We Have To Lean In To Uncertainty: How Ancient Brains Can Meet Modern Problems

judetrederwolff
6 min readApr 5, 2024

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Things that were normal in 1995: Phone books. Phone booths. Having to remember phone numbers. Paper maps. Dropping off actual film to be developed into actual photographs. A weird thing called waiting.

Everything happens faster now. We communicate with more fellow humans ever before, and continually adapt our daily activities to this ever-changing technological wonderland taking over nearly every system that makes our lives work. We also upgrade our devices and adapt to new systems faster than ever before. But modern advances in technology — and the way they can rapidly and abruptly transform our work and home lives — still have to be processed by our ancient brains, which do not evolve rapidly. With each disruption comes opportunity but also trauma and grief, as the irrevocable loss of the world we knew — and the identity we had within it — is shaken.

A recent article titled “A Creative New Normal: Who Can We Be In 20 Years?” in the Journal Of Creativity makes a powerful argument for embracing this as an opportunity to claim and cultivate our creativity right now, in order to shape our reality equally as much as are shaped by it. This is a direction we can take at any time. Right now would be perfect. We can, as improviser and author Robert Poynton writes “act ourselves into a new way of thinking.” Here is why we must use our creative capacities to respond to the unfamiliar and unknown:

When we have to process a great deal of change in a short period of time we can wind up with an ongoing sense of threat — a stress response with no “all clear” signal from the outside world. That “all clear” will never come from a world of unprecedented disruption that brings only more change and uncertainty. But there is a way to live with this level of uncertainty: lean into it. This means more than accepting uncertainty as part of a continually-changing landscape. It means a conscious, expansive willingness to engage with it for the gifts we might discover through doing that. It means saying “yes” to our own creativity, which taps the cognitive/thinking, emotional and imaginative brain in an integrated way.

When a negative heightened emotional reaction is triggered, the prefrontal lobes perform a risk/benefit assessment of possible reactions, e.g. attack, ran, placate, persuade, seek sympathy, stonewall, guilt trip, be contemptuous, show of bravado. The cognitive “committee” has a decision to make about how to respond. When the stress response is activated, the default mode is negative and self-protective. Creative experiences redirect the uncertainty and the vulnerability it can trigger to make a weird and wonderful field of choices available. When that creative experience is in the realm of improv, an entirely different way of thinking is in play. The weird choices are embraced, the non-rational, non-linear exploration of an idea encouraged. This liberation can have a galvanizing effect on our mood, and research shows that improv games and exercises specifically are creative experiences with mood-boosting impact.

Like a palette of colors with which to paint a blank canvas, improv exercises are a way to strengthen the psychological “muscles” of playing with uncertainty and finding out what can happen when we go beyond what is comfortable and familiar. Improv involves a degree of risk, but low-key and low-stakes. We will discover how “scripted” we tend to be, and figure out how to shake that off layer by layer through a direct, immediate experience that engages our creative capacity enough that we realize a “win” rapidly. This is an important positive counter to the dread and fear that our ancient brains send as a signal that we are unsafe when there is a great deal of uncertainty. With improv we can make a weird move, find a fun take on the same old thing, and that shift alone can substitute the survival brain’s focus on fight, flight or hide with interest and attention to what is fun and engaging about the new and unknown.

Improv is a direct, immediate way to embrace uncertainty, because it takes place in the zone of the unknown. Most importantly, however, it centers on our capacity to shift out of the ancient, survival brain functions to our creative “design” brain and emotional intelligence in a creative way. Studies show that engaging with play can refocus the challenge of the unexpected and activate the brain functions associated with reward. With improv games, the reward is baked into the experience itself. They are designed to make the activity itself satisfying and exciting, one that registers as a “win.” The combined sense of togetherness — the “we” that supports the “me”- with the experience of a win upgrades our ancient brains for modern problems. The skills that earned the win more memorable and accessible in real-life scenarios.

With less time to reflect and stabilize between disruptions, our ancient brain can remain "on alert" much of the time, narrowing the field of attention to threats and an abiding sense of fear. The physical and psychological exhaustion of this constant tension limits our capacity to take in the new information we need and the emotional elasticity to deal with the problems we would have no way of predicting because they rise out of these new, emerging circumstances.

When under threat, the desire to control as much as possible is only natural. But when control is not possible because the threats are too many at once or beyond our sphere of influence, that desire will be quickly frustrated and trigger anxiety and depression. Control is rigid and defensive, contribution and collaboration are fluid and expansive. Our brains are exquisitely designed to sense and react to all possible threats — of which great uncertainty can easily be perceived — but we can learn to redirect this response to curiosity and connection to fellow players, transforming it into a shared creative adventure. We practice letting go of control, and focus instead on contributing to the unfolding game or scene. Both require focus, intention, and active engagement. And studies show that the direct relationship between curiosity and creativity makes this a natural and useful one.

The games and exercises that train us to co-create in real time — which is what makes improv a unique art form — take us far enough out of our comfort zone that we must manage some degree of the unknown, but not so far that we shut down. Similar to mountain climbers that practice climbing up and then down in ever-higher altitudes to prepare for an approach to the summit, we can push the limits of a natural need to know what will happen next while staying emotionally grounded

Through creative experiences that have an element of discovery and fun, we activate the emotional brain in a positive way that boosts well-being while expanding awareness of many possible choices. And in the face of uncertainty, all we really need is the capacity to choose something, without overthinking it and with willingness to make a shift if that choice turns out to be a mistake.

We cannot predict a world that is unfolding in entirely new ways all the time, but we can prepare. We can get more agile and adaptable and explore beyond the boundaries of our scripted selves.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI is a creative arts therapist, improviser, applied improviser and storyteller. Her solo show FASTER — about how the pace of change is messing with our heads and what love has to do with how we deal with it — is in the 2024 New York Fringe Festival

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judetrederwolff

LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs