Embrace the Unknown


Written by Meng Zhang and Elena Panagiotopoulou

1300 words

“I don’t like change; I’m afraid of change.” If you haven’t uttered these words out loud recently, then you’ve almost certainly felt the powerful sentiment they capture. Few people can honestly say they embrace change at every juncture of their lives. Most of the time change is mildly uncomfortable; on some occasions it can be utterly debilitating. 

Countless times I have found myself staring into the unknown, hesitating, gripped by intense and unsettling currents of anxiety and fear; yet, in parallel, experiencing something else: temptation, flashes of confidence, the hidden urge to leap forward.

If this is how powerful change can be for someone like me, spare a thought for those with metathesiophobia (or neophobia) or some individuals on the autistic spectrum for whom the smallest thing that deviates from their routine can feel like a major disruption. 

If we think about it, change itself would not be scary if it didn’t bring with it a host of other feelings: the uncertainty, the haziness, the puzzlement and confusion. Huineng once said: “Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.” Similarly, one can think of change as the finger pointing to something bigger, scarier - that is uncertainty and the feelings associated with it. A fear of the unknown – rather than the fear of change – is what we are truly afraid of.

Like it or not, change is both inevitable and necessary. Shifting our aim, perspective and direction is sometimes essential to find our purpose and, ultimately, our true self. Yet, one fundamental question emerges: if change is so imperative, why are most of us afraid of it? Why do some of us retreat into our comfort zone, whilst others venture ahead? What is happening to our body in these moments?

In every-day life, most people have an inbuilt calculator, making decisions by weighing up possible outcomes and consequences of their actions. We’re constantly making decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. Countless studies have shown that people are naturally inclined to be averse to loss. The psychologists Amon Tversky and Daniel Kahneman - whose work won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics - argued that psychologically, losses are twice as powerful as gains.

Yet, uncertainty is a factor that, when added to the equation, makes things even more complicated. People are generally averse to losses when they know the probabilities of an outcome. However, when the outcome probabilities are completely unknown to them and decisions are made in the face of uncertainty, then people actually fear the uncertain outcome even more than a potential loss. Therefore, it appears that the unknown is scarier than the known, even if the known entails losses and the unknown may work out favourably.

Evidence for the above claim is provided by a recent UCL study funded by the Medical Research Council. In this study, 45 participants played a computerised game and were told that they would either “definitely” or “probably” receive a painful electric shock. The results revealed an intriguing paradox. Volunteers who knew they would definitely receive a painful electric shock were significantly less stressed and felt calmer when compared to those who were told that they only had a 50% chance of getting shocked. This difference in stress levels was not only self-reported but was also physiologically measured: people who felt uncertain sweat more and their pupils got bigger, which means that they did not just think they were more stressed, they actually were.

Humans are naturally risk adverse. Yet, we must look at uncertainty from a rounded view, and admire its advantages. Uncertainty enables us to avoid potentially harmful situations and understand how we can prevent negative circumstances from arising – at least ones that are in our control. Fear of uncertainty kept our ancestors alive; it is an adaptive advantage in certain circumstances. However, it can hold us back when we stick too closely to our comfort zone and merely follow the familiar.

We need to trust our inquisitive instincts and acknowledge that fear is a natural response to the unknown. Our body has a way to mitigate and counter fear; one key attribute of this being the brain’s elasticity. This function enables us to learn and develop from uncertainty, spurring us forward. The brain is constantly adjusting a set of models based on our experience that help predict how the world around us works. A mismatch between prediction and what actually happens creates a moment of uncertainty and this is registered in the brain as an error. No one likes errors – not even our brains and this leads to our confusion and discomfort when faced with an unknown situation. There are two options to correct this “error” and return to our consistent mental state. The first is to avoid uncertain situations, retreating to our comfort zone. The second is to embrace the uncertain; which is more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding.

When we embrace uncertainty and immerse ourselves in a new situation, the brain is consequently put into a stressful state. However, the stress that comes with uncertainty is not as counter-productive as we may think. In the UCL study previously mentioned, people whose stress responses spiked the most at periods of great uncertainty actually performed better at the task they were given. Moreover, in another study published in Neuron last year, it was found that uncertain situations were associated with increased activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as compared with situations in which the outcome was certain. This suggests that uncertainty activates our brain more and helps us learn. From an evolutionary perspective, uncertainty appears to offer an advantage and we should definitely not overlook this if we want to improve and fulfil our potential. The more we exercise our brain this way, the less stressful it will become when we face uncertainty in the future.

Another natural function of our brain to counter fear in uncertainty is our tendency towards positivity in predictions. Well known examples of positive predictions including 75% of drivers believe they are more skilled than average, and more than 80% entrepreneurs believe their venture will survive for more than 5 years despite the fact that only 25% of all start-ups on average last for more than 5 years.

If we are rewarded in a stressful situation after persisting through it, then our uncertainty is transformed into a positive experience. A positive outcome leads to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which, in turn, makes you want to seek more reward. If we try and incorporate stress into an enjoyable end result, we can alleviate fear, contributing to a positive feedback loop. Overall, it is about channelling fear and uncertainty into productivity and learning; which can generate positive emotions rather than negative ones. Transforming our perception of fear is fundamental to our personal growth.

Embracing the uncertain can lead to loss but making mistakes and learning from them is the only way we can truly learn. Staying comfortable in a sterilised and protected environment will certainly not bring about growth, progress or wisdom. Intuition is an important guide, and if you lean into feelings of fear, eventually you will overcome your internal narrative and trust that the best situations will arise from taking a leap of faith. Life can be summarised as a journey, with knowledge and insight gleaned from our experiences, which is inherently valuable. Despite the fact that certain situations can make us uncomfortable, they will ultimately enable us to grow.

Indeed, there is a fine line between stability and stasis.