Science Explains Why Uncertainty Is So Hard on Our Brain
In 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 habitual and automatic mental processes that govern routine action. This disruption creates conflict in the brain, and this conflict can lead to a state of both hypervigilance and outsized emotional reactivity to negative experiences or information. In other words, uncertainty acts like rocket fuel for worry; it causes people to see threats everywhere they look, and at the same time it makes them more likely to react emotionally in response to those threats.
“Uncertainty lays the groundwork for anxiety because anxiety is always future-oriented,” says Jack Nitschke, the study’s co-author and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The human brain has the capacity to imagine all the worst things that could happen, Nitschke explains. And the more uncertainty there is — especially if that uncertainty is coupled with gloomy hypotheticals — the more likely the brain is to conjure up and fixate on the worst-case scenarios.