Werner Heisenberg is driving down the interstate when he sees flashing lights in his rear view mirror.
Heisenberg does what any of us would do: he pulls over, and starts to feel his anxiety level creep up.
The cop walks up to the side of the car, taps the end of his flashlight on the window, one, two, three times.
Heisenberg rolls down his window, “Yes, officer?”
“Did you know you were going 65 miles per hour?” asks the officer.
“Well, fuck,” says Heisenberg. “Now I don’t know where the fuck I am.”
That is my favourite physics joke.
And yes, I have a favourite physics joke because I’m a weirdo like that.
If you got the joke and are laughing your ass off right now, and see exactly where I am going with this…
Farewell. Thanks for listening. See you back here next week.
But if you didn’t get the joke and you’re wondering, “Wtf is this girl on about?” then keep listening.
…after a brief word from our sponsor…
Us mortals do not do very well with uncertainty. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that mortals find uncertainty to be rather troubling.
Dennis Lindley, the English statisician wrote in his book Understanding Uncertainty:
“There are some things that you know to be true, and others that you know to be false; yet, despite this extensive knowledge that you have, there remain many things whose truth or falsity is not known to you. We say that you are uncertain about them. You are uncertain, to varying degrees, about everything in the future; much of the past is hidden from you; and there is a lot of the present about which you do not have full information. Uncertainty is everywhere and you cannot escape from it.”
Yet, we all try to escape from it.
Entire industries, philosophies, technologies, and all of the world’s religions have been built to help us deal with uncertainty and answer the questions that we feel like we must have an answer to.
- Who are we?
- Where are we from?
- Why are we here?
- Where are we going?
But uncertainty is more than not having answers to these big questions. Uncertainty is also about having answers to questions like “will it rain tomorrow?” and answers to even less important questions, too, like “what’s for dinner?”
Uncertainty is ever evolving and changes as our field of vision, knowledge, and awareness evolve.
Before the pandemic most of us felt relatively certain about where we’re going and what we’re doing (to varying degrees).
I may not have had my 5 year plan dialed in, but I was fairly certain that in 2020 my consulting agency would hit a new milestone, and that I would be able to replace myself in the business.
Before COVID, most of us felt a degree of certainty about our jobs, and our incomes, and our homes.
We felt certain about who in our friend circle we liked and didn’t like.
We felt certain about who we aligned with politically, philosophically, and spiritually, and about with whom we were discordant.
We felt certain about our habits and routines. We were relatively certain about what we would probably eat for dinner in the coming week, and what we would watch next on Netflix.
We felt certain that things would keep on keeping on… pretty much the way they had been.
We felt certain that if something major was going to change in our lives it would be because of something we did, or something that someone we knew did to us.
For many of us, the biggest potential threat looming on the horizon had to do with our partner leaving, our kid getting kicked out of school, or that we’d tell our boss to shove it and suddenly be out of a job.
And then the shutdowns happened.
Threats became much more immediate, and much more imposing.
States shutdown. Businesses closed their doors either temporarily or permanently — in my case. People’s livelihoods were under attack.
Shoppers were fighting for food and toilet paper. Kids were suddenly home from school. all. the. time.
We found ourselves agreeing with people we previously thought were assholes, and people we used to believe were kind and rational were suddenly raging assholes.
The world was flipped on its head.
All of a sudden, the things we were certain about were suddenly frightfully unclear.
Much digital ink has been spilled in the last 12 months on stories and social media posts that foment anxiety by playing into our natural fear of uncertainty.
The media — both mainstream media and social media — fuelled our fear of the great, immediate, imposing, unknown: the mysterious Coronavirus, and the vaccine.
While it feels like things are more uncertain than ever because of the Coronavirus, the vaccine, and the brand new Biden administration, this is because us mortals can’t see the big picture.
We can’t see all the chess pieces.
We don’t know how bad things really are, or how good things really are, either.
We don’t know who we can trust or what we can believe. We don’t know what’s truth and what’s propaganda. We don’t know when things will return to normal. We don’t know what it will really take to make things go back to normal.
And, as if that weren’t bad enough, it’s impossible to know who to trust because it appears everyone has an agenda which only increases these feelings of uncertainty and fear.
But, I would like to remind you that living in uncertain times is not new. In fact, on the whole, we have never lived in more certain times.
We have never in the history of man had more knowledge at our fingertips. We live in a time where the world’s knowledge is at our finger tips on our smart phones, our laptops, our tablets.
And not just ours; almost anyone can learn anything for FREE on the internet.
Anybody with a smart phone and a data plan can learn anything, become anyone, reinvent themselves, and transform their life.
We can lean into the unknown; we can lean into uncertainty. We can harness the fact that we don’t know a lot; we don’t know what we don’t know, and we can use this as fuel to grow, and evolve…as we have been doing for millennia.
The big underlying problem with uncertainty is that it causes stress and anxiety. Mortals have a deep and abiding fear of the unknown, and our brains are programmed to be this way.
In 2015, a team of researchers conducted a study to chart the amount of stress induced on participants as a result of uncertainty.
Participants played a video game in which they had to figure out which rocks were hiding snakes. If they uncovered a snake, they were given an electric shock. Not surprisingly, participants were highly motivated to figure out where the snakes were.
The participants self-reported their stress levels throughout the game, and the researchers also tracked physiological markers of their stress response.
The primary finding was that when the odds were equal and there was a 50% chance of getting shocked or a 50% chance of not getting shocked, the stress levels peaked. Participants were more stressed about not knowing if they were going to get shocked than they were when they knew for certain that they would get shocked.
The striatum (or reward centre) of the brain is a primitive structure that propels us towards positive outcomes and also steers us away from negative outcomes, and it also calculates the chances of a positive outcome or a negative outcome.
When the chances are 50/50, the striatum becomes flooded with dopamine, and it tries to tilt the scales towards the positive outcome by activating the sympathetic nervous system: your fight vs flight response. Your body becomes flooded with cortisol, your heart speeds up a little bit, your breathing becomes quicker and shallower, and it’s more difficult to use your peripheral vision.
Over time, we (generally) become psychologically programmed to go out of our way to avoid situations, circumstances, and people who trigger uncertainty. We recognise the cues in our body and go above and beyond to avoid feeling them.
(An aside, this doesn’t hold true for gambling addicts who are addicted to the flood of dopamine that rushes into the striatum when the odds are 50/50.)
But the uncertainty that precipitates the hormone changes is deeply uncomfortable for most people. This is why most people tend to avoid deep friendships and personal relationships with those they disagree with politically. The continual reminder that someone they love has a profoundly different opinion calls into question their own beliefs. And if the relationship can’t be avoided entirely, the political topics will be.
Think for a minute about how many people with whom you disagree politically are in your immediate circle. Parents, siblings, cousins. They’re still your family, and you still have to associate with them, but the conversation is so uncomfortable that you avoid it completely.
This is why. Your brain doesn’t deal well with the underlying uncertainty the disagreements raise.
We are physiologically built — and psychological programmed — to be uncomfortable with uncertainty and to divert all of our mental and physical resources to become certain.
But, what we need to understand is that uncertainty isn’t the enemy.
Uncertainty is neither good nor bad. It simply is. And it is unavoidable because the more you are certain about, the less you actually know.
The joke at the beginning of the episode is about Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Werner Heisenberg was a theoretical physicist, and in 1927 he published his paper about the Uncertainty Principle in which he posits that the more certain you are about the position of a particle, the less certain you are about the momentum of it.
I find that tends to hold true in other areas. The more certain we are about something, the less we actually know. There is always another rabbit hole to go down.
Luckily, there is some good news in all of this.
Uncertainty cannot influence our behaviour, attitude, and world view all on its own.
Uncertainty can only influence us because we have imaginations.
Think about the last time you felt uncertain about anything.
Your mind didn’t stay there, sitting with the simple knowledge that you don’t know…
Your mind reeled.
Your imagination ran wild.
Your imagination concocted wild fantasies and daunting nightmares about the potential outcomes of whatever you were feeling uncertain about.
It’s the fantasies, the nightmares, that give rise to anxiety; to turmoil.
If you were able to simply sit with the knowledge that you don’t know what you don’t know, and then switch the stream in your mind and watch something else, uncertainty (or, really, your imagination) wouldn’t cause you any pain.
You would simply move on. You would break the loop.
Uncertainty would no longer be the enemy.
It would simply be.
And, while this is a difficult mental habit to master, it is one worth cultivating because uncertainty is inevitable. When we focus our energy on reducing uncertainty and increasing control, we obscure our view of reality. We become distracted from the true nature of ourselves, the true nature of the world around us, and the true nature of the universe.
All of our efforts to manage certainty, reduce risk, and avoid suffering are ultimately futile because suffering — dukkha (as us Buddhists call it) — is part of the mortal experience. It’s how our souls grow. It’s how we expand, and it’s how we step into our destiny.
Uncertainty is both inevitable and necessary. Learning to surrender and let go is part of our karma. It’s one of the innate spiritual lessons we are here on this Earth to learn.
The next time your mind reels and your imagination runs wild because you are riddled with uncertainty and fear, try to take a deep breath and let it go. Repeat to yourself, “Everything is. And what’s meant to be will be.”
Try to sit back and enjoy the ride because at the end, none of us are getting out of here alive, and we certainly don’t need to make the ride rockier by frantically grasping to understand all of the things.