In this blog Johan Mellerup Traekjaer writes about how our brains work when faced with uncertainty and how we can use the uncertainty in service of development. Johan’s primary interest is the interplay between human consciousness, biological systems and physics, and in this blog he shares some of his knowledge about stress management in relation to the current Covid-19 pandemic.
New notions of biological organisms, especially those among us we call humans, places action at the centre of cognition. All organisms perform actions in order to reduce uncertainty in the environment. We humans have the most sophisticated action repertoire and when we cannot reduce uncertainty through action, anxiety will increase exponentially. Threats like the current coronavirus is but one of many unpredictable states that we cannot eliminate through action. Actions to minimise anxiety instead of avoiding it will therefore be the skill of the future.
The common notion of our mental faculties, these days termed the brain, is one of a battle between higher order cognitive systems versus primitive lower order systems, yet this notion is being questioned from the most brilliant scientists of our time. According to the common notion, the so-called cognitivist idea, the brain is organized in a hierarchy of simple sensory-motor systems located below a sophisticated thinking system. That idea is merely philosophical, it has failed to provide solid empirical evidence. According to the cognitivist idea, the cognitive parts of the brain (the thinking system) computes problems by manipulating representations symbolizing objects and situations in the world. The brain is therefore able to detach itself from the world by passively calculating objective solutions to problems. The only problem, according to the cognitivist notion, arises when the thinking brain is being hijacked by the lower simpler sensory-motor systems.
Neurophysiological data has challenged the cognitivist notion of the brain. First of all, we have not been able to get any deeper understanding of human suffering, mental disorders or human behaviour in general with the notion. Second, we don’t find any evidence of symbolic representations of information anywhere in the brain. Third, it counters evolutionary development and biochemical constraints. Fourth, brain mechanisms do not act according to the cognitivist notion. In fact, when we look at the way the brain functions, it functions with the higher cortical systems serving the lower ones, because the lower ones keep track of everything we need, in order to keep us alive and well.
So how do the higher systems serve the lower systems? In the cognitivist notion human cognition differs fundamentally from animal cognition, because we can think. Yet this idea does not get any support from the developmental history of species through time. Organisms have one problem and one problem only: how to act in order to maintain bodily homeostasis (wellbeing) of self and those close to us. Action is at the centre of biological agency, and it has been that for the last 3,5 billion years, and that did not magically change within the last 200.000 years when Homo Sapiens arrived. Action is the main purpose of the higher systems of the human brain, and thinking is not done by manipulation of symbols in the brain as a computer does it. Thinking is the simulation of possible actions either our own or others, which brings us back to the main issue of this paper: why we are not very good at coping with the current pandemic.
Our brain’s higher systems are not here for detached objective and logical thinking. They are made for specifying and selecting actions that will bring down risks in the external environment, in order to secure survival and wellbeing for ourselves as well as for those we care for. And with a pandemic like the current one, an action-oriented brain cannot bring down the risks by coordinating sophisticated embodied actions. It can only sit and wait, which it did not evolve for. The forced inaction increases our sense of uncertainty, and when uncertainty increases, our ability to simulate complex actions (thinking) and to perform complex behaviours, decrease exponentially.
But virus or not, life is by and large a constant battle with perceived (subjective) and factual (objective) uncertainty and we rarely know how to distinguish the two. We have a scientific word for uncertainty, we call it entropy, and it is the most fundamental aspect of life. We act in order to bring down entropy, but paradoxically actions also increase entropy, death being the ultimate entropy. And therefore, we can never get rid of entropy, it is part of life. We experience it as anxiety. Anxiety is not something somebody is suffering from. Anxiety is life, because there is a risk attached to every action, and there is action attached to every aspect of life. Organisms always act, so life is inherently a risky business, pandemics or not.
The only thing we should really focus on is coming to terms with the fact that life itself is risky, and that the world is an uncertain place. Even though we may try hard, we can never extinguish uncertainty. In fact, the more we try to minimize uncertainty in one domain, we often end up increasing chaos in another. And on the personal level the race towards certainty hinders our development. As Nobel laurate and chemist Ilya Prigogine predicted, the coming age is going to be the end of certainty. Whether we like it or not, uncertainty is not something modern science is going to end. In fact, modern science ended certainty. For a creature of action, that is not a soothing thought. But we must not succumb to our fears and let them drive our actions. We must let our actions be driven by an exploration of what makes us afraid and turn to it, because in the darkest parts of our mind we will also find the greatest capacity for development.
No one ever developed any deeper understanding of themselves and the world without going into the fear and darkness of the uncertain. Development can be measured by the times we faced the darkest moments of our lives. And the opposite by the times when we cowered and ran away. Every unknown can be delt with in three ways:
- 1) we avoid the unknown
- 2) we change the unknown so it fits our existing patterns of meaning-making
- or 3) we venture outside the gates of our current level of understanding in order to expand the territory in which we can act successfully.
The third option will expand the level of uncertainty we can cope with.
It is said that safety is the most unsafe path to spiritual development. Don’t let Covid, or any other present crisis be your safety-card to avoid development. Be bold, be brave, be unsafe. But find good people around you with whom you can share the vulnerability and anxiety of being a true warrior. My good friend Christopher Chang-Duffet calls it strategic vulnerability when we share our internal vulnerability in order to not make our team vulnerable to the dangers of the world.