Uncertainty – Friend, Foe, or a Door to New Possibilities?

Early on, while in grad school studying to become a psychotherapist, uncertainty was not a topic I associated with my main interest. That changed when I studied with Amos Tversky and later became his teaching assistant in a course titled Statistics for Psychologists. I had the enormous good fortune to listen to him talk about the discoveries he and Daniel Kahneman were making at the time in the area of decision making under uncertainty. This became a new field of study and research for which they eventually received a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The study of unpredictability and uncertainty of outcomes as a central component of human learning, development, and behavior, has also become an integral part of my own work.

When walking down the street, as we place one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk, we expect there to be a solid ground. When having a conversation with a beloved friend, we inherently assume the ongoing exchange will be friendly and safe. The sense of predictability in the minute-by-minute flow of our lives is essential to our ability to function. Our brains are molded by the connections and patterns that are created in response to our experiences. In turn, we apply these patterns with the built-in, implicit expectation that the world is going to be and remain the way we already know it. We prefer to experience the world as predictable and certain.

Certainty gives us a sense of safety. It makes our lives easier, and also facilitates how we function in groups and as a society. In order to help small children feel safe, we create routines and lots of predictability. Many parents have experienced the horror of the loss of their child’s favorite blanket. Even though as adults we are unlikely to become inconsolable if we lose a favorite blanket, this example shows how the experience of certainty is central to our feelings of safety and well-being, and for our ability to function effectively. Does that mean that when things become unpredictable, we have no choice but to become debilitated? The answer is “no.” In fact, it’s even possible to thrive under uncertainty.

In 2020, as we became aware of Covid-19, very few among us were able to foresee the horrific pandemic that was on the horizon. Those who did foresee the possible future path of Covid-19 were usually the ones whose life’s work is in the field of public health, epidemiology, and pandemics. For others, the predictions and picture of a very different world were too foreign to be fully comprehended and therefore were either ignored, rejected, or viewed as fearmongering that often led to opposition and polarization.

As 2020 neared its end, there was a lot of talk of, and an expectation that, the end of the year (which, by the way,  mind you, is an arbitrary notion created by humans) would be the end of the pandemic. Many expected that things would “go back to normal” or “go back to the way they were.” But they didn’t. By the end of the following year, there was very little talk about things going back to the way they were (even though many, understandably, still wished for it). By now, we have all woken up to the reality of uncertainty. Yet, many of us are still struggling to find ways to live well with such blatant, ongoing unpredictability.

Is Uncertainty a bad thing?

To think and believe that uncertainty is a bad thing is like thinking and believing that gravitational force is a bad thing. Yes, gravitational force pulls on us all the time but we need it in order to move and function. Our lives are built around the existence of this force (consider the amount of physical and mental training and preparation it takes before an astronaut is sent to outer space for an extended period of time).

The same is true for uncertainty. It’s always there whether we are aware of it or not.  Uncertainty is a door for new possibilities. It is what makes learning possible. There are an estimated 7000 languages in the world. A newborn child can learn any one of those 7000 possibilities depending on the language/s they hear. There are also infinite ways to think, feel, compose music, and react to any situation we find ourselves in. If all was certain, choice and freedom would not exist, both of which are an integral part of us as humans.

Habits versus change

So why do we have such a hard time with uncertainty? The answer lies with how we currently use and have used our brains in the past. When our experiences are generally the same with little variability and if we tend to stay the course and not seek and allow variations and novelty in our lives, our habitual beliefs, and ways of moving, thinking, feeling, and acting, get deeply grooved into our brains. We live under the illusion of certainty and when the proverbial rug is pulled from under our feet, we lack the freedom to respond with the agility and creativity that is needed to avoid “falling” and to recover quickly if we do fall.

Two brains in one

Our brains serve two main purposes:

1: to form reliable, deeply grooved patterns that allow for automatic, or semi-automatic responses to stimuli and situations, and to serve us in our daily lives by creating enough certainty and safety for ourselves and others.
2: to be alert, agile, uncommitted, and “at the ready” to create new connections and patterns so that we can continue to learn, to change, to bring awareness to our current reality, and to meet our needs better.

You may be wondering how such seemingly opposite core purposes can co-exist in the brain. From my experience in working with tens of thousands of people over many years, I came to realize that not only is it possible to change, even when we have deeply ingrained habits, but that our brains are actually designed to change, at any age. Healthy brains are at the ready to wake up to learn, change and improve our functioning. They just need the right conditions to provide them with the information necessary to create something new.

Why are so many of us challenged by uncertainty?

Extreme uncertainty is very difficult to deal with emotionally, cognitively and at times even physically. Researcher Jerome Kagan of the UNC School of Education wrote that the need to resolve uncertainty is among the four primary motives driving human behavior. This need is so powerful that Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were able to identify and reliably predict the typical mistakes in thinking and in decision-making that people will make when faced with uncertainty. (The paradox of identifying predictability in how we deal with uncertainty is an interesting one!) If you would like to dive deeper into their thinking, you can read a seminal paper they have written. And if you wish to read the story of their friendship and how they developed their work, I recommend the informative and fascinating book by Michael Lewis called The Undoing Project.

The process of education in schools, in the home, and in social circumstances leans heavily towards children and adults developing highly reliable and predictable, deeply grooved patterns of behavior, thinking and beliefs. Very little attention, if any, is put into developing in parallel the brain’s inclination to readily wake up and create the new. With such imbalance between these two qualities and skills of our brains, uncertainty can stump us, stress us greatly, and leave us feeling anxious, perhaps angry, and helpless. The 2+ year pandemic has certainly created extreme conditions that have, and continue to, challenge us on many levels.

Freedom and Potency

The good news is that there are easy, direct, and simple ways to wake up the brain and turn its Learning Switch on (the Learning Switch is one of the 9 NeuroMovement® Essentials), thus waking up the brain to create new ways and solutions to match our current reality. When we do so, we experience increased safety and well-being with our newfound freedom and potency.

A few mornings ago, I realized that for the past 7 nights my sleep had been tumultuous. I woke up early and couldn’t fall back to sleep. (Perhaps you have experienced something similar in the past couple of years?) I realized that I was filled with anxiety. Small wonder. Our practitioner training programs have had to be postponed three times in the past two years. Our private practice opened just as Omicron raised its challenging head. We now are planning to reopen our training facilities and resume offering our other coaching and consulting services. We made the decision to fully reopen even though we really don’t know what is coming next. However, feeling anxious and unwell is not of use. So I decided to focus on three of the Essentials and did one of my NeuroMovement® lessons. I had the best 7.1/2 hours of sleep that night and a really calm and satisfying day.

I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the following 3 Essentials and look to apply them in as many aspects of your day-to-day activities as you can. In addition, I invite you to do the NeuroMovement® lesson we offer here 1-2 times a day (it’s only 10 minutes long), every day for 7 days or more. This will begin waking up your brain to its enormous potency to be healthy and creative, and you will learn to feel better in the midst of a “storm” of uncertainty.

3 Essentials to explore:

Variation

Introduce variation and playfulness into everything you do. Your brain will get a cascade of information it can use to create new possibilities in movements, thoughts, and actions. One of the easiest ways to bring in variations is doing things the “wrong” way on purpose, or making intentional, yet safe mistakes. And the other one is bringing in playfulness and the knowledge that you have survived thus far, and you will continue to make it into the future.

Flexible Goals

When uncertainty is great, it is perfectly fine to set goals – just know that your goals might need to adapt as the situation changes. Know your goals and embrace all the unexpected steps, missteps, and re-routes  along the way. These are a rich source of valuable information for your brain and a great opportunity for you to feel good about yourself.
 

The Learning Switch

When the world as we know it keeps changing, becoming a highly potent learner is key to success and well being. For the brain to properly do its job, the learning switch needs to be turned ON. Expect and look to learn something new in each situation you find yourself in, especially in the very familiar ones, by bringing curiosity to the situation or experience.