READ SCARF Article 2: The Neuroscience of Managing Uncertainty

The current levels of uncertainty across the planet created by the Pandemic are wreaking havoc with our brain and putting many people into a state of paralysis. While this may feel shocking it is perfectly normal because your brain is a prediction machine that can’t function without the fuel of certainty.

Jeff Hawkins, founder of the Neuroscience Institute states that the brain receives patterns from the outside world, stores them as memories and makes predictions by combining what it has seen before and what is happening now. He goes on to say that this is one of the primary functions of the brain and the foundation of intelligence. We don’t just hear, we are predicting what we will hear next. We don’t just see, we are predicting what we will see next. There are about 40 environmental cues you can consciously pay attention to at any one time and subconsciously there are about 2 million – that creates a lot of predictive possibilities.

Addicted to certainty

The brain likes to feel certain; in fact it is addicted to certainty. It desperately needs to know what will happen next, or it will trigger a primary threat response. Many people are so addicted to certainty that they love watching the same film or listening to the same music over and over again because it brings a feeling of safety. There is a little rush of pleasure whenever our predictions are met. We feel safer, the brain creates a ‘towards’ response and we feel more positive. In fact we plan and forecast in an attempt to create less uncertainty and we create repetitive habits or play simple repetitive games like Sudoku to bring more certainty to our lives. This is because uncertainty feels to the brain like a threat to your life.

Uncertainty can also wreak havoc with your decision making. If there is a new project that may or may not go ahead, we have to stall on a number of decisions that depend on that project. The brain likes to think ahead and map out how things will be, not just for each moment but also for the longer term. It rapidly creates vast maps, each made up of millions of neural connections for each possible outcome. Even if there is mild uncertainty – like when you hand over a key task to someone else – it means that you have to hold two or more very complex but incomplete maps of what may happen. This is exhausting and can seriously reduce the very limited thinking space in your prefrontal cortex and your ability to make any decisions at all.

Feeling uncertain triggers a fundamental survival instinct that activates your limbic system. This means adrenalin and norepinephrine are released by the brain and your thinking becomes pessimistic; clouded by old feelings and memories that prompt a strong ‘fight or flight’ response because the brain is remembering painful emotions and predicting problems.

So it’s really not surprising why many people don’t delegate, even when they know it’s harming their business. The uncertainty and everything that goes with it is simply too painful.

Letting Go

While there are a number of principles to effective delegation just the thought of letting go and the uncertainty that goes with it prevents many people from exploring how to expand and grow their businesses or even their role.

The key to reducing uncertainty is to recognise it and to accept it. It is perfectly normal to feel this way because it is just your brain at work and by acknowledging that it is normal your brain can relax a little. This means you avoid triggering the limbic system and keep your limited thinking space clear enough to plan and consider creative ways to communicate with, and involve, the person you want to delegate to or the people you want to influence.

If you practice noticing how uncertainty creates a feeling of threat, and say “This is just my brain” it frees you up to notice what is actually happening rather than dealing with the pessimistic predictions your brain will create if the Limbic system kicks in.

When you are delegating it is critical to be very specific about the outcome you want. If you make any assumptions you will probably create uncertainty in the person you are delegating to and limit their thinking capacity.  By involving them in a discussion about the outcome and how they think they should go about achieving it can create more certainty for both of you it also enables you both to access more thinking space for creative solutions. This all takes time but neglecting it is just asking for trouble and keeps you trapped in ‘doing it all yourself’.

Access your inner Director

In his book ‘Your brain at work’ David Rock explains how the latest research in neuroscience demonstrates the limitations of the brain and how we need to develop the skill of ‘thinking about our thinking’. This involves acquiring ‘mindfulness’: the ability to pay attention to and be fully aware of what you are experiencing in the moment, with an open and accepting mind. This gives you more mental flexibility, helps you to avoid triggering your limbic system and observe what is really happening, rather than what you are making it mean. Rock refers to this ability to think about your thinking as ‘accessing your inner Director’.

Having access to your inner Director means you can identify how your brain is responding to different situations and avoid over-reacting. But the ability to do this requires a ‘quite mind’. The quicker you can notice that you are being triggered by a lack of certainty the more you have a chance to calm yourself with a few relaxing breaths and regain access to your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that does your intuitive thinking and creative problem solving.

Learning to relax using your breath is a critical skill and a great place to start is with a Body Awareness Meditation where you take a few minutes to observe your breathing and then systematically relax your toes, feet, legs and body all the way to your head. Doing this on a regular basis will enable you to become even more aware of what you are experiencing and what is really going on around you. With raised awareness you can respond more effectively rather than just reacting to a surge of neurochemicals and emotional triggers.

I have recently had two versions of this basic relaxation meditation professionally recorded with an ambient soundscape and it will be freely available to readers of this article for a limited period.

If you are interested in improving your wellbeing, and accessing the power of raising your awareness with deep relaxation and mindfulness just follow the link below and follow the instructions.

Welcome to our special resources to help you relax and become more mindful

If you would like to know more about mindful leadership and how to improve communication, or learn about our robust yet practical system for avoiding common problems and driving performance during uncertain times please click here to book a no-obligation call to discuss your needs.


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Remember . . . stay curious!

David Klaasen

©David Klaasen – May 2016