Embracing Uncertainty

I hate uncertainty, and it turns out I’m not alone!  In a talk I once gave on the psychology of creativity I asked a large audience of television creative workers to raise their hands if they liked being confused.  

I asked this because being stuck and facing contradiction are an essential part of the creative process. Of the 2000 plus present only a couple raised their hands… and I wasn’t too sure how genuine even those two were!  And this is a population who very likely have a much higher than average tolerance of uncertainty.

It’s pretty obvious then that we are all hard-wired to hate uncertainty. This no doubt has its origins in our ancestral environment where our very survival depended on being able to anticipate both the natural and social worlds.  Unpredictability would have often had fatal consequences on the African savannah.

One result of this is that we are designed to equate uncertainty with threat.

The human mind that evolved in these circumstances is obviously an amazing thing.  It was designed to anticipate and predict quickly. With it, we have learned to master and control the environment to an extraordinary level – though not always with wise consequences!

It does this using heuristics or short-cuts called ‘schemas’ which are kinds of patterns we project onto often very little information from our environment. These are our best guesses that enable us to quickly assess and navigate our world.  This is a highly efficient way of using brain resources and acting quickly amidst the constant flux of experience.

We cannot possibly process everything as we often have to be decisive.  So, these are short cuts that have been rewarded by natural selection, and they work amazingly well, much of the time. But they do come with systematic errors in the form of biases and overgeneralisations.

These errors are exaggerated by the fact that the world we now live in is in so many significant ways not the kind of world that these short cuts were designed for.  This is especially so in terms of the safety of the modern world.  Generally speaking, we worry much more than we ought to, and we too-often engage in biased thinking in order to calm our emotions.

These built-in biases are all about reducing anxiety and threat. (Di Salvo, 2018).  For example, we love the feeling of being right – probably more so than just about anything else.  Once something has proven predictive in the past it is mapped onto our opinions of the present – even if there is lots of evidence against it.

We simplify the complexity around us by giving meaning to coincidence – for example routinely mistaking correlation for causation.  A famous example is that you can correlate increased ice cream sales and increased homicides, but clearly the link is not the ice cream, but increases in people being out and about due to warmer weather.

We prefer feeling in control over seeking the truth so we often deny reality, especially to avoid acknowledging loss.  We justify or rationalise our behaviours to avoid feelings of regret and we overgeneralise to reduce the uncertainty of complexity.  I’m sure you could add your favourites to the list!

You’d imagine that with this smorgasbord of biases we’d be in trouble. And in fact, the problem with all of them is that they can take us out of touch with reality and they do have negative consequences! 

I view good mental health as basically being in touch with reality and I believe we suffer when we are out of touch with the real world.  So, biases and emotional reasoning can lead to all kinds of problems: conflict with others, maladaptive behaviour, internal contradictions and stresses and overall, a precarious balance in life.

But fortunately, our mind, in the right circumstances, is also designed to be curious, to be interested in anomalies.  There is a positive joy in new insights and new ways to understand the world. In fact, we are the most creative of the species.  The key for this openness of mind is if we are relaxed.  If we feel safe.  Then our curiosity trumps our need for certainty.  Then our mind can become absorbed in inquiry rather than being emotionally reactive. 

The polar opposite of biased thinking is what the 18th century romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability: that is, quote: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. 

So, holding the mind open longer and longer allows more of reality to be included. It allows for new connections in our brain, for new insights. This contemplative turn of mind is the ultimate in objectivity as we search for the deeper truths that sit under an often-confusing world.

Another doorway to this mental curiosity is social safety and connection. Many studies have shown that when we feel socially supported and connected our thinking becomes more open, strategic and innovative. These studies reveal that the release of the hormone oxytocin brings about these deep physiological and psychological shifts. So, we should share our uncertainties and vulnerabilities with trusted others to help relax and open our minds.

And this openness of mind and heart can be developed directly with mindfulness practices.  In Buddhist approaches a fundamental goal is the development of equanimity – which is a general ‘okayness’ with whatever reality presents to us. 

Neither pushing away the unpleasant, nor clinging to the pleasant, equanimity is developed by curious attention to experience, allowing it to unfold and reveal itself. It is the opposite of the kind of emotional reactivity so characteristic of our polarised times.

One can only guess what life was like for our distant forebears on the African Savannah, but I can imagine that after their hunger was sated, they would have had plenty of time to sit together contemplating and discussing the beauty and mysteries of nature.  Our human history as a whole attests to the creative outcomes of this.

So, considering again that talk in New York, maybe those few creative workers who raised their hands were onto something after all!  It is quite likely they had learned that impasse demonstrates not the insufficiency, but the creative intelligence, of their minds and signals the need for curious, patient contemplation.

Perhaps they had discovered that uncertainty is not the enemy, but a doorway to openness and creative thought.