Scott H Young

The Strangeness of Everyday Things


Have you ever repeated a word to yourself so many times that you begin to notice the strangeness of the sound it makes? The repetition begins to conceal the meaning of the word, so you notice what it actually sounds like.

I’ve found the same thing happens the more you learn about a subject. As you burrow in, the surface layers of common sense peel away until you’re left with something stranger.

Strangeness is a good thing. It means you’ve ventured into new territory, where opportunities can be found and falsehoods shed. I’d say my goal in learning anything is to try to find this zone of strangeness.

The Danger of “Obvious” Truths

If something seems “obvious” to you, it generally means one of two things: either you understand it so well that it has become intuitively grasped, or you don’t understand it at all. My experience tells me most people suffer from the latter condition.

Richard Feynman creates a window into the strangeness of reality in his explanation of magnets. To most people, the effect of a magnet is mysterious—how does it repel things without contacting them? However, as Feynman explains, this reasoning is backwards, contact forces are based on these “mysterious” action-at-a-distance principles.

Or consider something that couldn’t be more “obvious”: consciousness. I think, therefore I am. Except, as in the case of split-brain patients, I can sever the wires connecting your left and right hemispheres and turn you into two separate people. If you have an indivisible loci of consciousness, how can it be split with a scalpel?

What about the more practical context of your career? I have had several friends who are able to charge double their employment salaries, simply by changing to an independent consultant. Their work is the same, but yet everyone seems happy to pay them twice as much.

Human beings fear strangeness, so when we see things which don’t fit our “obvious” maps of reality, we have knee-jerk reactions. We try to dismiss them, as Einstein famously did in his initial rejection of quantum mechanics. Or we shoot the messengers of strangeness, claiming that these consultants are rip-off artists, or that employees are being exploited.

Rejecting evidence that the world is different from what it seems isn’t new, and it isn’t restricted to fundamentalist theocrats. We all resist the strangeness, and it takes effort to push through that.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I think my obsession with learning stems from realizing how essentially strange most things are. No, most things are not “common sense”. What we even call “common sense” is often approximations which work in specific contexts but fail outside of the realm of past experience or the intuitions endowed in human nature.

In fact, much of what we call common sense is neither common, nor sensical. We use the hindsight bias to pretend facts which come to us were apparent all along. As a result we rob ourselves of the strangeness that lies ahead.

The strangeness totally overwhelms the obvious, the unknown vastly overshadowing the known. This isn’t a defense of mysticism or a suggestion we should throw up our hands and live in ignorance. It’s the opposite—our individual ignorance actually makes the marginal value of new knowledge so valuable. Each new insight has enormous potential, so we should be much more curious than we are.

A simple insight, such as that we may have less conscious control than we realize, can have profound consequences. It suggests that the way to make changes, like getting in shape or becoming productive, isn’t by trying to be superman, but by making miniscule shifts with overwhelming focus.

Defending Old Ideas from the Assault of the Strange

Smart people often fall into a trap. Their intelligence and quick wit makes them excellent at defending their ideas. As a result, they can easily trounce the straw-man and ad hominem arguments of their dullard opponents.

These victories accumulate, and the intelligent person’s lack of defeat becomes a sign of infallibility. This creates an impassable barrier between the smart person’s ideas and the encroaching strangeness of reality. Without regular exposure to the strangeness, that person may even forget it exists.

I’m not immune to this weakness either. The only thing you can do is strive to let the strangeness come in, especially at the oblique angles, where your intellectual immune system isn’t bracing for a full-scale assault.

Moralizing Away the Strangeness

The most insidious practice to avoid dealing with strangeness is to simply declare any ideas in the wild territory as being immoral to even consider. This allows us to avoid any potential strangeness, or worse, unsettling consequences.

I find it amusing that many people who laugh at those who dismiss scientific arguments without hearing them, often quickly dismiss economic arguments on the same grounds. When an argument about economics or evolution becomes taboo to even consider, truth becomes a casualty.

Perhaps there are some areas we’d prefer to live with comfortable delusions. But the cost of self-deception is high too, so moralistic over evidentiary arguments should be sparingly applied.

Feeling Strangeness

True mastery of an idea tends to come with noticing its strangeness. Like the word you utter endlessly to hear the peculiarity of its sound, ideas begin confusing, become intuitive and end strange. This isn’t the strange that comes from confusion or frustration, but from seeing the idea from so many perspectives that you notice its sound, not just its semantics.

Fake understanding doesn’t have strangeness. It’s the memorizing of formulas and the verbatim regurgitation of arguments. When you master the chain rule of calculus through rote, you don’t actually see what is happening deeply. I know I’m starting to learn something deeply when it stops being “obvious” and begins to seem strange.

Strangeness is good, and the only way to get there is to keep learning. To keep digging deeper, even if it sometimes means venturing into a place that looks very different from where you started.


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14 Responses to “The Strangeness of Everyday Things”

  1. Max says:

    Interesting post Scott,

    I agree that people should come out of their comfort zones and see ideas from many different angles. Curiosity, is a good thing. Except, why do you say that common isn’t related to past experiences at all? Could you elaborate more on that? Also, I really didn’t understand what you mean when you say that ideas become strange when you grasp them deeply.

    -Max

  2. Jason Dudley says:

    Great read. You might not agree but I think your writing is definitely improving. Complex ideas here expressed lucidly – reminds me of Alan Watts (though you probably wouldn’t like him because of his word games).

  3. Roger Ellman says:

    Scott. Well thought out. Knowing the names of things as well, can lead one never to re-examine those things.

    A great value of steadily overcoming fears is that starngeness is more easily welcomed and changing context or surroundings becomes an input of learning and creative energy rather than the opposite.

    So I really welcome what you have written it is refreshing and very sane.

    With a view to helping employees wake from the stasis of presumption and the daily norm I wrote a daily “reply” message for them every morning which I have started to publish every morning, on TheRepliesBook.com . It may amuse you to see this – a meld of bright ideas, even wise ones I think with quirky Alice-in-Wonderland quandaries.

    Hope you are enjoying keeping up the good work. Best wishes, Roger.

  4. Benjamin says:

    The more you deconstruct everydays thruts,split ‘em into pieces anda analyze them the more you find out that nothing is as it look like at first sight nor like it looks like at second,third etc.
    In this regard i strongly suggest you to take a look at Bateson’s work whose thinking resemble that of Feynman. Suggested reading: steps to an ecology of mind.
    cheers,keep up this way but don’t adventure too much deep into the rabbit’s hole :)

  5. Jonathan says:

    The thesis of the article is great, Scott. Strangeness has been a point of discussion in many fields, though I haven’t read an article docking strangeness with general learning in all fields. In literature, strangeness is often cited as the unifying characteristic of genius. In physics, as you mention, it underlays the laws of the quantum world. Somehow, I felt your article could have taken another step into the strangeness your after with first hand examples. For instance, I’d be curious to know the strangeness you’ve found in this MIT challenge, and the strangeness of running a 1-man successful business. Since you’ve been able to aptly finger strangeness, why not illuminate it further with your own encounters with it? Anyhow, a good read nonetheless. – Jonathan

  6. George Millo says:

    I think it comes down to the old cliché: ‘the more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know’.

    To me it’s one of the joys of learning: discovering new things that you’re ignorant about. The more I learn, the more I realise just how wondrously complex life and the universe are. It’s a great feeling – it makes me marvel.

    Steve Pavlina has a good quote somewhere or other about ‘expanding your ignorance’. I think expanding your ignorance is just as important as expanding your knowledge.

  7. nXqd says:

    I really enjoy this post of yours. Sometimes, to make sure that I understand the problem in a correct way, I will try to explain it to another people in the same field or have the same interest in the subject.

  8. gabriel says:

    maybe you will not allow this comment, because i’m not talking with gramatical rigor or whatever, its not my native lang.
    but i gotta say, POTATO POTATO POTATO like PO TA TO its a strange word.
    and, that article on chain rule just saved my ass on calculus! i just couldnt get the insights of that so clear, althought i knew the site betterexplained before it never came through my mind to look after it.
    and it feels so strange now, cus i’ve been readin you over 2 years i guess and now i’m talkin to you! lol, are you actually readin this?

  9. Anna says:

    I read this in my email and I remember finding it interesting but kind of abstract. I am left wondering, the better I grasp an idea, does it really become strange? I’m not sure what it becomes but sometimes it feels as if I can never grasp it completely. Is that what you mean by strange?

  10. Don says:

    Nice post Scott. I’m curious if you have any tips/tricks to getting around this feeling of strangeness or becoming “okay” with strangeness. I see this strangeness you are describing as stress. For example, if you imagine a plot of productivity vs stress (http://www.forresthealth.com/images/x/hr/stress2.gif), your description of strangeness, in my mind, is an increase in arousal stress as shown on the figure. I have also noticed in myself, as well as others, that as this arousal stress acts as an activation barrier to reaching peak performance, the top of the inverted ‘u’ where productivity and stress are in balance. And as a result the task at hand is usually left incomplete. I believe that this feeling of strangeness (or stress) is what keeps people from being able to study effectively, picking up a new sport, etc…because no one really likes this feeling of strangeness. So what are some techniques that one can employ to accept/embrace strangeness?

    -Don

  11. vivek raykar says:

    I find even universe in its entirety strange.How come existence.Is there no existence if no one is there to comprehend existence? Does the universe increase the complexity the more we understand it? Does the complexity of the universe reflect the complexity of our brain? To simple forms of life the universe is simple,to complex forms of life it appears as a riddle. What is the reality-simple or complex universe? The more we study the universe ,the more strange it appears. We are doomed to perpetual chase after the mirage that is the truth.

  12. jonny says:

    just a reminder, education for the sake of education is worthless…

  13. Scott Young says:

    gabriel,

    I read all the comments. But I don’t reply to all of them unless I can think of something interesting to respond with.

    johnny,

    Depends on what the education is about. Success (being a dimension of worth) depends on being good at things, being good at things depends on part on what you learn. Therefore success depends at least in part on learning. QED

  14. Inogen says:

    I know what you mean by the strangeness appearing as you the more deeply grasp the meaning – I thought that I understood what Bohr meant by ‘complementarity’. After my reading today, I see that it just gets weirder! How exciting!

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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