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EPISODE 2 - DARKNESS: THE FEAR THAT ARISES FROM UNCERTAINTY

The darkness of night embodies a fundamental, existential threat of many of the fears that we carry in our brains from living life, including the viral pandemic we are currently experiencing. 

It’s the living darkness of our bedrooms after our parents turned out the lights. The pregnant darkness beyond the glow of the bonfire as we listened to stories.  The ancient darkness of the forest as we walked past deep shadows between trees. 

COVID-19 is the embodiment of the dark night. 

We cannot see what dwells beyond the here and now. We do not know for certain whether we or our loved ones will be ‘attacked’ by this ‘viral predator’. And if we or they are, whether pain - or even death - might ensue. Our heart thuds; Our eyes dart; Our pupils dilate; Our adrenaline courses because uncertainty itself (irrespective of its cause) triggers inside each of us the need to flee from the unknown to the known (real, imagined or delusional). 

So how can we deal with uncertainty?

Step One: Understand why we fear it

… because understanding can give us agency, which itself decreases the effects of stress. And not only during this pandemic. But in all situations. Understanding why things are the way they are creates the possibility of adapting to new situations that you’ve not yet experienced. Understanding enables resilience. 

To understand ‘why’ we are individually and collectively feeling the way we are in the current pandemic, we must look at how our fear of uncertainty would have helped us survive during evolution. 

Imagine our planet as it was nearly two million years ago, in particular the deadly, unpredictable expanse of East Africa, from where we all originate.  Once a flat, forested region, great tectonic shifts have caused the landscape to radically transform into a dry, mountainous topography of peaks and valleys, lake basins and plateaus.  It is a rugged world of scarce and scattered resources (food, water, tool-making materials) that has made our genetic forebears come out of the trees and in doing so become bipedal. In this time, we were not the top predator. We inhabit a changeful climate full of dangerous animals, viruses and bacteria: hippopotami bigger than our modern-day ones, wild pigs nearly as large as those hippos, vice-jawed hyenas and unseen sources of infection that seemed to ‘just happen’.  And many of these threats come at night. Hence, Li et al. (Int J Psychophysiol. 2015; 97(1):46-57) discovered that our brain is particularly sensitive at night. Wired into our circadian rhythm is an increased vigilance sensory sensitive coincident with the night. 

It was a highly unstable place in which we had very limited knowledge of sheltering, feeding, and healing ourselves. Simple illness killed you, as there were little-to-no medicines, or even the imaginable possibility of them. (While we currently do not have a vaccine to COVID-19, we have confidence that we will have one soon.). 

In such a context, it was a very bad idea for a brain to ‘not know’; knowing - was a very GOOD idea.  Life or death were determined by how good your brain could predict the future given present information. If you couldn’t predict where the next water source would be, if you couldn’t predict which plants would nourish you and which would poison you, if you didn’t recognize that shadow “over there” might be a predator … it was too late.  

Throughout evolution - as it is in life, staying alive was harder than dying simply because there are literally more ways to fail than succeed. This was the environment in which our perceptual brain evolved, the consequences of which you have literally inherited. 

Perceiving usefully was to survive

Generating perceptions that usefully predicted the future is arguably THE fundamental task that the human brain evolved to do (as well as all other living systems). So when confronted with uncertainty, we find ourselves in the exact place that our brains evolved to AVOID. Because in the moment that your brain cannot predict what will happen next, you have literally become more vulnerable. It is for this same reason that rats do NOT fear the dark. They fear the light. As nocturnal animals, they feel less threatened in darkness, since in darkness cloaks them from predators. For them, light is uncertain. 

Which means the fear your brain and body might be feeling right now - even if unconscious, is deeply natural. It is healthy. It’s what kept your ancestors alive, and has kept you alive. 

Your perceived fear is good. 

Now that you understand why your perceptions of fear are not just an expression of your most creative, intelligent self, but rather your brain’s need for certainty, embracing uncertainty in order to innovate within it, is possible – in fact essential. 

The question then becomes: 

How will you respond to your fear?

The paradox is that the perceptual mechanisms by which your brain perceives fear are the same perceptual mechanisms that will enable you to see the current state of COVID-induced uncertainty differently.

In our next blog, we'll begin to explore how your brain evolved to cope with the feeling of fear. One way is to let your brain become disempowered. Doing so changes how you will see yourself and the world around you..

 

Written by: Beau Lotto.

 

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