Today’s message is about the mismatch between what the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world needs from us and how our brains want to function in their “default mode.” Read on if you are ever feeling overwhelmed, anxious, in over your head as a leader, or just plain curious (and if you don’t meet any of those criteria, either send me your recipe for life or do a re-assessment to make sure you are being honest with yourself!).
What the heck is Entropy???
First, a bit of a physics lesson. About 14 billion years ago, all of the matter and energy in our universe was condensed in a very small space, let’s say about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. In this stage of the universe, physicists tell us that things were at a low level of entropy, that being the measure of the amount of chaos or disorder in a “closed system.” So, when things were small and condensed, the universe was relatively orderly and non-chaotic. It was fairly predictable.
Then the Big Bang Happened…
A sudden and massive expansion took place about 13.8 billion years ago, sending all of the condensed matter and energy shooting out into space. To this day, the universe continues to expand at about 72 kilometers/second. Incredible! Physicists tell us that starting with the Big Bang, and continuing today, entropy has been steadily increasing in the universe. As matter and energy expand, the unpredictability, chaos, and disorder expand along with it. We literally live in a universe that is “wired” to become more VUCA.
Why should we care about increasing entropy?
Because we feel this in our daily lives. Whether it’s technological innovations that make us more connected, or the ability to search any topic on the web to get information in seconds, or the existential problems we face as a planet, we experience the increasing unpredictability, the increasing entropy, constantly. A recent research study out of UC Irvine estimates the average person is interrupted by some email, phone call, text, or social media notification every two minutes…let me say that again…every two minutes. And it takes us on average 25 minutes to regain the level of concentration we had prior to being interrupted. What this sets up is a constant low-level anxiety, a sense of overwhelm as we feel the need to be “on” all the time, and the perfect dopamine hit of pleasure we get every time one of those notifications happen and we get addicted to it.
Enter “The Entropic Brain”…
The human brain comprises only 2% of our total body weight, but it takes 20-25% of the cellular energy to run. One thing that is especially taxing for the brain is paying attention. The brain therefore looks for any opportunity it can to shut down the higher energy need regions (namely, the rational, planning, creative, self-reflective “human” parts of the brain). In a groundbreaking paper published in 2014, Robin Carhartt-Harris and his colleagues at Imperial College in London used cutting-edge neuro-imaging technology to look at the brain’s function under different conditions. One outcome of their study was the discovery of a region of brain networks called the “Default Mode Network” (DMN) which come online when we are not consciously focusing on any one thing. It’s basically what happens when our minds wander, when we daydream.
What they found is that the DMN, and I am summarizing here because it is a long and detailed paper, is constantly working to suppress entropy. They thus coined the phrase “the Entropic Brain.” The brain gravitates toward order, simplicity, and predictability. Why? Because we constantly feel the need to control our environment. Those of our ancestors who did not control the environment, the ones who were not able to accurately predict what was about to happen, often ended up being lunch for a larger predator. So, we go through life looking to control, to act as if we have everything in good order, and to use the past as a predictor of the future.
The Problem with this is…
So, here we have a universe that is wired for increased entropy, and we have lives that illustrate this with VUCA challenges around every corner. Meanwhile, our brain is trying to reduce entropy, to simplify, and to make the world fit into its predictions. The problem is that when dealing with VUCA, we actually need to break out of our stories, our need to control, and our belief that things happen in an orderly fashion. We need to take diverse perspectives that challenge our way of thinking, we need to quiet the parts of the mind that tell us we are threatened (your co-worker giving you a look you perceive as mean is not the same thing as a tiger lurking in the bushes, but both trigger the same brain regions!), and we need to stop trying to control outcomes and instead set the conditions for good ideas to emerge.
Ok, so what can I do about this?
There are several skills we need to acquire to work effectively in an increasing entropic, VUCA world. One proven method for quieting the Default Mode Network is to have a daily focusing practice. I pause to call this meditation because I am talking about a more performance-based practice that is meant to re-wire the brain. The practice is simple to explain and can be difficult to do at first, but stick with it. Find a place to sit quietly for 10 minutes. Close your eyes and choose an object of focus. For many, they choose the breath because it is always there. But you can also choose to visualize an object or repeat a mantra over and over. Whatever it is, the important thing is to choose one object and focus on it. When you notice you have lost focus, don’t judge yourself. The human mind is a wandering mind and this is the Default Mode Network trying to fire and save you from burning calories (but we aren’t hunter-gatherers who need to conserve calories, so thank your brain for doing its job and remind it that you have plenty of food in the kitchen!). Just notice you lost focus and gently nudge attention back to your object. Do this for 10 minutes a day.
Over time, what we are doing is training the brain to be more present. Neurologically speaking, we are down-regulating the firing of the Default Mode Network and increasing the use of the parts of the brain that are responsible for conscious thinking. It’s basically like doing bicep curls for your brain! The more you do it, the more your brain is wired to pay attention to what it happening now. And the person who is present to what is truly happening now, the one who can see their bias towards order, simplicity, and predictability, and can arrest this to allow for other perspectives and ideas to emerge, this is the person who will thrive in a VUCA world.
Whew…that was a lot. Let’s summarize.
There’s a lot of disorder in our physical universe. Our brain does not like disorder. It seeks to control. It seeks to conserve calories. This causes a problem because the challenges we face need us to use our best thinking, not our default mode of thinking. We can re-train the brain to reduce the amount of time we spend in default mode, but it takes intention, repetition, and reflection. You must do the practice. The additional benefit is that we are happier, less self-destructive, and calmer the less we are in default mode. So, what do you have to lose?