomfortable feeling that nothing quite makes sense. We become motivated to find meaning somewhere, even if not in the original story or film, and this disposition actually makes us more accurate at picking out patterns. That's the finding of Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine, researchers who published their results in the journal Psychological Science. If you're about to engage in any sense-making activity, from analyzing data to solving word problems, you may want to try delving into material that doesn't make much sense first.