Neuroscience

  • Why Uncertainty is Good for the Brain

    uncertainWhen it comes to world events, family disputes, office politics, etc., we are often quick to take a side, and sometimes very passionately. Once we have taken a side in such an argument it's usually difficult for our minds to reassess, even when presented with new information; our emotional stance can make it difficult to assess (or even want to assess) the situation with objectivity. But what is the apparent safety of such decided opinions? Why do our minds so easily choose a side, and why do we have an adversity to uncertainty? Cognitive neuroscience may provide some insight.

    Different Types of Uncertainty

    Decision making is crucial to our survival; it’s important that we judge correctly whether it’s safe to cross the road, if this fish is still good to eat, or if we can trust that person.  According to Hsu et al. (2005), there are roughly two types of uncertain events that we are regularly faced with: risky and ambiguous. Risky decisions tend to be when the odds are known, and the probability of outcome may be assessed and estimated, e.g. I know I have 10 red cards and 10 blue cards in a deck, so I can roughly guess my chances of picking a blue card. Conversely, in ambiguous decisions, the uncertainty of the odds creates a difficulty in analysis, e.g. I have 20 cards, but I have no idea what proportion is red, and what proportion is blue, hence picking a blue card feels more down to chance.

    How Uncertainty Affects the Brain

    Hsu et al. (2005) found that in the face of uncertain events, in both hemispheres the amygdala (raw emotional responses) and prefrontal cortex (executive function) increase in multimodal sensory stimulation as ambiguity of a situation also increases. Like a pressure cooker, the missing information in a decision that creates uncertainty effectively puts pressure on our mind to seek out more information to inform our decision.

    Brand et al. (2006) also suggests that unlike risky decisions, ambiguous decisions often rely less on previous rational feedback from past choices, as well as being more susceptible to emotional responses associated with comparable situations. This could explain why we tend to repeat the same kinds of arguments with people we have history with: it’s difficult for our minds to view each new situation mindfully due to our past emotional responses.

    In ambiguous situations, our minds may choose to seek a definitive answer to alleviate this pressure that we sense building. Our mind attempts to balance the discomfort experienced when no clear path is right or wrong, and we are faced with a choice that doesn't involve a binary option.

    Watching How Our Minds Seek Answers

    A great way to explore this tendency of the mind is to delve into that part of the internet that we seem to love and loathe in equal measure: the comments section! News stories are particularly good places to try, and the more complex the matter the better. Not only will you find a multitude of arguments and counterarguments, but you’ll also be more likely to already have an opinion of your own too. As you read through the opinions, watch what your mind does. Notice any tension that builds when you read an argument you disagree with, or if you find yourself feeling torn between two (or more) different points of view.

    The point of this exercise is not to decide which individual is correct in the argument, but to simply become aware of the reactions and pressure our mind presents us with in the face of allowing ourselves to sit in uncertainty. Try to ‘surf’ the urge to settle on just one point of view. In other words, notice the urge to ‘know’ what’s true, but see if you can ride it out.  Being aware of this rising inner conflict has in fact been shown to strengthen the brain structures associated with executive functioning, and our ability to navigate beliefs loosely, and with more freedom. This ability is a key element to living a more mindful life.

    Our ability to form opinions and make decisions is definitely a useful evolutionary tool that helps us navigate our day-to-day environment which can often be highly ambiguous. However, the persistent need to find an answer can indeed produce a fragile perception of reality and impede our navigation of complicated dilemmas.

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