Confusion and Curiosity

I’ve been wondering about confusion and curiosity.

A few days after Christmas, the adults on my Hart side got together at my parents’ for dinner and a movie my parents adore: The Tree of Life. My father, especially, loves this movie. He’d seen it three times already, and will see it at least another three. He loves it so much and finds it so deep and affecting that he wants to show it to everyone he knows.

I did not have the same reaction. To put it mildly.

I was alternately bored, confused, irritated, interested, annoyed, impatient, analytical. I spent the entire movie in my own head, and not in any of the characters’ heads. I didn’t experience the story. I observed it. This is not what I prefer. I like story. I learn through story. And Tree of Life is not interested in storytelling.

But that’s not what got me wondering. It was our discussion afterwards, in which I was (see Beginnings for my admission) too negatively passionate. My dad was making a point, based on brain research, that when we are presented with something confusing and tense, our emotions are engaged, to which I may have screeched, “What?!”

Because, for me, when I’m confused, my emotions disengage, and I become skeptical about everything. And if I don’t trust the artist/thinker to lead me out of the confusion, I turn off almost completely.

However, what he said is close to standard writing advice: there should be an overarching story question that fuels the story; when the question is resolved, the story is over. In addition, there should be lots of minor story questions, in service to the overarching one, to keep the tension, and the reader, hurtling towards the end. In fact, I’m organizing the David and Saul story into three books according to this advice. Book 1: Why did Samuel anoint David? Book 2: When and how will David become king? Book 3: Will David be a king after God’s own heart?

This led me to wonder about the differences between confusion and curiosity. Imagine the body language of each of those states. A person curious about something leans forward, their face is open, they’re driven forward. A confused person is frowning, their arms might be crossed, which hunches the shoulders in. Confusion is a state someone is in. Curiosity leads a person to inquire and investigate.

To be fair, my dad explained himself better in a follow-up email:

The book I referenced was Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman. “Fast” thinking is intuitive, subconscious thinking and “slow” is rational, conscious thinking.  A very good book – full of counter-intuitive findings.

What I recall saying is something to the effect that we are more fully engaged, more alert and more attentive when a situation activates both types of thinking. For example, the Tree of Life film operates on the intuitive level through music and picture. But if it only operates on that level, we might fall asleep. By adding material that puzzles us and motivates slow thinking, we are more attentive, more alert and more engaged.

I can get behind that. With one caveat. Like with everything else, people have differing thresholds for stimuli. My extroverted husband is energized by crowd situations that overwhelm or exhaust me. My physicist brother-in-law understands things I can’t even begin to conceive. And the line wherein curiosity shifts to confusion, wherein a puzzle no longer interests, is shorter for some than for others.

In other words, in art, your mileage may vary.