Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Science Explains Why Uncertainty Is So Hard on Our Brain

And how to knock out its effects

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
6 min readMar 19, 2020

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InIn a 1927 essay, the legendary horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

What Lovecraft recognized — and decades of psychological research has borne out — is that the human brain is uniquely vulnerable to uncertainty. There’s evidence that an inability to tolerate uncertainty is a central feature of most anxiety disorders, and that uncertainty stokes the sorts of “catastrophic interpretations” that fuel panic attacks. Some researchers have even argued that fear of the unknown is the bedrock fear that human beings experience — the one that gives rise to all other fears — and that a person’s ability to weather periods of uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of a healthy, resilient mind.

As the world grapples with the Lovecraftian nightmare that is the Covid-19 pandemic, and as the rhythms and rituals of American life are indefinitely disrupted, there are lessons to be learned from the research on uncertainty — including some helpful ways to defang it.

According to a 2014 study in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, uncertainty disrupts many of the…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a frequent contributor at TIME, the New York Times, and other media orgs. I write mostly about health and science. I like long walks and the Grateful Dead.