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Uncertainty and the Brain

“There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing.” – Robert Burns

The human brain hates uncertainty. In fact, scientific studies have concluded that we’d rather be certain of disaster than feel unsure of whether disaster is or isn’t going to strike. As an example, this means knowing for sure that we’re going to be late for a meeting is preferable to being stuck in traffic and being unsure of whether we’re going to make it on time. So why is this? Well, it all comes down to the brain’s need to constantly predict what’s going to happen next, based on what it perceives to be happening now. Jeff Hawkins, author of On Intelligence, puts it this way:

“Your brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories, and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now… Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neo-cortex, and the foundation of intelligence.”

Calculating the Odds

In a nutshell, the human brain is in a constant state of anticipation. From one moment to the next, it’s working away at predicting what should be happening next and anticipating the consequences, both good and bad, of those happenings. Amazingly, it’s also constantly calculating the odds of those good or bad consequences, and stress levels are at their highest when there’s a 50-50 chance of either outcome. So, let’s put this into context.

Using the traffic jam and potentially being late for an important meeting scenario: If you’re stuck in heavy traffic and you’re able to predict that there’s still time to make it if things keep moving at the current pace, your stress levels rise but they don’t hit a peak because your brain can predict with reasonable certainty that the outcome is going to be a good one. If you’re sitting in stationary traffic and your brain predicts that there’s just no chance of making it to the meeting, your rising stress levels are once again kept in check by the fact that there’s now a certainty in terms of the outcome – you might as well sit back and relax. But, if the traffic is a bit stop-start and it’s difficult to predict how quickly you’ll start moving, you’re in that 50-50 situation of uncertainty that your brain doesn’t like. Your stress levels now go through the roof.

Tipping the Odds

You see, your brain would rather be certain of disaster than feel unsure of whether disaster is or isn’t going to strike. So, let’s think about that for a moment… If you’re in an unpredictable situation and uncertainty is pushing your stress levels sky high, your brain is going to push for a more certain outcome. Let’s say you’re thinking of quitting your job and setting up your own business, but you’re uncertain over whether now is the right time. Your brain is now working away at predicting what’s going to happen next and anticipating the odds of a “good” or “bad” outcome. If, in the back of your mind, there’s a nagging voice saying, “You’re doomed to disaster, don’t do it,” then you’re subconsciously tipping the odds in favour of a “bad” outcome, but, on the flip side, if there’s a voice saying, “Go for it. The time is now,” you’re tipping the odds the other way. Either way, you’re breaking away from the 50-50 place of uncertainty that your brain finds difficult to cope with.

The bottom line is that your brain isn’t interested in the outcome, its only concern is moving away from the middle-ground of uncertainty. Remember, your brain makes predictions based on the information it’s receiving, so to move in the direction of success, you need to provide input that creates a sense of certainty. It’s fair to say that there are very few things you can be absolutely certain of, but you can be certain of your potential to succeed and your willingness to give it your best shot, right?

Email donald@zonedinperformance.com to find out more about the latest performance coaching programmes that will help you most.


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