The Perils of Order; Being Messy, Both at Home and in Foreign Policy, May Have Its Own Advantages

By Freedman, David H. | Newsweek International, March 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Order; Being Messy, Both at Home and in Foreign Policy, May Have Its Own Advantages


Freedman, David H., Newsweek International


Byline: David H. Freedman

In a small room at the University of British Columbia, students wearing headphones are listening to noise. No, it's not an indie band's shred solo blasting through an iPod. The students are participating in an experiment at the school's Psychophysics and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and the noise consists of random static generated by a computer. The question at hand: how badly does a scratchy cacophony interfere with thought?

The researchers are finding, in fact, that the noise improves the workings of the students' brains. And that's a result backed up by dozens of studies. It may seem counterintuitive, but the human mind--and a lot of other things, as it turns out--often work better not when they're neat and highly ordered, but rather when they operate in a messier fashion. That principle may apply not only to how we live and work, but also to how people around the world deal with regional instability, terrorism and natural disasters.

You can't open a magazine, turn on the TV or read a business book without hearing from an army of gurus and pundits presenting us with step-by-step recipes for getting things straightened up, put in order and planned out, whether it's our bedrooms, our careers or our foreign policies. But this pervasive bias toward maximum organization, order and neatness is often irrational and ineffective, typically causing more problems than it solves. A certain amount of mess and disorder is usually not the terrible thing we make it out to be, and in many cases it actually improves things. Our failure to recognize this simple truth leads us astray in all sorts of ways, big and small.

Science backs up the notion that mess has gotten a bad rap, starting with something you learned in high-school physics: anything you do increases the universe's entropy--that is, disorder. In other words, messiness isn't the sorry wage of weak character or neglect, it's the inseparable companion of constructive action. There are only two ways to minimize disorder: don't do much, or spend lots of energy constantly restoring order instead of spending it on something potentially much more useful.

Today thousands of scientific papers are published each year on stochastic resonance, a phenomenon by which adding disorder to a system makes it work better. Stochastic resonance turns up in climate change, chemical reactions and electronic circuits, but where it really plays a starring role is in the function of brain cells, which turn out to be lousy with useful noise in just about every creature from crayfish up to humans. The University of British Columbia lab, run by cognitive neuroscientist Lawrence Ward, has shown that people can be better at recognizing images and sounds when they're exposed to random background noise. Toyota has funded research at the lab that has shown how such noise could help drivers spot an onrushing car. "As the noise level increases, subjects do a better job of shifting their focus to a new location," says Ward.

Randomness, disorder and mess can be beneficial in more general ways. Consider messy desks. Most of us have one, and though we often feel guilty about it, studies show that they are highly effective tools. The piles that build up on a desk contain all sorts of clues about priorities: newer and more important information lands higher up in piles and closer by, and piles can vary by subject, urgency and chronology in ways that mirror the quirky, complex, messy ways in which we work and think. People with neat desks, on the other hand, have to spend time processing documents that the rest of us put aside, shuffling papers in and out of files, and throwing out stuff that they sometimes end up needing. Excavating through piles can lead to the fortuitous discovery of documents that had been forgotten, and to connections between documents that would never have been made if they had been filed, containerized or chucked. …

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