We learn through exploration and the resultant assimilation of chaos to order. The unknown - chaos - holds hope and anxiety in union. We are biologically and psychologically designed to face new situations. Fear is our default in environments that harbor novelty. We learn security. Unfamiliarity arises when we make an error in our predictions. We are limited in our knowledge and therefore, bound to make errors. If we make a significant error, and we face something terrifying, we will likely flee. When we escape, we leave an attribute unexplored and anxiety provoking. We are also capable of abstracting our thoughts. This ability allows for the exploration of previously gathered knowledge. It also provides for projection of scenarios yet to be. This cognitive domain is largely unbounded and can lead to unnecessary anxiety. Society provides a structure for reducing chaos and resultant fear. This structure creates security, which is beneficial for survival, but too much is stifling.
We are travelers; explorer’s on this journey that we tend to call life. We live within the domain of both space and time. These four degrees of freedom (three dimensional plus the arrow of time) allow us to explore and move about in a domain which is interpreted through our cognition. Through this lens - which is driven by biological, psychological and social aspects - we can assign a value to specific objects and actions. We then take steps to create certain valued objects and situations.
“It is not too much to say that the animal elicits the properties of the object, sensory and affective (or even brings them into being) through its capacity for creative investigation.” Pg. 62
As we travel we gather new knowledge. We can assimilate and creatively apply this knowledge to solve complex problems. By addressing these problems, we have the end goal of decreasing suffering, while increasing pleasure.
“...we change ourselves, or the things around us, to increase our hope and satisfaction, and to decrease our fear and pain.” Pg. 39
Much of how we behave in the world is directly driven by our biological programming (both as homo sapiens, and our direct ancestral lineage). Our psychological makeup has to do with our biology, but also the social aspects of our world. We are emotional and communicative (social) creatures. This aspect is our fundamental tool for extensive cooperation which provides humans an advantage above all other animals. From this, we have formulated culture and society which are more critical than most people give credit (as we will explore later).
The Paradoxical Unknown
As we take action within this world, we interpret our surroundings. These surroundings constitute both known and unknown (chaos and order) or explored and unexplored territory.
“The (variable) existence of the unknown, paradoxically enough, can, therefore, be regarded as an environmental constant. Adaption to the “existence” of this domain must occur, therefore, in every culture, and in every historical period - regardless of the particulars of any given social or biological circumstance.” Pg. 47
In the case of unexplored regions, or unpredictable events, they simultaneously represent the greatest of threats and the pinnacle of potentials.
“Unexpected or unpredictable things - novel things, more exactly (the class of novel things, most particularly) - have a potentially infinite, unbounded range of significance. What does something that might be anything mean? In the extremes, it means, the worst that could be (or, at least, the worst you can imagine) and, conversely, the best that could be (or the best you can conceive of).” Pg. 43
“...novel occurrences are, simultaneously, cues for punishment (threats) and cues for satisfaction (promises).” Pg. 43
When we face a new situation, because of it’s inherent polar nature, we simultaneously feel anxiety and curiosity. Threats make us tend toward withdrawal, while promise promotes exploration. When we are in unexplored territory, we experience an emotional dance between hope and fear.
“The process of exploring the emergent unknown is...guided by the interplay between the emotions of curiosity/hope/excitement on the one hand and anxiety on the other - or, to describe the phenomena from another viewpoint, between the different motor systems responsible for approach (forward locomotion) and inhibition of ongoing behavior.” Pg. 43
We lead lives in the domain of what is known, and what is unknown. These aspects exist simultaneously within most spaces that we experience. This assertion is to say, there are some things that we have explored, and some facets that we have yet to discover.
“The combination of what we have explored and what we have still to evaluate actually comprises our environment, insofar as its nature can be broadly specified - and it is to that environment that our psychological structure has become matched.” Pg. 52
All aspects of our surroundings, both the assimilated and the yet to be, are part of our environment. One point of our limbic system is to deal with the unknown and allow us to adapt to it on the fly.
“The “limbic unit” generates the orienting reflex, among its other tasks. It is the orienting reflex, which manifests itself in emotion, thought and behavior, that is at the core of the fundamental human response to the novel or unknown.” Pg. 52
Our environment is anything in our surroundings (people, places and things). Initially, new settings are strange, foreign and potentially hostile. Our surroundings become familiar through exploration and can change to be unfamiliar in a multitude of ways. Everything is contextual in the sense that if our entire space is explored, and one aspect becomes novel, then we must re-examine the scope because the new variable likely affects the whole area. Some examples are if an unknown person enters a place that we know well, that previously explored territory becomes again unexplored. The same can be said for meeting familiar people in new areas. We are also able to interact with known people, in an explored place, but if their actions no longer reside within what our memory has recorded as expected behavior for this person, they are now acting in a novel way. This novelty constitutes unexplored territory.
Fear is Unlearned
When we traverse something novel, it is our natural response to approach it with caution, apprehension and fear. Most people tend to assume that fear is learned; however, it is not. The opposite is, the case. We hold novel situations in apprehension until we learn that they do not pose a threat to us.
“...fear is not secondary, not learned; security is secondary, learned. Everything not explored is tainted, a priori, with apprehension. Anything or situation that undermines the foundations of the familiar and secure is, therefore, to be feared.” Pg. 57
“The amygdala appears to automatically respond to all things or situations unless told not to. It is told not to - is functionally inhibited - when ongoing goal-directed behaviors produce the desired (intended) results. When an error occurs, however - indicating that current memory-guided motivated plans and goals are insufficient - the amygdala is released from inhibition and labels the unpredictable occurrence with meaning. Anything unknown is dangerous and promising, simultaneously: evokes anxiety, curiosity, excitement and hope automatically and prior to what we would normally regard as exploration or as (more context-specific) classification.” Pg. 55
As we continue to investigate, our surroundings become less unknown or more familiar. Through the assimilation of this unknown, we create new knowledge. By interpretation and adaptation, we actively (and physically) alter our neurological structure which is the precursor for our psychological being. In more simple terms, humans are learning machines, and our environment is rich with potentially useful information.
Goal Oriented Direction
By being travelers in such a domain, we frequently face novelty. Our brains are wired to be aware of something new in our environment automatically. This unfamiliarity could come in the form of a person, object or familiar person with strange behavior. Our brains categorize the information in one of three ways, a threat, not a threat, or useful.
“When we explore, we transform the indeterminate status and meaning of the unknown thing that we are exploring into something determinate - in the worst case, rendering it non-threatening, non-punishing; in the best manipulating and/or categorizing it so that it is useful.” Pg. 61
After this new situation is interpreted and if it is deemed not to shift our plans for the future, then we pay it no mind. However, it is when we are faced with something unexpected, not according to the intended method - something barring the way to the intended goal - that we must respond to and navigate such a situation.
“What is known and what [is] unknown is always relative because what is unexpected depends entirely upon what we expect (desire) - on what we had previously planned and presumed.” Pg. 46
It is in the face of unexpected novelty that a creative solution must be deployed and from this, new knowledge garnered. The successful exploration of this new domain, signifies the transformation of chaos to order, of some unknown to known.
“The plans we formulate are mechanisms designed to bring the envisioned perfect future into being. Once formulated, plans govern our behavior - until we make a mistake. A mistake, which is the appearance of a thing or situation not envisioned, provides evidence for the incomplete nature of our plans - indicates that those plans and the presumptions upon which they are erected are in error and must be updated (or, heaven forbid, abandoned). As long as everything is proceeding according to plan, we remain on familiar ground - but when we err, we enter unexplored territory.” Pg. 46
It is critical to note the opposite of successful exploration of a new scenario. When we are faced with a unique situation that we interpret to be insurmountable, something happens. In this case, our fear center is engaged, and our mind understands a threat to our biological survival. This situation is akin to facing a bear or metaphorically a dragon. During such an event our emotions dysregulate, and we flee. This point is when we experience terror. When we are not able to face and overcome these anomalous situations, that territory remains unexplored.
“Unsuccessful exploration, by contrast – avoidance or escape – leaves the novel object firmly entrenched in its initial, “natural,” anxiety provoking category. This observation sets the stage for a fundamental realization: human beings do not learn to fear new objects or situations, or even really “learn” to fear something that previously appeared safe, when it manifests a dangerous property. Fear is the a priori position, the natural response to everything for which no structure of behavioral adaptation has been designed and inculcated. Fear is the innate reaction to everything that has not been rendered predictable, as a consequence of successful, creative exploratory behavior undertaken in its presence, at some time in the past.” Pg. 56-57
Once we flee and leave a situation unexplored, it takes a great deal of effort to face the same situation in the future. It is best to face our fears in small steps; this will minimize the chance of emotional dysregulation. It is like with any goal in life; a substantial challenge can be overcome by making small advances.
The Abstract Mind
Because we have the ability for abstract thought, exploration does not always have to be a physical manifestation. We can explore the domain of our psyche. This concept also represents a landscape. However, this one is unbound as far as we can ascertain. So like any unbounded system, our mind can run away on itself. If we spend our time projecting the future (“the worst you can imagine”), then anxiety can run wild. Hence, anxiety can become a big problem if we are not equipped with the proper tools to face this dragon.
“In novel circumstances, our behavioral output is mediated by the systems that govern fear, and appropriate inhibition, and hope, and appropriate activation. The same things happen when we think abstractly – even when we think about how others think” Pg. 67
With the proper tools, we can explore and as a result garner new knowledge from what we have already learned without moving in physical space. Part of being able to handle our inner landscape is facilitated by how our external surroundings act and interact with us. This point is where social aspects come into play. Our nervous system responds to how others react to our actions. This knowledge has been both built up over time and abstracted into a set of rules and guidelines that are called culture, society and social institutions (norms).
These social constructs, at their core, allow us to lead an existence low in unexpected chaos or turmoil. This achievement is a tremendous feat as we can imagine the level of danger and imminent threat that comes from living in the woods, in small groups (predators, lack of food, disease, etc.).
“We are protected from such conflict – from subjugation to instinctive terror – by the historical compilation of adaptive information generated in the course of previous novelty-driven exploration. We are protected from unpredictability by our culturally determined beliefs, by the stories we share with those who are like us. These stories tell us how to presume and how to act, to maintain the determinate, shared and restricted values that compose our familiar worlds.” Pg. 53
On the one hand, these systems are imperative for creating a cooperative society. On the other, we do not reach our full potential as human beings. It’s akin to being a cheetah who is fed and exercised daily. The cheetah can survive, but it is not thriving. To thrive the biological system must be pushed to its fullest capacity, or limit. Being forced to the edge to overcome difficult situations is what we have fundamentally been designed to do.
“Under “normal” conditions, therefore, these primordial systems never operate with their full force. It might be said, with a certain amount of justification, that we devote our entire lives to making sure that we never have to face anything unknown, in the revolutionary sense - at least not accidentally. Our success in doing so deludes us about the true nature, power, and intensity of our potential emotional responses. As civilized people we are secure. We can predict the behaviors of others (that is if they share our stories); furthermore, we can control our environments well enough to ensure that our subjection to threat and punishment remains at a minimum. It is the cumulative consequences of our adaptive struggle - our cultures - which enable this prediction and control. The existence of our cultures, however, blinds us to the nature of our true (emotional) natures - at least to the range of that nature, and to the consequences of its emergence.” Pg. 57
This idea can be cast in the light of the Hero’s Journey. Deep within the heart of society, we can lead a mundane existence, with a low degree of life-threatening stressors. However, because we are made to journey, explore, to face novelty, to go out to the edge of the known and bring back that knowledge, when we do not do this, we feel apathetic at best.
“...fear, in unexplored territory, is just as “normal” as his complacency in environments he has mapped, and which hold no danger.” Pg. 59
If we spend our lives in a domain that has been mapped by other explorers, then we are not exploring. We deny our biological hardware the adaptive functionality. We are leaving much of our environment in an unknown and anxiety provoking state. It is our responsibility to learn as much as we can. By learning, we gather tools to face this breadth of unknown. Armed with this leverage, as we start to overcome small bits of chaos, we will gain confidence. As we act and see the results of those actions, we will start to believe that we do have the ability to modify our surroundings for the better. However, this realization cannot be had without exploration, and there is undoubtedly no exploration without novelty, and a large amount of it at that.
“It is where the unpredictable emerges that the possibility for all new and useful information exists. It is during the process of exploration of the unpredictable or unexpected that all knowledge and wisdom is generated, all boundaries of adaptive competence extended, all foreign territory explored, mapped and mastered. The eternally extant domain of the unknown therefore constitutes the matrix from which all conditional knowledge emerges. Everything presently known to each, everything rendered predictable, was at one time unknown to all, and had to be rendered predictable – beneficial at best, irrelevant at worst – as a consequence of active exploration-driven adaptation. The matrix is of indeterminable breadth: despite our great storehouse of culture, despite the wisdom bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we are still fundamentally ignorant and will remain so, no matter how much we learn. The domain of the unknown surrounds us like an ocean surrounds an island. We can increase the area of the island, but we never take away much from the sea.” Pg. 49
All quotes from: “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief” By, Jordan B. Peterson, 1999, Routledge