In praise of uncertainty Image via Pixabay

In praise of uncertainty

Research suggests we should embrace uncertainty and seek challenges wherever possible in order to improve mental capabilities and prevent cognitive decline. That does not fit with the zeitgeist: uncertainty makes nervous and anxious. Here's the plan.

“By facing our challenges and overcoming them, we grow stronger, wiser, and more compassionate", John Templeton once said. This is literally true for any physical training (we grow muscles only by overchallenging our body) but it also holds for our mental capacities. Recent research suggests that even willpower and cognitive-control abilities need challenges, novelty, and uncertainty to grow. Indeed, research in animals and humans shows that dopamine—the gasoline of rational thinking, planning ahead, motivation, and the ability to anticipate—increases as organisms are facing unexpected, difficult-to-master challenges (1). Learning to deal with uncertainties even seems to work against age-related cognitive decline, presumably by slowing-down or reducing dopaminergic decay (2).

All this suggests that we should be seeking challenges wherever we find them, but this seems to be the exact opposite of the zeitgeist: voters go for politicians whose creativity is restricted to the promise to “turn back the clock”, students are getting nervous if they cannot predict every single detail of a course, teachers are expected to consider every possible eventuality in their planning, scientists ought to predict every possible outcome of their research, administrators are required to plan ahead for years. Where has all the lust for improvisation gone? Where the Buddhist call for living in the here and now?

Simply giving in to the complexity of the modern world and the many challenges it brings to us is a possibility, but it means giving up mental growth and welcoming self-inflicted cognitive poverty and motivational shortage. Why do we do this if we can get extra dopamine and mental abilities for free? I don’t know the answer but I do know the solution: let’s go get it! If we cannot reduce the complexity of our world, and there does not seem to be the realistic plan how this could be achieved, why not simply grow the abilities we need to master it?

The plan is simple: embrace uncertainty and the opportunity it gives you to improve your mental skills. Try to be original rather than old-fashioned, try to live with unpredictable situations rather than being overly self-protective, improvise wherever possible instead of planning, and be spontaneous! Life can be jazz, and jazz can be fun!

1 Düzel, E., Bunzeck, N., Guitart-Masip, M., and Düzel, S. (2010). Novelty-related motivation of anticipation and exploration by dopamine (NOMAD): implications for healthy aging. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 660–669.

2 Hommel, B., & Kibele, A. (2016). Down with retirement: implications of embodied cognition for healthy aging. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1184.