Tolerating uncertainty: lessons from cryptic crosswords and scientific research
I’d like to invite you to participate in a little experiment, to wit a cryptic crossword puzzle. The clue is ‘Die of cold’, and the solution is two words – 3 and 4 letters. The answer is on page xx, BUT I’m asking you to refrain from looking at it until you have finished reading what follows.
Cryptic crosswords are all about meaning – making sense of the clue - and tolerating uncertainty – there is usually no obvious or quick answer. The challenge is to stick in there, tolerate the feeling of frustration in attempting to work it out, be willing to take time to play with the clues, come up with possible answers only to have to let them go, engage our lateral thinking and intuition and feelings even – and stay with the process with no guarantee of finding ‘the answer’! Sound familiar? Life, relationships, parenting, being a therapist!
My childhood felt a lot like a cryptic crossword puzzle. By the time I was 8 years old I was getting pretty desperate to work out what the hell was going on around me. Things were getting more and more confusing and I needed to make sense of things! I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution – I would become an expert! Then I’d know a lot and be able to work things out, and I’d be able to help others. That way, just maybe, I’d become liked, and famous and maybe even wealthy. If only it had been that simple, and I’m still not wealthy or famous! Let’s face it, things – cryptic crosswords, life - are just damn complicated, especially when it comes to understanding people. Since aged 8 it’s been a long road littered with mounting uncertainty and the disillusion of my expert fantasy - (‘expert’: 1.a. practiced, skilful, 2.n.person expert in subject, 3. Latin root – ‘ex’ meaning has-been, ‘spurt’ meaning drip under pressure).
How do we live with uncertainty? Here are two recent stories-with-lessons.
Only a few years ago, in what is probably one of the most ambitious and expensive scientific studies ever conducted, 3,000 scientists were working on something called the ‘Large Hadron Collider’. They were attempting to understand the universe at a microscopic level, and in particular to test the prediction of the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle. I remember reading something that one of those scientists said:
‘we scientists at the LHC aim to confirm or exclude the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle…..Excluding it would, perhaps, be even more exciting (emphasis added) than discovering it , as it would mean that the theory that has described the building blocks of our universe is wrong. We would have to go back to their blackboard and come up with a new one.’
I must say the fact that they were planning to use a blackboard as a fall-back option did worry me somewhat! However what struck me was their humility about their theories, but in particular their tolerance of uncertainty - that they might well be proved wrong, and that they would even welcome such an outcome.
More recently I read an article reporting a research study undertaken at Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge University which looked at the brain’s habit of predicting what it expects to experience, filling in the missing gaps in reality, in order to make sense of things. Having a predictive brain makes us efficient and adept at creating a coherent picture of an ambiguous and complex world. In other words we are hard-wired to make sense of our perceptions involving uncertainty.
Two groups of subjects, one with signs of mental illness and another who showed no such signs, were shown black and white images that looked little more than a collection of lines and blotches, and were asked to fill in the missing parts of the pictures and work out what they represented. The ‘mentally ill’ group performed better than the ‘normal’ group, coming up more quickly with answers about what the pictures represented. Paradoxically, my understanding of this outcome is that the ‘mentally ill’ group were less able to tolerate the uncertainty about what the pictures might represent, and were more likely to want to impose a solution quickly in order to reduce anxiety, in a process similar to what Freud called ‘verwerfung’, translated by Lacan as ‘foreclosure’. In other words, an aspect of ‘mental health’, and maybe a defining feature of Adult functioning, much like good scientific practice, is the capacity to stay with and tolerate an experience of uncertainty, of not knowing how to make sense of experience.
From this perspective a contamination in TA could be thought of as not so much as a belief that is at odds with here and now reality, but more as a self-protective, premature foreclosure of the process of staying with and making sense of experience. Putting it this way reminds me of my early Gestalt learning in the value of inviting clients to ‘stay with’ a difficult experience, and/or explore their difficulty with doing so.
Back to the cryptic crossword. Did you stop and attempt to find an answer; and if so what was your experience of tolerating the difficulty of working it out? Did you go along with my suggestion of reading to the end before looking at the answer; and if so, what was it like to resist the temptation to look? If you did look at the answer before finishing reading, what do you imagine it would have been like to have resisted the temptation?
And finally, nice answer eh? Maybe even nicer if we’ve been through the process of tolerating the uncertainty inherent in attempting to work it out?