S1E17 Uncertainty

Does it ever seem as though life feels too uncertain at times? In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete address the science behind uncertainty, and why evolution selected for brains to assume that not knowing something is equivalent to danger. They explore how western behavioral science and eastern spirituality both help humans to accept what we don't know (even when we inaccurately believe that planning will help us know the future). Tune in to learn more about how to interact more effectively with uncertainty.




Nikki: We are living in some really uncertain times right now, Pete, do you agree?

Pete: Well, haven't we always? There goes my Zen

Nikki: Well, I'm glad you said it, because that's also what I've been saying. I started that way, because I'm hearing that phrase a lot, we're living in uncertain times, I'm hearing it in my personal life, I'm hearing it...

Pete: Guess what, you'd even pay me for that.

Nikki: I did it. Quite a little, we just had a little ESP there. So people are saying, 'they',

Pete: 'They', you sound like my mom.

Nikki: These people when they say, "they say this", I'm like, "Who is this?" but I'm going to use it right now as well. 'They' are saying that we're living in uncertain times. And he responded by saying, "aren't we always?" I agree with that. I'm wondering if you could, in talking about uncertainty today and the topic of this podcast. What do you mean by that?

Pete: Let me bring in the east. How's that, Nikki?

Nikki: Yeah, bring the east.

Pete: Because you have to bring in the West. The whole idea behind Buddhism is that nothing is certain, nothing is permanent, so really, it's about the evolution of existence, essentially, everything is constantly changing. So I'll give you one example, as I work with triathletes, they'll say they have the predictables and the unpredictables. So things like shoe laces, or a spare tube for their tire is a predictable and unpredictable is like the weather. And I say to them, "Well, your extra set of shoelaces can also..."

Nikki: Yeah, that's right.

Pete: So there's really in the Buddhist sort of perception in the eastern world, there is no predictable, unpredictable, everything just is.

Nikki: Yeah, and I think this is, as I've said many times on this podcast, this, in my opinion, beautiful marriage, compliment team partnership, teamwork, between Eastern spiritual traditions and Western behavioural sciences that in western behavioural science, we also acknowledge, actually, that there's no certainty about what's going to happen. Because we're really interested in western behavioural science in facts and data. And the thing I always say is that there's only one thing that we know about the future. And so, that we don't know what it is. It's like that's the only known. The known is that we don't know what's going to happen. And I actually, of course, this aligns with mindfulness; say to patients very concretely, "you never know what's on the other side of this moment, ever". We can make educated guesses. And I think what you're triathletes are saying is that based on probabilities, we can make educated guesses. And educated guesses, probabilities are not certainties. And I think that's really hard for people to actually integrate or understand.

Pete: Yeah, it is. Because I think many of us especially in the Western world, we have everything planned. Yeah. And I think I get excited when I work with somebody who gets derailed. Because I think the derailment is a time to press reset. I think back in the day, it was it like Control Alt reset or something, on the computer.

Nikki: I think that still works. Not on a Mac, though. Don't do that on a Mac,

Pete: So do that in life. Isn't that nice? And I've had people who were so focused on 'Okay, I'm going to be an accountant', or 'I'm going to be a principal', and then they arrive and they're like, 'wait, that wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be'.

Nikki: Yeah, we talked about this in our perfectionism episode, that human brains are really wired for this linear type of shaking. And that also lends itself to this illusion of in story that we know how things are going to turn out. And for Pete and I, as psychologists, our job again, is to help people connect with reality as it is, which is also  part of mindfulness. And the only reality about the future that we keep going back to is, you don't know it, we don't know what it is. And that, I think what you're highlighting Pete is ultimately that can be a very freeing experience,

Pete: I think it's so freeing

Nikki: Though initially, it doesn't feel free from us. It feels terrifying.

Pete: Well why do you think that?

Nikki: Well, a couple reasons, so glad you asked. So, first reason is obviously that there's a letting go of control. So human brains, we really like to problem solve things, because problem solving works in a lot of situations. And we think we can problem solve the future, we can figure it out. And if we can problem solve it and control it, then our brains tell us, 'everything's going to be great. We'll never be uncomfortable',

Pete: Wouldn't that be nice.

Nikki: It would be delightful. And as we've also said, many times this podcast, not possible, if we're going to be alive on this planet. But the other reason is, and this is back to dorky evolutionary psychology here, that human brains are actually wired to interpret uncertainty as danger. This is something I love to share with patients. I love to, as I've said before, to time travel 40,000 years, right now.

Pete: I'm going to use this too, I'm going to borrow it.

Nikki: You probably already say this, but maybe you don't say it this way. So Pete and I are our cave people, and we're out looking for berries. And I've said this before, there's a rustling in the bushes. And that wrestling is an uncertain, ambiguous unknown stimulus, we don't know what's causing it, it might be a saber toothed tiger, it might be the wind,

Pete: Okay?

Nikki: Evolutionary psychologists basically say it was better to be safe than sorry. And assume that that unknown cause of that rustling in the bushes was a saber toothed tiger. Because why Pete? What would that do?

Pete: Well, then you're alive,

Nikki: Then you're alive, you're going to run and get out of there. And you stay alive.

Pete: You're alive for another day.

Nikki: You're alive for another day, we pass those genes forward. So again, prehistoric humans that didn't make that assumption, they're not our ancestors, they got eaten, sometimes. Those genes didn't get passed forth. So it was really adaptive to assume that once things are unknown, it's a saber toothed tiger, and I tell people, "look that carried forward". So what's always unknown? What's in other people's brains, what other people are thinking, what's happening outside this room, what you can't see like, what's happening down the hall or whatever, and the future. And your brain is hardwired to assume that all of those unknowns are saber toothed tigers, that something catastrophic.

Pete: So that's what's happening now, I guess, with uncertainty in general, is that people feel they just can't see out of it.

Nikki: Well they,

Pete: They're trying to see out of it?

Nikki: They see saber toothed tigers. So it's like, 'what's going to happen', and the brains like, 'saber toothed tigers, we're going to be in the pandemic forever. Or, it doesn't even have to be the pandemic. It could be 'I'm never going to find a romantic partner'. 'I'm never going to have a career that's fulfilling'.

Pete: 'I'm never going to get on a plane again'.

Nikki: 'I'm never going to get on a plane again'. Yeah, there are all of these negative stories that I tell people, "Look your brain is designed to do that, it thinks it's protecting you. I need you to come back and recognize there's only one thing that you know".

Pete: But aren't saber tooth tigers kind of cute? I just want to throw that out there. I'm just wondering.

Nikki: I like the big cats, and the cubs. But I don't think if you had one coming at you, if they were still walking this earth, I don't think you think it's so cute.

Pete: I was talking to a colleague, she just she told me today actually, she said, "I had a dream about you. And you had this really fabulous party. I've never been to your house. But I couldn't find my kids at your house. And you had big cats there". I said to her, "Did you watch that show on Netflix, whatever that is?"

Nikki: A tiger King?

Pete: Yeah, she was like, "No, but I keep having these vivid dreams". But anyway, sometimes I think the image of these big cats, maybe we have to find something else. But I hear what you're saying, there's uncertainty. So how do you work with that? What do you do with clients that are seeing all saber toothed tigers coming at them and calling this, 'oh my god, it's such an uncertain time'. What do you do with that? How do you deal with that, like clinically?

Nikki: Well, as seems to be the usual initial intervention for myself, and I think probably for Pete as well, is actually starting with the mindful awareness,

Pete: There it is.

Nikki: Of what our brains are doing. So in behavioural science and cognitive and behavioural therapies, we really are very much into psychoeducation. I like to tell people, "I want you to understand how your brain works, I want you to have the same information that I have". We're really into transparency. And so, actually just knowing this is what your brain is doing, it's telling you that you're never going to meet a romantic partner, but it's really your brain just assuming that that rustling in the bushes is a saber toothed tiger, and that awareness and that mindful labelling creates a little bit of space. And in that space, there become options about what to do next.

Pete: I keep thinking of this thing. I think my grandma used to say this, that the only thing that's certain in life is death and taxes.

Nikki: Well, yes, I’d like to add to that and say, and change. I'd like to throw that in there. But yeah, that's right, the only thing certain things in life is death and taxes, and change.

Pete: I like that you put that in there.

Nikki: Nikki Rubin amended.

Pete: I like that one.

Nikki: Thank you. So is that what you do as well? Do you kind of begin to start there, by like, 'this is what's happening, let's see what is actually happening'.

Pete: A metaphor I just wrote about was if you go on to a 51st floor of a skyscraper, and if you think about walking out onto the balcony, no matter whether you're afraid of heights, a thrill seeker, no matter who you are, you're going to feel something. Because it's uncertain, you're going into new territory, you're up really high in the air, you get the wind gusts. So you're going to just work with describing what is. Now I think a lot of people distract, so some people might pour on a really heavy bottle or glass of scotch or something to get outside. The other things that distract I think, within what we're trying to do in mindfulness practices is just bring awareness to 'Okay, you're going to feel a little worried. And right now, if it feels like your first time being uncertain, you're going to feel worried, and that's okay. It's learning how to be worried'.

Nikki: Yeah, and you know I like to operationalize. So, because oftentimes, people say 'feeling worried'. So I would say, 'feeling anxious'. Worry is the behaviour, and so you're going to worry, you're going to do that. Because that worrying is the figuring out behaviour that brains are trying to do, 'what's going to happen?' 'If I'm on the 51st floor of a building, is this safe, am I okay?' So knowing that too, it's like, 'yeah, that's okay, your brain is trying to protect you. And can you come back', as Pete's saying, 'to what is?' 'What is' is that I'm feeling anxious, I'm on the 51st floor of a building.

Pete: We met in New York.

Nikki: Well, technically, we met Jersey.

Pete: Jersey, I know.

Nikki: I was living in New York, and yes, we met in New York.

Pete: Have you been on a 51st floor? I don't know why I picked 51 when I was writing this, but have you been on a 51st floor?

Nikki: I'm sure, I've been to like the top of the Empire State Building and all that stuff.

Pete: What's it feel like?

Nikki: I'm not a good person to ask this, because I don't have a heights reaction. Maybe my reaction is like, it's interesting or exhilarating, maybe is the feeling.

Pete: Yeah, there's the feeling. Well, on the Empire State building you're also fenced in.

Nikki: Yeah, fair, if I was in that one in Chicago, isn't it Chicago, where it's like a glass floor?

Pete: There are those? I think they are in Chicago or Vegas. I did the one in Chicago,

Nikki: You did?

Pete: It's one of those things where you're's a good example, actually, rationally, you're I'm safe. This is totally okay. I think it's 12 inches, I think it's at least a foot or two thick. And you still want to get down on your knees and crawl.

Nikki: And that goes back to again, the old stuff in our brains. Like I said this in another episode, 40,000 years ago, climbing to the tallest top of the tallest tree is not safe. So there are reasons our brains do things. And I think that helping people understand there's a reason why uncertainty is so scary for us is really important. Because that knowledge can give us power about then how we want to respond. I always tell people uncertainty is inherently unpleasant, there's no way to make it pleasant. Because people say, "Nikki, can you give me some tools so this will feel better? I'll feel really good". I'm like, "Well, I would give them to you if I had them". I was like, "I those don't exist."

Pete: I wrote that too, like a pill, people are looking for the pill,

Nikki: They want the pill,

Pete: It doesn't exist.

Nikki: It doesn't exist, not knowing is inherently unpleasant and will always be unpleasant. Are you willing to connect with that to contact that in the service of making space to in this moment, focus on what you can do now? What behaviour is workable, because this is the moment we have agency over, I would say like those future moments, they're imaginary right now. They don't exist. We can't borrow information from the future and bring it into the present.

Pete: The time machine.

Nikki: Yeah, maybe someone will invent that one day, but as of right now not possible.

Pete: We won't be alive. Let me ask you this, so this is uncertainty. And we're both saying that east and west, certainly within mindfulness in the West behavioural science, Eastern practice, this is the foundation of it. So we talked about in the pandemic and romance. If we think about this for other areas of life, I'm thinking, even driving, even when I'm going somewhere, I feel like I'm going exactly where I'm going. But yet, that's uncertain, because you just don't know, walking down the street, your career or just life? Are there other ways you feel like people struggle with uncertainty? Or, where else do you see that it shows up? Nikki: I think that's a really good question. Honestly, it shows up everywhere, because I think what it comes back to is that we tend, as human beings to operate from the assumption that we know more than we actually do, and I think it's important for people to really get clear around what are educated guesses? What's a guess, based on probability data? And then what don't we actually know? So sometimes an example I use is, I'll say, "Look, if you're going to visit LA, in the middle of July, based on, I don't know how many years they've been recording temperature data, 100 years, let's say, the averages will say that, if you're going to visit, it's probably going to be, I don't know, 75, 80 degrees". So pretty good chance, if you've never been, you're going to be like, "I'm going to plan a vacation for July, it's going to be 75 or 80 degrees". Okay, well, that doesn't mean it's going to be 75 or 80 degrees, you could show up and it could be like a freak rainstorm that day. So I think that's really important, because it helps people to say, "Okay, I'm allowed to plan for things and letting go of this notion of control", because when we can do that, and I'm curious to hear about what you think about this. That's also what helps cultivate flexibility, and responding, it's like, "it's raining". It's like, "okay, it's raining, that suck, and I'm going to go get an umbrella."

Pete: Yeah, I think I want to come back as a meteorologist, because I think everyone has heard that before, and their often wrong. So I think it’s so interesting. We were supposed to get so much rain last week, and we hardly got any. But in any event, lots of people lost power with other students. But flexibility, absolutely, and there's another saying about assumption, 'you make an ass out of you and me and when we assume', so that we're trying not to and I think that's part of mindfulness for me, is describing the assumptions that we have in anything, I have assumptions. If I'm going on a date, I have an assumption about the date, if I'm going into a class, I have an assumption about the class I'm about to teach. And we're trying to raise awareness of that. Because usually, within mindfulness, we're trying to get to neutral judgment, so that we're not trying to describe something based on a positive or negative assumption. We're just trying to go into something as is.

Nikki: Right, and I think it's important to add to that, that we can't actually turn off that evaluative quality, what we're really going to do is work with it. So if you know your brain is making assumptions, you know your brain is evaluating, particularly again, obviously, in this episode, we're talking about uncertainty about the future, what's going to happen or what somebody's thinking about you. Just knowing whatever your brain is saying, whatever the assumption is, whatever the judgment is, okay, it's going to say that, okay, well, then what do you want to do? D you want to listen to it? Do you want to have a conversation with it? Or do you want to practice diffusion techniques we've talked about before, which is like, that's a thought, let me come back to what reality is. The reality is, I don't know what that person is thinking about me.

Pete: I love that you just said that, because that happened to me this morning.

Nikki: Oh, really?

Pete: So I am the old man swimming, there are these three college kids, and at one point, they were like, all kind of together talking.

Nikki: Like hanging out, yeah.

Pete: And I had a thought of like, 'they're totally talking about me', because I'm like, impeding on there coolness, because they're all men. So for what I did, a fusion technique is noticing it, I totally smiled at it. And, then when you get to the wall at the next point, they're like, "Oh, my God, thank you so much". Because apparently, I was cheering them on or something, so it's funny. And it's irrational many times when we have those kinds of reactions.

Nikki: Yeah, again, it's not based on data. It's your brain just reaching into the dark, deep depths of old evolutionary stuff, and it's trying to figure out, is this dangerous? Is this the saber toothed tiger? So I just really want listeners to know that this is what our brains do, this is hardwired into our experience, and if you can recognize that, know it, you can take the power away from saber toothed tigers.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economic and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.