Why does wondering feel pleasant and confusion feels unpleasant? People like to wonder. Yet people don’t like to be confused.
In the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, how we think about something determines how we feel and how we act. Something happens, we have thoughts about it, we experience emotions based upon our thoughts and then we respond. Using CBT then, we learn to identify our patterns of thoughts, emotions and actions. We come to understand how our thoughts shape how we feel and therefore how they impact our lives in significant ways.
In general, there are two kinds of thoughts, not stressful and stressful. We feel badly when we believe a stressful thought. Of course! So, when we are confused, we are believing something stressful. We are believing our automatic negative thoughts. What might be going through our minds?
Let’s say, if we’re kids, we feel confused by our math homework.
Or, if we’re grown ups, we feel confused by our taxes.
Two possible stressful thoughts might be:
“I have to understand this math homework. Or else I will get a bad grade, fail the class, get kicked out of school, never get a good job, be miserable and alone.”
“I must understand how to do my taxes. Or else I will do them wrong, get in trouble with the government, go to jail, loose my home, be miserable and alone.”
Confusion has been categorized as a “negative” emotion. It might be a kind of overwhelm. We feel confused when we receive information that we cannot match with what we already know or believe to be true. New information that is worthy of notice, like this week’s math homework or this year’s taxes, gets compared to what we already know, last week’s math homework or last year’s taxes. This can feel like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Confusion is a state of cognitive disequilibrium.
Confusion plays a stressful role when we are confronted with an anomaly, contradiction, or system break down and are uncertain about how to proceed. Therefore, underlying confusion is fear. “I have to understand or else!” It’s a lot of pressure.
Wonder has none of that. Underlying wonder there is no fear. There’s no pressure in wondering. It is not stressful to gaze up at the night sky and wonder ‘what is the Universe?’ It is not nerve-wracking to watch your dog sleep and wonder ‘is she dreaming?’
The Greek philosopher Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC) called these wondering kinds of questions open-ended. In CBT, we use Socratic questioning. In CBT, we use wondering to dissolve confusion. As we improve our awareness of our stressful thoughts, we can begin to consciously question them. The Socratic method is often described as a cornerstone of CBT because it uses focused, open-ended questions that encourage reflection.
This Socratic questioning has the effect of decatastrophizing. Is it true that you have to understand this math homework, or else you will get a bad grade, fail the class, get kicked out of school, never get a good job, and be miserable and alone? Is there another way to look at it? Have you managed difficult math assignments in the past? Were you able to figure out how to get help with your math last week? What did you do then?
So, confusion creates opportunities to stop, reflect, and do CBT. This enables us to work through confusion and acquire a deeper understanding of ourselves. In other words, if we know how to look at it this way, confusion is an opportunity to wonder.
As the beloved Dr. Seuss says, “think and wonder, wonder and think.”
Clark, G. I. & Egan, S. J. (2015). The Socratic Method in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: A Narrative Review. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 39:863-879
Anders Schinkel (2021). Wonder and Education; On the Educational Importance of Contemplative Wonder. Bloomsbury Academic, London