Wading upstream through cars and hawkers, past shops glowing with ornate 24 karat bling, we decided to take a risk on an unassuming little restaurant.  Our table was just off the sidewalk, open to the Kuala Lumpur night in Little India.  After amazing dosas and delicious Indian treats, for the first time, I tried chai masala tea and I fell in love with its spicy creamy warmth.

Years ago my brother told me how great it is and tried to get me to try it;  I rejected it without even a taste.  I “knew,” beyond a shred of doubt, that it was bad.  I’d never tried it, heck, I didn’t even know what it was!  But I was certain and a bit superior in my confidence, and I had that sense of digging my heels into the ground, ready to battle to be right. Yet in the steamy evening air of KL, it was so easy to try something new.  Why?  


Why was I so happy being certain… and then why was I completely open to the risk later?  In addition to being a bit of a self-righteous idiot, it turns out that there is an important set of neurological functions at play here.  A brain battle that has important implications both personally and organizationally.


Safety vs Learning: The Neuroscience Trap

A sophisticated brain is the human edge — they allow us to negotiate the risks of a complex world — to survive and, hopefully, thrive.  To do that, our brains need a quick way of testing: “Is everything ok?”  “Are we safe?”  One of the most basic “acid tests” our brains use is comfort:  When we’re comfortable, our brains surmise, all is good.

This is a paradox and trap, because in a rapidly changing environment, short-term comfort often has deleterious consequence.  The “comfort test” works better when life is very stable; it prevents us from falling into difficult unknows and going off the deep end.  But since innovation and growth require some risk, some departure from the comfort zone, the “comfort test” has a terrible cost.  To balance this pressure toward sameness, our brains also have the capacity to project, to imagine, to plan for the unknown — to go into new territory without having to actually having to face the dangers.

Zooming into the neurobiology, in a sense we have a tug-of-war between the striatum and the amygdala, between opportunity and risk.  The striatum is part of the basal ganglia, a “bump” at the lower-back of the brain implicated in many aspects of decision-making as well as balance and navigation.  Interestingly, this center seems to manage balance both in terms of physical motion and in terms of wisdom.  The striatum, specifically, is tied to reward, novelty, and forward planning.  When we’re looking ahead, anticipating with pleasure, and innovating the striatum is active.

However, when we’re anxious or uncertain, activity here decreases.  For example, a team of neuroeconomists at Caltech ran an experiment with decision-making; as uncertainty increased, fear centers in the brain became more active while there was decreased activities in the striatum (Ming Hsu et al 2005).  

As doubts creep in, activity in the amygdala increases and we move more into a fear/reaction/protection response automatically rejecting the novelty.  As the incisive Jonah Lehrer puts is, “This the curse of uncertainty: it makes everything feel unappealing” (2010).  Conversely, of course, we experience the blessing of certainty:  It makes everything feel better.  We “know the answer” and don’t need to deal with the doubts… very comfortable!  But we don’t learn.

Since learning is so important to human survival, we have also developed wiring to motivate learning, but this will be regulated by the comfort/risk dynamic.  Dopamine, a neuro-chemical that gives us a kind of internal reward, is often associated with pleasure-seeking.  In a fascinating meta-analysis of brain imagery studies, Roy Wise found a connection between dopamine reward and “stamp in” a useful response, which, he says, is “ essential for the control of motivated behaviour by past experience” (Wise, 2004) — aka, learning.  When we plan ahead, consider possibilities, try something and experience success, we get this lovely reward of a rush of feel-good-dopamine.


Learning to Take Risks

So why was it easier for me to try chai in KL?  I suspect there were two factors, each with significant implications for individual and organizational change.

One – in a situation where I was actively learning, awake, engaged, exploring, the dopamine-learning-reward pathway was already highly activated.  So my brain was telling me, “learning feels good!”

How can we activate that positive experience of learning for ourselves and others?  If we do, it will open people  to new learning.

Two – I was out of my usual context, so it was normal to be uncertain, but I was not so far out of my comfort zone as to shift over to protection.

How can we get ourselves and others out of our usual context, into a situation different-but-positive enough that new perspectives create curiosity rather than righteous ego-protection?  If we do, it becomes less important to be certain because we’re on an adventure.

Do you see ways of strengthening these two conditions in your life, in your classroom, workplace team, or organization?  If innovation, growth, and learning are key for you to reach your goals, then ensure these two drivers are central to your planning and I suspect you’ll find the process faster and more efficient — not to mention a whole lot more fun.

At a personal level, I see this dynamic recurring in many places.  I am “sure” and happy in my rightness, and I use that excuse to evade.  Perhaps the most destructive version is that I spent decades evading exercise because I was sure that it wasn’t good.  Now that I’ve given it a shot, I’ve come to discover that all those people who said, “once you get into it, you’ll love it,” were right.  Yet even now, I feel this resistance to admitting that I was completely wrong.  It’s like being “wrong” is very bad, very dangerous — subconsciously “wrong” means I’m not trying hard enough, it means I’m not worthy of recognition.  Yet I am absolutely certain that uncertainty, balancing in a place of risk, being willing to stay in discomfort, is the most powerful step toward real growth.



Brain image source

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