Why we're addicted to mysteries: How the search for the unknown has brought out the best in people

For esteemed scientists and high school students alike, the search for answers is a powerful motivator. But why?

Published August 10, 2014 10:00PM (EDT)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in "Sherlock"        (BBC)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in "Sherlock" (BBC)

“In Art there is only one thing that counts;
the thing you can't explain.”
— Georges Braque

It drives you crazy — sends you down dark alleys, around blind corners. The sense of mystery, that dangling unknown, opens your heart and mind to twisted possibilities, even the desire to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you do understand this world. There's nothing new here.

That promise of a doubt leaves you suspended between reality and unreality, a space described by saying: "Well, maybe?"

It's the sweet spot of consciousness. In art and literature it's called suspense. As you chase down solutions, trying to figure out the mystery, your mind embraces new thoughts. You examine the problem from a different perspective, challenge yourself to think outside the proverbial box. As one graffiti artist said:

"Think outside the box, collapse the box,
and take a fucking sharp knife to it.” ­
— Banksy

And slashing it up drives you onward. British neuroscientist Daniel Bor, author of "The Ravenous Brain," says that, "Human brains have an extreme form of consciousness: they’re ravenous for new innovative solutions to problems in the world, ravenous for optimizing our lives, for building pyramids of knowledge."

Paint-on Electronics: The Twisted Noodle Mystery

Dr. Jinsang Kim of the University of Michigan imagined high-performance micro-electronics that he could paint onto whatever he wanted. Working with a full research team and rigid, rodlike polymers, he hit a snag. Dr. Kim needed the polymers to follow the direction of his strokes like paint follows a paintbrush. But his polymers weren't cooperating.

"I imagined aligning logs on a river — along the flow direction of [that] river," said Dr. Kim. But he hit a major problem. "Once logs are bundled together into a raft they cannot be aligned along the flow direction because a raft does not have a large enough aspect ratio."

His team tried giving the polymers a little twist. It was an elegant, logical solution but that only made the polymers behave like sticky, curvy noodles. Instead of painted-on high-performance circuitry, they created a a clumpy mess. But the "failure" drove the team on.

"Research is always challenging," Dr. Kim said. "I haven’t seen any research effort give perfect results right away. We learn from failures and come up with better ideas …  As usual we had partial success. We analyzed the results and came up with alternative designs. Once we built modified designs we became very curious to know the results from the new ideas. Unceasing curiosity is our driving force to achieve interesting novel material systems."

Dr. Kim's team came up with three systems that helped the superconducting polymers to align with brush strokes, including one that gave his logs little arms to help them self-assemble along the proper flow lines.

"From this imagination and analysis," he explained, "we design polymers in such a way that they can attract each other to be self-assembled but not attract each other too much."

After much experimentation, the polymers aligned along the brushstroke and Dr. Kim's team painted their first transistor this spring. After imagining a goal, then pushing through several design problems, grasping for solutions where none seemed to exist, the team made paint-on electronics a reality and shared their results with scientists all over the world. Their breakthrough could redesign our whole relationship with electronics.

Everyday Extreme Consciousness: The Challenge and a Brown Idea

We all have the ability to enter the aforementioned sweet spot of consciousness, we just need a mystery or challenge to throw ourselves into suspense. The human brain doesn't enter that state until faced with a need to solve a problem, to make sense of that one little fact contradicting the others or figure out why that singular object is out of place.

"Perception is nothing unless
you do something with it."
— Yto Barrada

If you're a puzzler or mystery reader, you know that feeling. It drives you to spend hours on a puzzle or to turn pages all night long — to engage your brain fully because stretching it to the limits feels so damn amazing.

How can we harness that extreme consciousness on everyday problems?  Brown University tried a new approach in April, pairing teams of high school students, arts undergraduates, tech students and designers with everyday problems submitted by individuals with disabilities.

Student organizer Hanna McPhee explained, "Traditionally this technology-based event is called a 'hackathon' for those with experience in computer science and engineering. However, we advertised to anyone interested in helping find solutions for assistive technologies for those with communication disabilities."

For two days, engineers and anthropologists, illustrators and industrial designers, architects and teenagers knocked around ideas and chased potentials.

"I believe the diversity of each team is what drove the projects from one mystery moment to the next. Every time the students seemed to hit a block in their code or user interface, an individual from a completely different background would chime in with an idea or alternate route," said McPhee.

Working to create an intuitive user interface, one team came up with an easy, attractive radial keyboard that stood out from the rest. "Most teams tried adding on as many features as possible to their designs. It took the first day for many students to begin to understand the perspective of a SpeakYourMind client with motor, audio, visual or speech disabilities," said McPhee. "For them, taking a step back and stripping the interface to make it as simple as possible was a turning point — editing their project features down to the essentials."

That ragamuffin team created design improvements that will benefit people with disabilities every single day. And keep in mind that they were mostly undergraduates, plus some high school students — not research scientists — working for the pure joy of it, the thrill of the chase.

Addictive Potential: Writing Out Our Dreams

We can use this extreme state to drive ourselves further, reaching deeper into our potential. Dr. Kim wants to use his paint-on electronics system to create a fountain pen for literally "writing" the electronics we need. Brown University has more Makeathons planned for all sorts of everyday problems.

And when we find such answers our brains feel satisfied, suspense relieved. Yet the sense of order somehow feels too cold, hard, 3-D. We yearn for something more, something just beyond the facts. We want — no, need — to find the next problem. Our consciousness demands a way to get back into that sweet spot of mental acumen because:

"Everything we see hides another thing,
we always want to see what is hidden
by what we see."
— Rene Magritte

As Brown University student Hanna McPhee said, "This to me is incredibly rewarding. Interdisciplinary projects like the Makeathon expose individuals to methods and tools that push their thinking and problem solving forward in as many new and innovative directions as they like."

Because sometimes answers aren't where we expect them to be.  Sometimes they're not anywhere except, well ... in maybe?

By Lucie Smoker

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