Uncertainty

As humans, we’re nudged by our biologies to wonder what’s on the other side of every mountain and driven to push ever-outward in a million directions at once.

We’re not built to tolerate uncertainty. It’s stressful! It might portend danger. No unknowns for me, thanks.

Our drive to figure things out exposes us to new uncertainties, though. The act of exploration and discovery solves some mysteries, but also tends to unveil new ones.

This dispositional incongruity can be crazy-making, as it can—suddenly and without warning—make even familiar places, people, ideas, routines, and relationships seem strange and volatile.

What we perceived as being stable yesterday might reveal itself to be anything but, today. And that change of status can be the consequence of shifting variables beyond our control, but it can also result from learning something new: cresting a metaphorical mountain and putting old uncertainties to rest while concurrently encountering brand new ones.

This process can be exhausting.

Our brains aim for energetic efficiency, and to that end they build frameworks of the world so a lot of what we do on a daily basis can be shorthanded.

This is how the world works, this is how I perform the tasks I undertake daily, this is how various things in my environment are connected to each other.

These mental models (called “heuristics”) allow us to function without having to re-compute every single thing we do every single day. It saves a lot of cognitive bandwidth.

When something happens that violates these frameworks, however, we’re thrown for a loop that can be both unnerving and more energetically expensive than our typical mode of operation.

We thought things worked one way, but actually maybe they don’t.

Oh no oh no oh no.

Our brains then scramble to collect data to fill in the gaps and build a new framework.

This can be stressful and exhausting, and can put us on edge because our understandings of things—which tend to serve as foundations for other understandings—no longer seem as solid and secure.

At times, the best response to sudden uncertainty of this kind is to seek out new information and fill in the gaps. We’ve got plenty of motivation to do so, and this can sometimes be an excellent moment to climb some more mountains, take a long look around, and open ourselves up to re-learning all sorts of things.

In other cases, though, it’s prudent to pull back a bit, hunker down, and restock our psychological reserves.

This is especially true when the uncertainties we face seem likely to remain uncertain for a while, no matter how much info we scramble to collect, because new certainties—new bases for future frameworks—haven’t coalesced yet; the variables that’ve been upended haven’t stabilized and are likely to keep changing shape for the foreseeable future.

It’s seldom ideal to remain intentionally ignorant about things happening around us, then, but it’s prudent to understand the difference between things that are knowable and things that are currently in flux; the psychological cost of trying to build new mental models predicated on either heads or tails when the coin is still in the air, and is likely to remain there for some time.

The right balance of info-seeking and well-being is worth pursuing, then, whether we’re in the midst of a bad breakup, a global pandemic, a rapidly escalating international conflict, or any other unknown that may trigger large quantities of stress and unrest.

If you found some value in this essay, consider supporting my work by buying me a coffee :)





Recent Posts

  • Simmer or Sear
  • Some Final 2023 Thoughts
  • Taking Time
  • Instrumental Flute Era
  • Rearviews