First, you need to recognize and dismiss your instinctual answer.

Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes

Listening to TED talks and Science Friday podcasts is enlightening. One of those shows, or perhaps both, featured a discussion about how the brain puts commonplace objects in known categories. For example, when we enter a room and see a dark rectangle on the wall displaying moving images our brain identifies it as a television. It sees other objects, too; the sofa, the armchair, the bookshelf, that refrigerator full of craft beer. The brain craves certainty and closure. This ability is a fabulous shorthand for life. We don’t have to spend time every single day identifying objects and reading rule books and wondering what in the world is going on around us.

We like answers. They make us feel right; we gain confidence about ourselves and our environment when we “know” things. For example, when we’re driving we know the rules of the road (well, okay, many of us do). When the light turns red, we will all stop. When it is green, we will go. We put much faith in the fact that traffic will obey such known parameters. We know if we go to a class at our community college what the curriculum will be that day. But what if you did not know any of those things?

Not all scenarios and circumstances in life give us closure. When we go to a doctor, we don’t always know what the diagnosis will be – and, surprisingly, the doctor may not either. He may just give us a “known” diagnosis for the “known” symptoms. The doctor’s mind is susceptible to closure, too. How can we cope with uncertainty? Can we learn to thrive in a sea of ambiguity? This is essentially the subject covered in Jamie Holmes’ book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.

Holmes has an easy writing style. His tone is relaxed, straightforward, exploratory, friendly, even uncertain. The experiences presented were engaging. Especially enjoyable (for this reviewer) were those regarding Michel Thomas and his approach to language learning and the foray he took into the intelligence field. Yes, as in spy stuff. He engendered uncertainty in his foes and exploited it. Learning even that little bit of information felt like it could be helpful. When under stress and in unfamiliar surroundings vigilance is crucial. But the simple fact is that we can be misdirected and confused at the whim of another party.

This book can also make a person feel uncomfortable, foolish, enlightened, challenged, amazed. There is a quiz on page eighty-seven, a shortened version of a need-for-closure scale developed by Donna Webster and Arie Kruglanski. It can make a person reconsider what they think they knew of themselves. (My mind is much more rigid than I am comfortable with!) Basically the research and anecdotes related in Nonsense advocate not being a know-it-all and learning to live in the real world, where very little is certain.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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