Your Brain Hates Doubt: Why Uncertainty is Difficult

Embracing an attitude of doubt, actively holding our strong beliefs with an open hand isn’t always as easy as we would like it to be. Sometimes, atheism is a tag people pin on themselves as a matter of course, either because they were born into it or they accept it because they haven’t investigated the options and don’t particularly care to. I consider this passive atheism. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but should be honestly faced for what it is. This is very similar to any kind of cultural religious acceptance. The other way people come to atheism, perhaps the most common way, is as part of a long, winding journey, often fraught with complexities and complications.

It’s usually a journey absolutely overflowing with doubt. This is also similar to many people’s journeys to religion. I think sometimes, this long and difficult journey makes many people cling even harder to certainty because they’re tired of asking questions and they’re ready to rest in something that finally feels right. But as atheists, I believe we should fight against this longing to settle, to rest, to stop asking questions. Otherwise, we aren’t leaving ourselves open to having our minds changed when contrary evidence demands it. This is essentially what I think it means to hold strong beliefs with an open hand. Strong beliefs are important, vital even, but if we grip them in a tightly closed fist, there isn’t space for new evidence to come to us for examination. In addition, closed fists make very good tools for pounding our beliefs into others.

The weariness we feel after asking, wondering and doubting is biological. Our brains are prediction machines, actively fighting uncertainty. They are constantly taking in information and then predicting what will come next. Because of this, the brain likes to know what’s going on, certainty is actually like a pleasurable reward that becomes more acute the clearer and more repetitive the patterns. In contrast, uncertainty creates a threat response, it’s like a kind of pain and your brain tells you to avoid it. Going back and forth between possible futures is literally exhausting for your brain, taxing your limbic system. It’s all about the burst of dopamine we get when a pattern is recognized and a prediction can happen, making a circuit complete. It feels good, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. If we get into patterns of clenched fist knowing, we lose our willingness to explore new problems or new ways of solving old problems.

What do you think? Do you find yourself holding too tightly to strongly held beliefs? When has this cause problems for you? What tools are helpful for loosening your grip?


The Certainty Bias: A Potentially Dangerous Mental Flaw, Scientific American

AHunger for Certainty, Psychology Today

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