#17 Counterintuitive

Things That Make No Sense Also Make Perfect Sense

It doesn't take long for a newborn child to learn how gravity works. Long before they can form words to articulate it, they develop a sense that they're not going float away and if they drop a toy, it'll fall to the ground.

All is well in baby world.

That is, until, they see their first helium balloon.

I'm gonna be honest, I don't remember the first time I saw a balloon float away into the sky, but I imagine that it blew. my. f*cking. mind. Perhaps it was so traumatic that I've blocked it out. Because it's a thing. And what happens to a thing when you drop it? It doesn't float up, up, and away into the endless sky. That's for f*cking sure.

Except, in the case of a balloon filled with helium, that is exactly what it does. If our little minds could form words, we might tell our baby friends:

"Listen, Chadwick, don't let go of that thing, it's counterintuitive, but these things don't come back down to the ground"


I find that word interesting because we say it as if there is something wrong with the thing we are describing; as if our understanding of the world and its properties (our intuition) is objectively correct that this thing that is violating our expectations of reality is broken or misbehaving.

A child learns, eventually, about the periodic table of elements and density. Now, what didn't make any sense (to me, anyway) makes perfect sense. In fact, it would be silly to expect the balloon to do anything other than what it does.

It may be as simple as the child losing his or her mind over the balloon going up when things aren't supposed to go up.

Or the hyper-motivated woman who exercises more, eats less, and does NOT lose weight faster. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times:

"Listen, it doesn't make any sense, but when I stopped being so rigid with my diet, I started making progress again. It doesn't make ANY sense. It's counterintuitive, right?"


Through the lens of complex systems and survival, it makes perfect sense.

What is counterintuitive is often just not understanding the properties of the components that make up the system you are observing.

The Arrow of Time

It's not just babies and laypeople (we are all laypeople in the field we are not an expert). Experts run into it all the time, too.

The laws of physics are symmetrical with respect to time; they do not distinguish between the past and future and treat them as equivalent. The arrow of time is often considered counterintuitive by experts because it suggests time flows in only one direction, from the past to the present to the future. The laws of physics operate in both directions but the arrow of time suggests they only operate in one...


Just as the contradiction of the balloon floating away instead of crashing to the ground is resolved with a little chemistry, the contradiction between the arrow of time and the laws of physics is resolved by understanding the role of entropy.

When something is counterintuitive, it's likely that we are missing an understanding of the properties of parts of the system. Many things are still counterintuitive to me, and I am aware that is likely a lack of understanding on my part or a cognitive distortion creating blind spots. Most of the time, I don't do anything about it. We only have so much bandwidth.

But I find it helpful to be aware of it.

You might, too.