If You're Miserable Before The Election This Is Why
Rethinking the brain's relation to the uncertain.
Posted November 2, 2020
I've worked intensively on two presidentials, at the White House, and for political consultants.
I’m now a neuropsychologist and my research and treatment of patients focus on two things:
- How anxiety affects the brain and behavior
- How behavior unfolds in systems—our communities, our jobs, and, most intimately, our families and romantic relationships.
As my thinking about the brain has evolved, I have come to see that the single greatest force in our lives is Uncertainty. It’s hard to overstate how much the human brain hates uncertainty. This may seem strange. But like gravity, it’s always the unseen forces that have the most profound effects on our lives.
It’s difficult, in a brief post, to describe the extent to which the human brain finds the uncertain intolerable, but—suffice it to say—experiment after experiment demonstrates that we literally prefer the pain of an electric shock to the darkness of unknowing.
Uncertainty is so distressing because the thing—the one thing—we need to know is: "What’s next?" Sure, we can bear pain; we can take insults; we can weather disappointment, but, no, not uncertainty.
Because uncertainty threatens to torch a world that, only moments ago, seemed intimately safe. Moments ago, you knew exactly how the world was supposed to work, how safe you were and, most importantly, you alone knew what was true and what was not.
There’s another important angle to our relationship with uncertainty. For the world to be certain, others must perform based on our personal scripts about how they should do it. And so with desperation in our hearts and breath in our throats, we climb into our personal pulpits and shout another peaceless reading from the holy gospel of “The Way It Should All Go According to Me.” We shriek at our screens and smack our keyboards, thinking maybe this time—at long last—they’ll finally see it exactly as I always told them it was.
But it was the damndest thing, here I was trying to get you to play the starring role in a production you weren’t even interested in auditioning for.
And so there we were, red-faced, blustery; exhausted and afraid. We truly believed that our relentless, sarcastic, smug critiques of other people’s lousy ideas would bring them the redemption our perspectives alone could deliver: "No, you idiot, this way to the light." It was an act of salvation--or so we thought. In this age of dysregulated finger-pointing, we're so invested in the behavior of others, we've failed to identify the biggest crisis of all: our inability to control ourselves.
It is a wild, wild act of bravery to self-regulate in times of high stress. In a moment when the brain is screaming for fighting and fleeing, it can feel like a certain—and humiliating—death to sit still, to move slowly, to speak gently.
But research into the anxious brain tells us that the very cure we seek is often counterintuitive. In other words, to beat anxiety the best scientific evidence tells us to consider the opposite of our initial reflexive response. At this moment, the act of being radically responsible for ourselves—for the words we choose, the things we do, and, probably, more importantly, the things we don't—is not just our best, but our only instrument for the change we hope to bring.
God bless us, everyone. On the eve of this election, I hope we all find the strength of Softness, the virtue of Slowness, and the wisdom of Silence.