How the neuroscience of uncertainty can help you make better decisions

How the neuroscience of uncertainty can help you make better decisions

When you hear the word “insecurity” what do you feel? Fear, anxiety, excitement or challenge? As humans, we have a dichotomy of needs; part of us needs to feel safe, secure and have a certain routine, and another part needs variety and opportunity.

Life presents us with uncertainty and change, and this has been true even more than usual in the last three years. With many global challenges still ongoing, we are likely to face even more unknowns – so we should get used to how to manage them.

We need to hack into how our brains actually respond and detect uncertainty. When we understand this, we can learn to let go of what we can’t control—and improve our decision-making. So how do we detect uncertainty and which part of the brain is responsible for it?

Scientists have discovered that norepinephrine is a key chemical involved in our response to uncertainty. Noradrenaline is a neuromodulator; it works in the brain by affecting the inhibitory or excitatory signals that brain cells receive.

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To investigate the role of noradrenaline when we face uncertain events, MIT scientists conducted an interesting experiment on mice. The animals were forced to press the lever down when they heard the high frequency and were rewarded with a drink of water. They also learned that they would receive an unpleasant blast of air if the lever was activated while playing a low-frequency noise. Simple enough. But the researchers also added an element of uncertainty, sequencing audio where the frequency was unclear.

From this experiment, the researchers found that a small region of the brainstem called the locus coeruleus—an area that modulates noradrenaline—was crucial for detecting uncertainty. When the high frequency was clear and reward was expected for the mice, their norepinephrine release was small. But when the frequency was not clear and the reward was a surprise, the release was much greater. However, overall, mice were less likely to respond and press the lever down when the reward was uncertain.

The conclusion of the study: mouse brains have learned to deal with different levels of uncertainty – and that the locus coeruleus may be key to this process.

Another study – this time with humans – conducted at University College London added two more neuromodulators, acetylcholine and dopamine, to the list of chemicals known to regulate our response to uncertainty. After conducting an experiment that asked participants to predict changing sequences of symbols, they found that acetylcholine helps us adapt to how our environment changes, and dopamine triggers us to take action.

With every decision in the midst of uncertainty, there is a balance between risk and loss, and while these chemicals underlie the process of how we detect, adapt, and act, there is also a process occurring in one particular area of ​​the brain, the anterior prefrontal cortex, that has a huge impact on our ability to make decisions with.

It is this area that Tel Aviv University researchers discovered dictates our avoidance behavior when we are stressed. They found that subjects’ neurons here responded much more to loss (a negative outcome) than to gain (a reward outcome) when they had them play a computer game that involved risk and opportunity. If the subject lost, it triggered a response in their hippocampus—a brain region involved in the process of memory and feelings of anxiety—and they began to take more risks.

This helps us to understand our reluctance to expose ourselves to uncertainty in life and how we are sometimes reluctant to make big decisions.

The way our brain deals with uncertainty plays a key role in how we approach life. Once we understand that our cognitive and emotional responses to uncertainty are a natural human process, perhaps these big decisions can seem less intimidating—and we can make better decisions.

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