Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Our Need to Know

Our Need to Know

We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusion

The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.


Some of what you think that you know is fine, but some isn’t. Here’s the rub: You don’t know which is which!

Join me for a minute while I discuss the illusion of knowledge that we so often prefer to the real thing.


 

Psychologists talk about something called the illusion of knowledge. This is one of those things that we all do. It’s the way our brains are wired. We can’t help it. We don’t like to not know things. It’s uncomfortable not to know something that you need to know, and the more you care about the question at hand, the worse that need is.

Our Need to Know lights up scans of the brain.

I’m not talking here about some hand-waving pop psychology from a self-help guide, although it’s an experience that we all share. I’m talking about something that can be seen happening in real time on scans of the brain.

In his book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, neurologist Robert Burton discusses the mechanisms behind the illusion of knowledge. It turns out that our brains crave the feeling of knowing in the same way that a junky craves a fix. It all has to do with activity in a brain structure called the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. When dopamine is released in this system it is a reward that motivates us to do more of what we are doing.

The Feeling of Knowing

The mesolimbic dopamine pathway located deep in the brain is what keeps an addict seeking out the next hit, and what motivates us all to hang onto the feeling of knowing, regardless of whether our knowledge is real or an illusion.

The feeling that we know something has nothing to do with whether we are correct.

Once we have that feeling of knowing, our natural tendency is to seize onto what we think that we know for all we are worth. But here’s the rub. While the sensation of knowing might light up our reward and pleasure centers, as stressed in the title of Burton’s book, that sensation has nothing to do with whether or not we are correct.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the more we care about something and the more stress we are under, the more desperately we crave the sensation of certainty. So if we need knowledge but don’t have real answers, what we tend to do is make something up. Then we convince ourselves that we are right. We construct an illusion of knowledge to feed our brains those pleasant dopamine hits that they so love.

It’s hard to tell the difference between knowledge that is real and “knowledge” that is an illusion.

The problem is made worse by the fact that we aren’t aware of what we’ve done. There are a lot of things that we “know,” by which I mean we experience the sensation of knowing. Some of those things are solid. Some of those things are absolutely fine. But some of them aren’t. The kicker is that we don’t know which is which.

Booz and Co Study

The results of the Booz & Co study, “The Lesson of Lost Value” confirm what countless other studies have also found. Most failures are ultimately failures of knowledge.

In a world where knowledge is key to success, often we only discover just how illusory our knowledge is when it bites us in the butt. We usually discover our illusions when there is something that we certain of, something that we know we can rely on… then it falls apart just when we need it the most.

How much should this matter to you? Probably more than you imagine.

If you don’t think that this applies to you, think again. A study by Booz & Co. that found that when businesses fail, over 80% of the value that they lose can be traced back to one cause – a failure of knowledge. In our careers and personal lives, the impact of poor knowledge can be even greater. When knowledge turns out to be an illusion, there is a price to be paid.

Let me ask you with a few questions: What core knowledge and assumptions do you rely on that might be illusory? How could you tell? What can you do about it?

If those questions leave you a little uncomfortable, join the crowd. Fortunately there are ways to take control of your knowledge and move beyond the illusion. Watch this space.

Our Need to Know ^ We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusion  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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