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A Hunger for Certainty

Your brain craves certainty and avoids uncertainty like it's pain

One of the more useful insights that emerged for me from five years of interviewing neuroscientists was an understanding of the brain's own goals. When I began to see what it is the brain seems to want, many aspects of the world started to make much more sense.

There are five goals that seem to be very important to the brain (not including the basic goal of keeping you alive, and physical goals like maintaining food and water etc.) These five goals form a framework I call the SCARF model. Last week I wrote about one of these goals in a post on Status. This week I will write about the need for certainty. It turns out your brain craves certainty in a similar way, and using similar circuits, for how we crave food, sex and other primary rewards. Information is rewarding.

A sense of uncertainty about the future generates a strong threat or 'alert' response in your limbic system. Your brain detects something is wrong, and your ability to focus on other issues diminishes. Your brain doesn't like uncertainty - it's like a type of pain, something to be avoided. Certainty on the other hand feels rewarding, and we tend to steer toward it, even when it might be better for us to remain uncertain.

A vast prediction machine
Think of the brain as a prediction machine. Massive neuronal resources are devoted to predicting what will

happen each moment. Jeff Hawkins (pictured at left), inventor of the Palm Pilot and more recently founder of a neuroscience institute, explains the brain's predilection for prediction in his book On Intelligence: He writes, "Your 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... Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neo-cortex, and the foundation of intelligence."

You don't just hear; you hear and predict what should come next. You don't just see; you predict what you should be seeing moment to moment. This predictive capacity, however, involves far more than just your five senses. Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief says that there are around 40 environmental cues you can consciously pay attention to at any time. Subconsciously this number is over two-million. That's a huge amount of data that can be used for prediction. The brain likes to know what is going on by recognizing patterns in the world. It likes to feel certain.

Like an addiction to anything, when the craving for certainty is met, there is a sensation of reward. At low levels, for example predicting where your foot will land as you walk, the reward is often unnoticeable (except when your foot doesn't land the way you had predicted, which equates with uncertainty.) The pleasure of prediction is more acute when you listen to music based on repeating patterns. The ability to predict, and then obtain data that meets those predictions, generates an overall toward response. It's part of the reason that mind games like solitaire, Sudoku and crosswords are enjoyable. They give you a little rush from creating more certainty in the world, in a safe way. Some people prefer cleaning the house or organizing their files to get the same kind of reward.

Selling the perception of more certainty
There are entire industries devoted to resolving larger uncertainties: from shop-front palm readers, to the mythical "black boxes" that can supposedly predict stock trends and make investors millions. Some parts of accounting and consulting make their money by helping executives experience a perception of increasing certainty, through strategic planning and "forecasting". While the financial markets of 2008 showed once again that the future is inherently uncertain, the one thing that's certain is that people will pay lots of money to at least feel less uncertain. That's because uncertainty feels, to the brain, like a threat to your life.

When you can't predict the outcome of a situation, an alert goes to the brain to pay more attention. A threat response occurs. A 2005 study found that just a little ambiguity on its own lights up the amygdale. The more ambiguity, the more threat response, and the less reward response there was in the ventral striatum. Think about someone you have spoken to a few times by phone, but never met or seen a picture of. You feel a mild uncertainty about them, yet even this tiny uncertainty seems to alter your interactions: notice how differently you interact once you know what that person looks like. Uncertainty is like an inability to create a complete map of a situation. With parts missing, you're not as comfortable as when the map is complete.

Too many futures to plan

The brain likes to think ahead and picture the future, mapping out how things will be, not just for each moment, but also for the longer term. It gets complex when there's two possible outcomes. Imagine expecting a colleague to phone you at 3pm. It's now 3.06pm. You automatically start to try to predict two futures: if he calls now, will he apologize? What made him late? Is he okay? And if he doesn't call, what should you now do with your spare hour? Flitting between these different ideas is exhausting, your brain wants to settle on one idea, not keep shifting between possible futures.

A hunger for information, just for the sake of it.
Jonah Lehrer coined a phrase I really like, called 'Information Craving'. The idea is that we crave information for the sake of it. Often that information doesn't make us more effective or adaptive, it just reduces a sense of uncertainty. Scientific American Mind magazine goes so far as to call this an 'information addiction', explainingh the chemistry of this addition in a October 2009 article. It's all about the burst of dopamine we get when a circuit is completed. It feels good - but that doesn't mean it's good for us all the time.

All of this explains many otherwise strange phenomenon. Knowing that we automatically avoid uncertainty explains why any kind of change can be hard - it's inherently uncertain. It explains why we prefer things we know over things that might be more fun, or better for us, but are new and therefore uncertain. It explains why we prefer the certainty of focusing on problems and finding answers in data from the past, rather than risking the uncertainty of new, creative solutions.

I hope this week's post has helped you be more certain about your own brain and how to get the best out of it at work. Please feel free to share any comments and feedback.

PS: If you'd like to be more certain about certainty, there's several further resources to check out. One is my new book Your Brain at Work (Some of the writing in this post is from there). You can also download the original scientific paper on the SCARF model with a full list of references. There's also a paper called 'Managing with the brain in mind' on the organizational implications of the SCARF model.

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