The anxiety of knowledge and what to do about it

06 - Sep - 2022

As a schoolboy, I experienced the first days of September as a period of heightened anxiety: racing heart palpitations, sweaty palms and stomach cramps. Maybe it was the first drops of autumn rain on the windows of our living room, or the transition out of a summer filled with careless play and chocolate ice cream. More ominously, September marked the beginning of the academic year – a time when I had to go back to school and “learn new things”.

Back then, to know was to possess information: the spelling of obscure words, the capitals of Europe, the dates of ancient battles. Fourty years later, memorisation sounds passé: schoolchildren are now supposed to sharpen their analytical skills and critical thinking, be ready for their TedX talk. Yet, somehow, they still have to grapple with information – in ever growing volumes and complexity. As much as we may have progressed, “knowledge” remains a source of anxiety, for young people and adults alike.

This paradox has not escaped the contemporary field of self-improvement. In a recent LinkedIn post, Robert Glazer, a leadership expert, makes an interesting connection between milk cartons and children’s unstructured play in the 1990s in the US. In response to an isolated child abduction incident in 1981, milk manufacturers sought to heighten parental awareness by printing photos of abducted children on their cartons. The “stranger danger” campaign did not reduce the number of – already rare – incidents of child abduction in the US.

A subsequent study however, showed a significant decline in the levels of unstructured, free play among young children, a crucial element of their social and emotional development. His post concludes that “while it’s never a bad thing to be informed… it also usually puts our focus on things that we really can’t control, which creates a feeling of helplessness.”

Such visceral anxiety is not limited to our social media driven world. In his “Commentaries on Living” in 1956, Indian philosopher  J. Krishnamurti laments:

“Addiction to knowledge is like any other addiction: it offers an escape from the fear of emptiness, of loneliness, of frustration … The mind is frightened of the unknown and so it escapes into knowledge [which becomes] a hindrance to the understanding of the unknown.”

This comment brings to mind images of world maps produced in the Dark Ages: though no European had ever set foot on the savannas of Africa or the steppes of Central Asia, maps were often filled with sketches of exotic plants and wild animals. It seems that the cartography patrons of the Catholic Church could not tolerate the stress of admitting to “not knowing” what these lands actually looked like.

Oddly enough, ignorance may be the key to the anxiety of knowledge. Yuval Noah Harari, in his book “Sapiens” makes the argument that the emergence of empty maps in the 14th and 15thcenturies was a major contributing factor to the age of exploration and the ensuing Enlightenment. In his words:

“The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world”.

I am not suggesting that ignorance is bliss – quiet the opposite. I argue that the pursuit for knowledge needs to be grounded in a sense of comfort with the psychological void of the unknown, the uncertain. It needs to kindle a child-like curiosity about the world within and around us – what Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki calls a Beginner’s Mind. Our world is too invested in “getting the answer”: this demand lies at the heart of our anxiety at the personal and social levels. For true knowledge to happen, we need to place the emphasis back to “asking the question” and trust our capacity to explore. For this, we need to discover the joy of not knowing.

Written by Associate Evangelos Raptis