The Uncertain Mind: How the Brain Handles the Unknown

Tara H

Hatched by Tara H

Nov 18, 2023

3 min read


The Uncertain Mind: How the Brain Handles the Unknown

Uncertainty is a common aspect of life that we all have to deal with. Whether it's the fear of job loss, health threats, or disruptions in the consumer market, uncertainty always increases cognitive load. Our brain is constantly working to process and make sense of these unknowns, but the way it handles them can vary.

One way to categorize uncertainties is by dividing them into different types. Known-Knowns are uncertainties that we are aware of and can plan for. For example, if we know that there is a high possibility of a layoff at our company, we can make a plan for how to deal with it. We can update our resume, start networking, and explore other job opportunities. By taking action, we are better prepared to face the known-unknown.

Known-Unknowns, on the other hand, are uncertainties that we know exist, but where we don't have enough knowledge to make a plan. It's like standing at a crossroads without a map. We may not know if our company will be acquired in the future, or we may be considering leaving our job to pursue a venture of our own. While we are aware of the inherent uncertainties, we can't make a step-by-step plan because we don't have enough data yet. In these situations, it's important to explore our assumptions and identify biases in our decision-making process. By challenging our assumptions and seeking more information, we can turn these known-unknowns into known-knowns.

Unknown-Knowns are uncertainties that we're not aware of but that we tacitly understand. These can lead to biases and assumptions in our decisions. Sometimes, we may act based on a gut feeling or intuition without fully understanding why. It's important to be mindful of these hidden facts and examine the reasoning behind our choices. By bringing these unknown-knowns to the surface, we can make more informed decisions and avoid falling into cognitive traps.

Finally, there are the Unknown-Unknowns. These are uncertainties that we are completely unaware of. They are risks that come from situations that are so unexpected that they would not be considered. For example, a new technology may be developed that makes our product obsolete, or a global pandemic may disrupt the entire economy. While it's impossible to predict or plan for every unknown-unknown, we can still take steps to minimize their impact. Conducting market research and using strategic intelligence can help us uncover blind spots and prepare for unexpected events. However, it's important to acknowledge that there will always be events we could not have predicted.

In order to navigate the uncertain landscape of life, here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Challenge your assumptions: Take the time to reflect on your beliefs and assumptions about the uncertainties you face. Are there biases or preconceived notions that are influencing your decision-making process? By acknowledging and challenging these assumptions, you can make more objective and informed choices.
  • 2. Gather more information: When faced with known-unknowns, conduct experiments or gather data to close knowledge gaps. This will help you turn the unknowns into knowns and create a clearer path forward. Don't be afraid to seek out new sources of information or consult with experts in the field.
  • 3. Be adaptable and resilient: While it's impossible to predict or plan for every unknown-unknown, you can develop a mindset of adaptability and resilience. Embrace change and uncertainty as opportunities for growth. Build a support network, cultivate a growth mindset, and be open to new possibilities. By developing these skills, you can better navigate unknown-unknowns and bounce back from unexpected events.

In conclusion, the uncertain mind is a complex and ever-evolving landscape. Our brain processes and handles uncertainties in different ways, depending on whether they are known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-knowns, or unknown-unknowns. By challenging assumptions, gathering more information, and cultivating adaptability, we can navigate the uncertainty with greater clarity and resilience. While we may never be able to eliminate all unknown-unknowns, we can develop strategies to minimize their impact and thrive in the face of the unknown.

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