Future Fear: Why Uncertainty Leads To Anxiety

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

2. Certainty

Our brains are constantly trying to predict the future, based on known patterns of behaviour. When you activate muscles to take a step forward your brain predicts the sensory information that should be forthcoming, and assuming all is well and that this pattern is matched by reality then the whole experience further reinforces the expected pattern and you continue with your next action or thought.

This prediction system allows the brain to operate much more efficiently – instead of carefully and consciously evaluating every single nerve sensation received on each step our brain compares the signals to the expected pattern. If it matches then very little energy is expended. However, if it detects a mismatch then we suddenly go in to ‘error’ mode, and our attention is rapidly switched to the situation to decide what to do next, along with the production of stress hormones, i.e. the threat response. For example, if our foot lands on a banana skin and starts sliding we become rapidly and consciously aware of what is happening in order to decide what to do about it. (Hawkins, 2004).

Because this prediction is so much more efficient, we have evolved to crave certainty. Even slightly uncertain situations (perhaps an unknown surface to walk on, a slightly different type of maths problem, or meeting a new person) redirects the brain’s attention away from one’s goals in an effort to concentrate on finding new patterns, and greater certainty. (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006)

Of course uncertainty is also necessary for learning because the brain’s ‘error’ response is responsible for forming new patterns.

“Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention: new and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increase levels of adrenalin and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems”
(‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009)

However, if there are multiple sources of uncertainty then attention cannot be focused on learning so effectively.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Every new problem we pose in the classroom poses some sort of uncertainty. As teachers we are aware that we can begin a lesson in an unexpected way in order to focus attention, but we also know that we should have consistent expectations and routines in order to decrease stress. It is a difficult balancing act and the mark of the talented professional is one who can create the optimum level of uncertainty at all times for each student. However, it is worth realising that if a student comes in to the room who is experiencing uncertainty in other parts of their life then they won’t be able to fully engage in the lesson or learn effectively. We can reduce uncertainty stress by ensuring that students have a clear map of the future learning, and are aware of any future changes well in advance.

School Leadership

Teachers face uncertainty every time they step in to a classroom. With a difficult class the teacher’s stress levels are raised from the very start as they cannot be sure what will happen. IT-failure, fire bells and late-comers all increase anxiety no matter how experienced we are. A looming threat of inspection, uncertain job prospects, or lack of clarity about routines can decrease teacher’s creativity and enjoyment. Leaders can help reduce these problems with clear timetables and expectations, road maps for the future, and clarity about when and where inspections will take place.

Education Policy

Schools will have more opportunity to be creative and effective in a certain political climate. Endless changes of policy create anxiety and reviews that fail to deliver on time exacerbate the problem. Policy leaders should create clear roadmaps and timetables and stick to them clearly. Policies should not be changed too often or else people will be anxious when engaging with any current set of rules as they will fear their work will go out of date.

Summary

  • Our brains crave certainty. Every unexpected outcome creates stress. A small amount is useful for learning, a large amount is debilitating.
  • Creativity and learning will be blocked with too much uncertainty or too many sources of it. Reduce stress with transparency, share rationales, publicise changes in advance, and break complex processes down in to smaller steps.

Bibliography

  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Hawkins, J. & Blakeslee, S. (2004). On Intelligence. Times Books.
  • Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2006). The ebb and flow of attention in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 863-865.

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