Why does learning involve confusion? Why don’t we just get gradually stronger as we learn, the way that eating puts on weight? The answer to that question explains how confusion is more of a help than a hindrance in learning.

When old approaches don’t work, it takes time and confusion to learn new ways of thinking. More than 90 years ago, Piaget wrote that we try to maintain equilibration, a balance between our concepts and our experiences. When we can’t explain what we’re experiencing, we either pack on new information using our old concepts, which he called assimilation, or we arduously forge new concepts that do a better job, which is called accommodation.

Piaget said we assimilate until we’re forced to accommodate. This is what we do when we learn to Play Angry Birds or land a plane or recover from trauma. It’s also called schema formation.

We won’t make sense of some concepts in a single leap, maybe like this, that or the other.  Such complexities don’t lie within our zone of proximal development. We too have a lot to learn before we’re ready, neurologically, to learn some things.

Taking our first steps, we abandon the comfort of old habits for the  terrors of an unfamiliar behavior, exchanging old ways of thinking for the new concepts.

For example, lots of folks use the five-second rule to decide whether to eat food that fell on the floor. But it’s not applicable in a lot of situations. We can either tell ourselves the germ scientists are overly finicky (assimilation) and eat the contaminated food or learn more about bacteria (accommodation) and survive.

While we’re developing new concepts, confusion is unavoidable and normal. It’s a symptom of progress if it’s resolved eventually. It’s not so confusing if we use the three approaches of the biopsychosocial model.

Confusion is shown by a wrench gripping a nail and a hammer pounding a screw.

BIO: Confusion in the extreme form of delirium is pathological.  Engel, a psychiatrist, saw it as cerebral insufficiency. Though it has many causes, one significant trigger is inflammation, which is true of an increasing number of psychological disorders. The experience of delirium may arise from varieties of synaptopathy.

Less extreme are the everyday symptoms of brain fog, an informal category of confusion symptoms. A lot of people experience brain fog now and then from jet lag–of course- or sleep deprivation, systemic exertion intolerance disease (as chronic fatigue syndrome has been renamed), fibromyalgia, chemotherapy, low blood sugar, Lyme disease, menopause, or aerotoxic syndrome and some prescription medications. (Or missing medications like thyroid pills.) Aside from drugs, the list goes on in unscholarly avenues. A pregnant woman may ask if it’s normal to become so forgetful, which might be related more to fatigue than cognition. And chronic inflammation may lead to attentional lapses.

PSYCHO: For many students the first sign of pending confusion is the inability to make sense of what the professor is saying. The result is a cognitive overload, or specifically a working memory overload. This explanation of confusion has been put to work often. Younger students may not be adept in regulating an overload in working memory while they sort out new ideas. Older students may be dogged by an underdeveloped working memory.

Other sources of confusion include competing bids for attention that trigger divided attention, or newly complex information that does not fit into existing schemas. In class, confused students block out what they hear or read, leading to a problem to be taken up in a future post, boredom.

The promise of confusion is that is pairs well with curiosity to benefit learning. Correlational evidence of brain localization is starting to appear.

SOCIAL: Being confused in crowds has not shed much light on the phenomenon of confusion, except perhaps to illustrate pluralistic ignorance. When we agree with others the sense of community is pleasant; when we are uncertain, we are easily confused.

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