the cover of the book Uncertain by Maggie Jackson

Book Review: Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure by Maggie Jackson

Uncertainty can be stressful, but beneficial, too

The core problem all living things need to solve is simple: What do I do now, given the limited information I have about the world? How do I survive, let alone thrive, without wasting my life gathering all the details that would give me a full enough picture to be able to act? Simple does not mean easy.

We are time-limited creatures. No matter what, we will never know everything that we might wish to know before we have to make decisions about what to do. Uncertainty is part and parcel with life.

Uncertainty about the state of the world and about our own futures impacts everything: performance, memory, predictions, cognition, stress, decision-making, argument, creativity, leadership, empathy, teamwork, and more. Maggie Jackson, in her new book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure (Prometheus, 2023), delves into the nature of uncertainty in all these domains. She categorizes uncertainty into two broad categories: (1) the unpredictability of life and the randomness of the universe; and (2) psychological unsureness, our own uncertainty about the world. The book covers both.

Uncertain is well-researched and wide ranging, delving into the areas of our lives where uncertainty matters most. Jackson draws on psychology and neuroscience studies, interviews, and case studies. She doesn't shy away from the details, sharing facts on the brain networks and neurotransmitters involved in processing uncertainty. From the research I was familiar with (less than half of it), she covers it well. That said, she seemed to trust the experts implicitly; there was no questioning of the validity of any research (even though more psychology studies than we care to admit are flawed and unable to be replicated). There were also a few chapters (noted below) that didn't seem especially on point—for instance, the final chapter on AI was probably only included because of the current AI craze.

The book is dense. There is a lot of information, no fluff. Jackson's descriptions of research studies are engaging, elucidating the gist. She does get bogged in ultra-descriptive journalist reporting speak. Every sentence has to be engaging; every fact is important. The style grated a little, but I see why she does it. Overall, Uncertain is a worthwhile read. It may appeal to you if you're intrigued by how people work, the psychology and neuroscience of behavior, and how to act more effectively in an uncertain world.

Read on for more details about what the book covers!

Diving in: Uncertainty in daily life

People spend a lot of time in daily life following behavior scripts, in which they predict what might happen next or what the solution might be based on their past experiences. This kind of intuitive thinking serves us well in benign, predictable environments. But, Jackson writes,

"When trouble strikes, a mismatch emerges between old expectation and new reality, between routine and change. Recognizing this gap, we are caught short, and what follows is the key to human adaptability. For at that moment, a frisson of not-knowing ignites a "sense of unusualness" that spawns greater engagement with an issue and a widening of attentional focus. You become highly alert to what's new and better able to learn." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.xviii

Uncertainty signals to us that there may be danger, or that we may need to rethink our mental models of the world. Surprises and novelty mean that our internal prediction system has failed in some way, and needs to be updated to reflect reality. This idea comes up throughout the developmental psychology and education literature: children assimilate and integrate new ideas into their existing understanding of the world.

Uncertainty stresses us; one psychology study found that people were more stressed by the possibility of an electric shock than the certainty of receiving one. Stress, in limited doses, can be beneficial for learning. When we predict that a task is unpredictable, we become more alert and focused. People will seek out information, even when it's not relevant or useful. Adults, like babies, explore. We pursue surprise, because we are seeking errors in our predictions that will help us learn.

"How can we begin to harness these innate capacities for wakefulness, focus, and discernment? Just being willing to expect to change makes us more alert to shifts in the fabric of life, studies show." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.38

While Jackson touts the concept of brain as prediction system as novel, it has been known in cognitive science for decades I read a book on the idea in my Introduction to Cognitive Science class the first semester of college: On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (Times Books, 2004). Hawkins argued that core to our intelligence as humans was our ability to predict and anticipate in the world.

(Read: Book Review: The Expectation Effect by David Robson)

Don't rely on routine expertise

Because uncertainty sparks focus and learning, it also can improve problem-solving. Jackson explains that experts seem sure and fast because they have built up experience that allows them to recognize patterns that others miss, based on their long experience. But because they rely on heuristics, they may miss important details or changes. They tend to fixate on the first decent option that arises, even if it's not actually best. They become blind to alternatives to the methods they know, even when better alternatives exist. They work on autopilot.

"Years of experience are often weakly or even negatively correlated with accuracy and skill in fields from chess to finance to sports." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.8

The solution? Pause for a second take. Reconsider evidence. Looking for a problem's "hidden dimensions." All these strategies can drastically improve our chances of landing on a good solution. Interestingly, these problem-solving skills are not correlated with intelligence or IQ—being smart isn't the only trait that matters. Ask yourself, what if? Ask, how can I tell that I'm right about this? Consider the opposite. Try a take two. Pausing to rethink can jog you out of a "local minima" of ideas to new heights. Uncertainty can give us inspiration through a sense of unease and challenge.

"[T]rue expertise begins in the unsettling transition from automaticity to a readiness to work with the unknown. Superior judgment starts with the shifting of cognitive gears from an ancient system designed to shut down deliberation in a crisis to one that seeds intentional, flexible thought." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.15

Trapped by expectations

Being set in your ways doesn't only affect experts solving problems. Jackson reviews evidence that students, athletes, and performers of all stripes succumb to analysis paralysis and reward-driven distraction:

"Mesmerized by the stakes of the situation, people become trapped in the cage of their own expectations and a tune out of the play, sometimes literally suffering blind spots in their attention as they perform, studies show. Just when they need to be on their toes and attuned to the world, they grow disengaged from the dynamic situation at hand." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.43

The focus on the high stakes of the future can cause you to disregard the present. Fortunately, we can train ourselves to stay present, such as using "cue words" as reminders to focus on the now. Reading this, I was reminded of being a competitive fencer, en guard on the strip, ready to fight for my five touches (the fencing word for points—five won you a bout). My cue words were "this touch". My first coach liked to say, you always fence one touch at a time.

We can also reframe stressful situations by realizing that the fight-or-flight rush of adrenaline can also be the excitement of a challenge. Challenges mean there is something to be learned—and then, Jackson writes, we become curious. Curiosity is an orientation toward seeking new information, toward novelty. It is an approach mode: we seek to understand. We aren't stuck in fear and anxiety; we use arousal as interest and engagement.

"Being consistently inquisitive is linked to higher satisfaction with life and to experiencing more pleasurable and meaningful moments each day. People tend to be playful, unreserved, often unconventional thinkers who handle uncertainty well, according to their friends, family, and psychological assessments. They even visually explore the world around them more broadly, a style of gaze that scientists call "curious eyes."

It may seem surprising that those who are drawn to stressful challenges tend to take such delight in living. But it is precisely the capacity to open up to all of life, as disquieting as that may be, that buoys the body and mind. Stress tolerance is the facet of curious disposition that is mostly linked to overall well-being. Those who lack this capacity might recognize gaps in their knowledge, "but are unlikely to step forward and explore," notes curiosity researcher Todd Kashdan. By treating broken expectations as chances to investigate possibilities within the dynamic now, curious people free themselves of the entrancement with outcome that hobbles our capacities for discernment. They trade paralyzing angst for engagement in wonder. This is how we can turn life itself into a time of active discovery." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, pp.46-46

Memory is uncertain

When learning or working, downtime is critical. Whether a nap, non-REM sleeping, or simply a pause in the day, quiet moments help our brains create new memories and strengthen existing memories. As Jackson explains, some studies have shown that rehearsing information deliberately doesn't help—memory was only enhanced when people "relaxed and let their thoughts go free." Distributed learning—i.e., multiple, shorter learning episodes rather than large chunks—can help with recall and performance.

That said, memory making involves complex neural processes that we don't entirely understand. The biggest takeaway from Uncertain is that memory is not static. Memory is not perfect recall; we are not storage and retrieval machines, like computers. Instead, new information is assimilated into the old; new connections are made; when we connect new information to greater networks of old, we recall better. Even people, like the famous psychology patient H.M., who seemingly cannot form new memories, actually can—slowly, and when related to information they already have. As Jackson writes,

"To remember is to construct, and to learn, we must abstract, glorifying in knowledge that becomes over time enduring, flexible—and imperfect." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.69

When we recall a memory, we recall the gist better than the details. Memory is the process of abstraction. Because of abstraction—forgetting details to generalize—our memory necessarily becomes imperfect. The rare people who do not forget details also have difficulty, or impossibility, with abstractions.

While the information Jackson provided about memory is interesting, it seemed more peripheral to the theme of uncertainty—there's not some critical role of uncertainty in memory formation. Rather, the point is that memory is inherently uncertain, and far less definite and certain than most people realize.

The role of mind wandering in creativity

Taking time to pause not only helps memory, but also frees our minds for wandering. Many people think daydreaming is a useless endeavor—but it's not! When wandering, our brains activate the default mode network, regions active when we're not doing anything else. The default mode network is responsible for our inner lives, integrates information, and builds meaning and self-understanding. We have insights. We think and plan ahead, considering possible futures.

"Anytime that we step away from the present moment to remember, to empathize, or to muse, we tend to construe our thoughts through the powerful mental "lens" of proximity or distance." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.91

While Jackson doesn't discuss the construal-level theory of psychological distance, it seems highly relevant. In short, being far psychologically from something lets us see the broader outlines of it; we focus on the big-picture, the gist, the high-level features. Being psychological close, using low level construal, we focus on subordinate details, and specific, immediate things.

When we jump up to a higher level of construal, we can become more creative. Jackson explains that thinking creatively— thinking of unusual associations and uses for objects—involves jumping from concrete features to abstract ideas and back, using all properties of the concept or thing to generate more ideas.

Jackson warns of the dangers of the lack of idleness in modern life. Essentially, she says, we're losing something important by filling all our idle time with trivial activities such as scrolling through social media. Time spent staring into space matters for creativity, imagination, planning for the future, and so much more. High levels of imagination correlate with self-control, perhaps because of increased mental flexibility that enables one to picture different potential futures, and determine how to get there. One of the researchers Jackson interviews told her that many people have the time to think, but choose not to.

"You have to spend time comfortably in your head—that goes against our culture." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.99

(Read: Four Reasons Why Boredom is Better For You Than You Think)

Automatic categorization, stereotypes, and tolerance

As mentioned earlier in the book, when we have set expectations, we aren't open to other stories. That's true when judging and categorizing people we encounter, too. From first glance, our brains try to use our existing knowledge of people to guess at whether a new person is part of our group, or not. People generally act more favorably toward in-group members, in many domains.

This automatic categorization comes from the living being's constant challenge to parcel the incoming sensory information into useful bins. When encountering anything, human or not, our brains try to match what we perceive onto existing categories of experience. Familiar or unfamiliar? Dangerous or safe? Friend or foe? Rapidly categorizing new stimuli provides an advantage: as soon as we know what something is, we can infer, from the category—which was formed based on our other, prior experiences with similar things—other properties of the thing. We can make the fast judgments needed to escape the snake or tiger.

Of course, our inferences and generalizations aren't always right. This is most noticeable and controversial when we are rapidly categorizing and making assumptions about other humans. We get stereotypes and prejudice. But it is, at the core, the exact same neurological phenomenon as what we do with everything else we encounter.

One story I found interesting in the chapter on prejudice was about the Leadership Lab, a nonprofit focused on changing voters' minds to be more favorable toward liberal issues. One key aspect of their tactics: inviting people to take the perspective of another. Crucially,

"As they are opening the opposition minds, theirs are opening too. Along with boosting voter tolerance, the practice that the Lab pioneered lowers activists' own animosity for the opposition." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.120

Jackson finds that an intolerance of uncertainty is related to stubborn mindedness and extreme partisanship. When we are, instead, open to uncertainty, then we are also more open to others and to other ideas.

"To forge equity and understanding at work and beyond in an era of deep divisions and rising diversity, we must not just build bridges to those we loathe, to "them." We must counter the insularity of our side. What is the new right stuff of collaboration? It starts with recognizing the complacency of we." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.135

In groups, difference means uncertainty means better groups

Being in groups that are too homogenized can, contrary to what many people think, lead to increased carelessness, overconfidence, and blind trust. Jackson argues that people now too often group themselves with very similar people at home, at work, and at play. Being similar has benefits: when in agreement with others, our cognitive patterns of activity correlate. We're more in sync. Social synchrony is huge in social interaction, breeding cooperation, rapport, liking, and more—all very useful for coexisting peacefully.

"In essence, the brain systems related to coherence "far overwhelm" those we use to explore our differences. And that is a double-edged capacity. Agreeing is both rewarding and risky, a comfort that humans cling to even at enormous cost. Yearning for accord, people are stunningly likely to miss out on the differences between them that literally can save them from a fall."

—Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.141

Introducing dissent into a group switches people from a relationship-building mode into a more cognitive, figuring-things-out mode. The benefit of diverse groups isn't just that people bring diverse opinions, perspectives, concerns, and knowledge with them. It's that they help us all switch into a different mode of interaction: a problem solving, evaluating, tearing, questioning mode that can lead to better performance, problem solving, creativity, and insights. Groups that can give each other critical feedback, instead of merely high-fiving all effort, will learn and group.

(Read more about how you need critical feedback to learn and grow: How to Level Up At Anything: Using Science to Approach Mastery)

How do we deal with uncertainty in life?

Critical feedback is just one part of learning. We need to learn to reflect, too, rising up to a meta-view of problems and ourselves.

"By ascending to a panoramic view in thought, we gained the spaciousness needed to look up and ahead. We can adopt the stances of exploration, curiosity, and wonder that elevate us from merely fending off threat after threat." —Maggie Jackson, Uncertain, p.188

However, as Jackson explains, children raised in poverty and precarity may not learn to reflect, self-regulate, or deal well with failure. Their normal environment is unpredictable: who is providing child care, where food or rent money is coming from, moving more often, routines being disrupted more frequently, and even parents whose behavior is less predictable. These children's brains show earlier maturation. They may not develop the early trust in a caregivers' presence that enables them to learn new ways to deal with stress. They get stuck in their ways, less plastic and less able to get themselves out of survival mode. They learn street smarts, sometimes to the detriment of more cognitive skills. They are often more reactive and impulsive throughout their lives—which is adaptive in a highly precarious situation, since there is a real risk of losing out if you don't act immediately, but not beyond it.

Jackson describes research showing that the ability for reflective thinking while acting and learning is crucial for dealing with complex change. Critically, this ability can be taught. And when taught, children raised in poverty become more resilient, better able to self-regulate, and more. The key to helping children in poverty wasn't to increase the number of words they heard by age three or reduce the sheer number of traumas, it was helping them learn to deal with the unpredictable.

(Read more: The Necessity of Solitude and Reflection in Learning)

Uncertainty in AI

The book ends with a chapter about AI. Honestly, the chapter felt like it was tacked on simply because of the current AI craze. Understanding how software estimates uncertainty or uses uncertainty in algorithms doesn't seem that relevant to everything else in the book.

The main points were first, that you can't just give software better instructions to deal with an unpredictable world, because you can't know what situations the software or agent will encounter. But many systems built today assume that you can. Second, that software systems that reveal the uncertainty in their models of the world and in their decision-making algorithms will be more useful and helpful for humans to deal with than software systems that don't. Some of these systems may be built to have learning algorithms to incorporate new information about the world on the fly.

Still uncertain about Uncertain?

If you've read this far and are still unsure whether you should read this book… pick up a copy! Perhaps your uncertainty will spark curiosity and learning.

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