Whilst watching a brilliant talk by super cool neuroscientist Beau Lotto, (which I highly recommend ) I had one of those moments of insight. It was the realisation that there is one word that sums up the human condition- uncertainty.
I have already blogged about predictive coding before, but feel as I need to give uncertainty some background in our modern understanding of how we operate.
Our brain is encased in a skull, spending its existence in total darkness. It is constantly receiving a stream of inputs from the external world and from our internal world. It could be pressure signals from our bottoms on a chair, signals that we need to empty our bladder, that the room is hot, the food is burning. Taking the example of a visual image would mean our eyes receiving a wave of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, that is called light. This enters our eye and becomes “transduced”, meaning changed into another form of energy, which for us is a electrochemical signal that travels via our neurones (nerve cells) into different regions of the brain which all take part in putting the information together as a unified image in that moment in time. In fact 90 % of our vision takes place away from the eye. All the different elements of information from vertical and horizontal lines, curves, colour, distance and even areas that deal with facial recognition, come together, and our brains sift through a library of memories, to find the most likely cause of the sensory disturbance, in other words our best guess at what this energy represents to us, producing an image that might be a cat or a mountain.
It gets weirder though, as the evidence shows that we actually guess what the image will be before it actually arrives in the brain. This goes for all our guesses coming from our senses whether from the outside world and from within our bodies. Philosopher Andy Clark in his book on this subject “Surfing Uncertainty” likens it to riding a wave in surfing, where you are always ahead of the breaking surf. The reason for this is if we simply reacted to everything that arrived in from our senses, it would be highly inefficient. Another way of seeing it would be to see life as a ream of film, with frame after frame happening constantly. We do not need to spend energy on taking in the whole of the next frame, only what is different to the previous frame and what is important to us. Because ultimately we are trying to understand the world, from this rather noisy information, in order to make the right decisions to maintain our systems balance and our safety in the world.
But nothing is certain. It cannot be as we are always guessing. So from moment to moment we are spending our time attempting to resolve uncertainty in order to make our journey through life as safe and as comfortable as possible. We are also making decisions based on how this is affecting our systems, and attempting to use our resources wisely and maintain balance within our bodies, what is known as homeostasis. On a simple basis we seek certainty, then we next seek things that make us feel pleasant rather than unpleasant, whilst monitoring our arousal state. We have hormones such as dopamine and serotonin that attach themselves to our nervous signals that convey reward and importance of a given signal. Most signals do not make it to consciousness as they are not important enough to have conscious thoughts over, but others that are perhaps novel to us or are threatening are creating high levels of uncertainty that we need to resolve. If we resolve them and it turns out well for us we will get a big hit of dopamine, saying “well done”, if badly then less than normal circulating dopamine. They are both learning tools and are stored in the library for the next time something happens which is like the event occurring in this moment. The more unresolved uncertainty, the more wear we have in the system. Uncertainty is thought to be the reason we suffer chronic pain, anxiety and depression as examples. They are all different flavours of uncertainty.
So what can be done about it?. From a mindfulness viewpoint, studying uncertainty as it arises in our minds, can loosen its shackles. If we can see the arising of our feelings, thoughts, emotions and behaviours around unresolved uncertainties, we do not need to get attached to them. We can perhaps give ourselves a break, be kind to ourselves (and others), knowing that our nervous systems are attempting to do the right thing to reduce the expense to the system that arises by attempting to fight against uncertainty. This could be seen as reframing an event or simply letting go of our thoughts, to try through our meditation to return to equanimity or balance.
So if we find ourselves at a dinner party and separated from those we know, we might feel anxiety in the bodily form of an increased heartbeat, a knotted stomach, perhaps thoughts of feeling the need to be funny, or feeling judged and these feelings and thoughts become stress or anxiety with a behavioural response that we want to leave or find the safety of our partner.
By knowing this is our system attempting to alert us to the uncertainty of the situation and the need to resolve it, we might settle down more, know we get a bit like this but it generally passes, that the other people perhaps seem quite interesting and may also be feeling the same, and let go of our desire to move away from our unpleasant experience, finding compassion for ourselves in this moment of suffering.
Mindfulness also gives us a space where we can choose better whether to react to something or not. This is because mindfulness helps strengthen connections in our nervous systems, that reduce very quick emotional reactivity to stressful situations. We may even be able to reframe something stressful to become something that we can study with curiosity and perhaps be able to see as an interesting challenge that we move towards (approaching uncertainty), rather than moving away from as a feeling that it is helping to preserve us. Distraction and withdrawal from unpleasant challenges can be useful short term tools, but can become hardwired in our learning library- a book we keep taking out on loan, so that in time we know all the words.
Of course this way of working does not simply require mindfulness, but also needs strength, fortitude and bravery. But mindfulness can act not as a way of making the world certain, which whilst impossible would also be rather boring, but can allow us to approach uncertainty and even embrace it. Buddhist philosophy states that nothing is real, which is amazing that Buddha was able to have this realisation 2000 years before science started to draw the same conclusions. Of course things exist in the world, but we are to a large extent the architects of our own world, experiencing what is useful to us in a given moment in time and filtering out unnecessary background noise. As a result enlightened Buddhists are able to let go of concepts and categories we gather up in order to create certainty. This can free them to see the world without fear and to experience everything as new. Perhaps then mindfulness is in a sense play, the ability to embrace, be curious about and live well and thrive in an uncertain world.