I didn’t intend to write a book about uncertainty. Some years ago, I set off to research a volume on the kinds of thinking needed in a speed-driven, fragmented age. Epistemic uncertainty, which arises when we recognize the limits of our knowledge, was the subject of my first chapter. I assumed that being unsure was merely a preface to good thinking, something to eradicate as swiftly as possible en route to an answer. But I soon discovered a new wave of captivating multi-disciplinary research that upends our many mistaken beliefs about being unsure.
For example, uncertainty makes us uneasy, an association that often leads us to want to avoid it. For survival’s sake, humans naturally need and want answers. That’s why we experience a stress response when we confront anything new, murky, or unexpected. On the first day on a new job, our heart might beat faster and our palms may sweat. But if we take a closer look, we begin to see that the stress hormones and chemicals unleashed amidst uncertainty also prompt remarkably positive effects, especially on the brain.
When you realize that you don’t know, your focus tends to widen, your working memory improves, and your brain becomes more receptive to new data, research by Jacqueline Gottlieb and others show. Uncertainty is mostly good stress and a form of wakefulness. The brain is telling itself, “There’s something to be learned here,” neuroscientist Joseph Kable of the University of Pennsylvania told me. Embracing the provocative nature of uncertainty helps us remain open during those critical times when life invites us to learn. This is just one of the unsung wonders of being unsure. [Continue reading…]