The discomfort of not knowing

Society puts a high value on certainty. We are rewarded for having answers, for being sure and decisive.

We can easily feel pressure to make quick decisions and to act as if we know know what we may not know.

Uncertainty about the future is inherently uncomfortable.

And if the topic is your life, it can feel very uncomfortable. Do you ever wonder if this is really what you should be doing with your life, but then try to shake it off?  (It’s a common theme in coaching.)

If we look to the brain, we can begin to understand our inherent discomfort with uncertainty. From there, we can begin to work with it.

The brain wants to help us predict the future

The brain’s number one job is to keep us safe. In order to do that, it needs to guide us. It’s doing this all the time in very practical ways as it helps us interpret information and navigate our world.

The brain is constantly processing and sorting what we’re experiencing, creating and recognizing patterns in order to make predictions.

If I see and hear a long, loud yellow vehicle with wheels and many windows coming down the street, the brain quickly connects to prior patterns to know that this is a school bus.

If, after realizing the school bus is on my street, I look at the clock and see it’s 3pm, my brain expects that my children will be stepping off and coming home.

Craving to know

The brain wants to know things so that it can predict the future and guide our behavior.

Given the brain’s important role of making predictions, it’s not surprising that we have a deep need for knowledge. In fact, the brain craves information for this purpose. Research shows that when the brain receives information to anticipate the future, dopamine neurons are activated which is like a reward to the brain and keeps us wanting more. 

This explains how people can get hooked on the need to know, and on believing in their certainty even when they are wrong.

(If you add to this a societal state of confusion, political chaos and governmental ambiguity, neurologist Robert Burton says this is fertile ground for people to hold firmly to “absolute ideologies.”)

The stress of not knowing

Not only do we like certainty because it helps the brain guide us, but it also helps to guard us from the stress of not knowing.

When the school bus didn’t come at 3:00 one day (by the well-established pattern in my brain), I started to wonder. By 3:10, I was stressed as my brain could not shut out knowledge of recent school shootings. At 3:18, when the bus arrived, and I was able to return to a state of calm.

A 2005 study showed that when information is too ambiguous to predict an outcome, the amygdala, which the part of the brain responsible for our fight/flight threat response, gets activated. And the more ambiguity in a situation, the greater the threat response in the brain. 

Interestingly, research also shows that we’d rather know that something unpleasant is coming than to not be able to predict whether it’s coming at all. In a 2016 study, participants showed a greater stress response when they could not predict whether they were about to receive a small shock than when they knew the shock was coming. 

If we know, then the brain can help us prepare and respond accordingly. If we don’t know, then the brain doesn’t know how to guide us, and that causes stress. 

Downsides of our certainty bias

Given how our brains are wired, it makes perfect sense that we have a low tolerance for uncertainty.

At a recent conference I attended, Dan Siegel and Jon Kabat-Zinn were discussing how our desire for certainty closes us off from possibility. We create narratives about ourselves and others that are often not true, but that give us a sense of knowing even if false.

We say, “I could never…” or “I don’t…” because at least it makes us feel certain.

But this certainty bias, which leads us to jump to definitive answers, closes us off from curiosity, potential and unknown possibilities.

If you are always in a place of knowing and certainty, you’ll never see what you don’t yet know. New ideas and insights cannot emerge from this place.

If we want to innovate and create a different future, we need to play with not knowing.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “The constructs of the mind obscure the actualities of freedom.”

3 steps to tolerating uncertainty and creating a different future

If we live only in a place of knowing and certainty, which is based on past patterns, it becomes difficult to create a future different from the past.

If we could become more comfortable with uncertainty and stay in not knowing a little longer, what possibilities and insights might emerge?

To create a different future, we need to get more comfortable with uncertainty. Here are 3 steps to begin: 

(1) Notice.

Notice definitive thoughts or statements about yourself or others – about who you/they are, what you/they can’t do. Notice how often this happens especially with family and old friends for which we have well-worn narratives.

Notice when you need to be certain, or are quick to decide or answer so you can move on.

Notice when you are quick to reject another possibility, suggestion, or point of view.

Notice how you feel when you realize you don’t have an answer, or are unsure. You may even notice sensations in the body.

(2) Pause.

Once you notice, pause. Even a brief pause – a deep breath or two – is a slowing down of the automatic response to know and decide.

(3) Get curious. 

Instead of rejecting or judging the need to know, or the discomfort of not knowing, get curious about it.

Ask yourself questions like: Is this really true? What else is possible? So what if I don’t know right now? What would be something new or different here? What if there is no one, right answer? What if I just explored one possibility for now?

As you notice, pause, and get curious, you’ll widen your tolerance for uncertainty. As you begin to play with the uncertainty, you’ll plant seeds for different future possibilities. How cool is that?! 

Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash

Keep me in the loop of learning!

Receive info and offers about your BRAIN, STRESS, and CHANGE in your inbox (approx. once/month)

p.s. I will NOT share your email address.

Excellent! Please check your email and confirm your opt-in