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Negative Capability—the neurological benefits of “not knowing”

How learning to manage uncertainty and ambiguity is good for the brain.

Welcome to Stretch, your guide to experimenting with your mental, emotional, and physical performance. Weekly, practical, and guaranteed to teach you something new about your mind and body.

Hey team, I’m back.

Lots of new people here—welcome! This newsletter was on a 3-month creative break as I focused on some other projects:

  • Settling into our new home in Lisbon, including getting a dog and starting Portuguese classes (muito difícil!)

  • Taking on my first 1-1 breathwork clients, after obtaining my Oxygen Advantage certification

  • Delivering a series of Body-Based Productivity workshops for a cosmetics multinational

The break from weekly publishing also gave me the space to reflect on this newsletter and where I want to take it. The good news is, my motivations for writing have not changed one bit:

  • Explore our nervous system—from our brains to our lungs to the neurochemicals and hormones. The goal is to better understand our own circuitry, so we can have more energy, tap into our innate creativity, understand our emotions, and make better decisions. In each post, I’ll use a personal experience to unpack a big idea, a scientific finding, or a tool we can try.

  • Infuse our lives with more curiosity, intentionality, and experimentation. Some posts will resonate with you, others won’t. As the famous Bruce Lee quote goes: Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.

I’m super excited to be back, and have lots of ideas to share with you. So thank you for (still) being here.

Alright, enough warm-up. Let’s get into it!

Negative Capability—the neurological benefits of “not knowing”

My brain doesn’t do so well with chaos and uncertainty, and so it doesn’t help that I have an itch to move to a new country every few years.

A couple of years in New York, a longer stint in Singapore and then, feeling the pull to be closer to home (Belgium), over to London. Just as we were settled in (Apartment - check! Billing address changed for all my online subscriptions - check!), my partner and I realize it’s not the right place for us. This felt incredibly disorientating. We just went through an entire moving process. So then where is the “right” place for us? Is there even such a thing?

After a few months of inner turmoil and long walks talking about what matters to us, we decided to move to Lisbon. We have no social network here, no family. We don’t speak the language and can’t say we know much about the country. But something about the place just felt right, and we decided to trust that gut feeling this time. The months it took us to make the decision and pack up and move again were riddled with uncertainty and overwhelm. There’s so much admin to figure out, all while trying to ignore this pesky little voice in the back of my mind: Are you sure this is right? What if Lisbon isn’t what you expected either?

There was no way we could answer these questions without trying it. And trying it meant packing up our entire lives, again. While it’s a huge privilege to be able to do this, it is an enormously time, energy and money-consuming process.

All I could really rely on was the fact that by now I knew how important it is for me to be intentional about the size of the city I live in, the weather, the lifestyle, and the people I’m surrounded by. That little piece of self-knowledge was like my buoy in the whirlpool of uncertainty.

Around the same time, I came across a concept called Negative Capability, discussed at length in the book Mastery by Robert Greene. Greene credits the concept to the English poet John Keats who wrote about it all the way back in 1817. Keats described Negative Capability as:

“The willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery and make peace with ambiguity.”

Rarer than talent or work ethic, Keats was saying, is the ability to stick it out, to prevail, to step into and push through the doubts and uncertainties and terrors and periods of wanting to quit.

In my own language, that means Negative capability involves resisting the urge to instantly reach for answers and explanations, allowing myself to operate in a state of open-minded uncertainty—without angst, panic or frustration.

Moving to a new country is a unique and beautiful experience. Thinking about Negative Capability as a skill helped me manage the tension I was experiencing. Sit with the discomfort of not knowing whether this was the right decision. Let go of the expectations of how it all ‘should’ go and let the process unfold. Often it’d be as simple as repeating these words in my head when I could feel the familiar feelings of panic bubble up: ”It’s okay, embracing this uncertainty is a valuable skill. This is good for you.”, and the panic would slowly dissipate.

Not only has this been a more enjoyable way to live, turns out it’s also better for my brain!

Your brain thrives on uncertainty

There’s a difference between surviving and thriving. To survive, your brain will motivate you to stay within your comfort zone. All your brain wants is to be comfortable, warm, safe and efficient. No wasted energy. But we don’t want to just survive. We want to thrive. And to thrive, you sometimes need to go against your brain’s reflexes.

While your brain might resist uncertainty and discomfort, there are actually neurological benefits that come from sitting with these emotions. As Maggie Jackson writes in her book, Uncertain:

“Neuroscientists are beginning to unpack what happens in the brain when we deal with the stress of uncertainty. The uncertainty of the moment, the realization that you don’t know, that you’ve reached the limits of your knowledge, instigate a number of neural changes. Your focus broadens, your brain becomes more receptive to new data, and your working memory is bolstered. Which is why facing uncertainty is a kind of wakefulness.”

Facing uncertainty is a kind of wakefulness. It’s your brain saying, “hey, something’s different here, we need to pay attention.”

What a great reframe. I love that.

This heightened neural state of awareness and openness is exactly what Negative Capability encourages—a willingness to embrace the unknown and learn from it.

Our instinctive need for certainty stops us from making decisions and taking risks in ways that could meaningfully improve our lives. When we shy away from uncertainty, we make predictable and default-mode decisions that keep us in “the known.” Sure, it’s safe and comfortable. But is it right? Is it expansive? Does it make us feel alive? As Robert Greene writes in Mastery, “The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.”

The only way to unlock our true, full potential is to sometimes step into the dark, not knowing how things will pan out, but trusting that we’ll figure it out.

Maggie Jackson’s book helped me reframe the dread of uncertainty. Instead of running from these feelings, I remind myself that these emotions are not something to panic about or get rid of as quickly as possible. Instead, if I can stay calm in that moment and just observe what's happening, I can take advantage of this powerful brain state.

There are two strategies that work really well for me:

  • Journaling. Writing down every worried and negative thought that comes up, without judgment. Journaling (ideally by hand because it slows down your thoughts) allows you to step into the role of observer, and gives perspective. What’s also cool is that you start spotting patterns. For example, I noticed my Negative Capability skills are much more robust when it comes to decisions that only involve myself. As soon as other people are involved, boom, anxiety shoots up.

  • Breathwork. Paying close attention to what discomfort and overwhelm feels like in my body. Instead of being annoyed by the feelings being there, and trying to get rid of them, I sit for a few minutes to observe where I feel them in my body and slowly breathe through them. I’ve noticed this has helped me build tolerance for this discomfort, and get an embodied understanding of what it feels like to be nervous versus calm.

So, before you close this newsletter and move on to the next thing… ask yourself:

Where in your life are you avoiding uncertainty? Is there a decision in your life you’re postponing out of fear of the unknown? (Can be big things like leaving a relationship, or small things like going on a solo trip.)

Or something you’re trying too hard to figure out? To make the perfect decision? To make all the pieces fit together?

Can you proceed while sitting with the discomfort of not knowing how things will pan out?

No fixing. No planning. No controlling.

A big part of this is trusting in your brain. Trusting it’s collecting data and making connections. That your subconscious is working on things in the background (because it is!) Trusting that you’ll figure it out.

At the core, uncertainty leads to choices. It leads to opportunities. It leads to surprises. And, as modern science shows us, it leads to a focused and receptive brain.

See you next week!

What else I’m up to…

  • Getting ready to hike up Gran Paradiso next week, a 4061m mountain in Italy, with my mom and sister.

  • Planning a LinkedIn Live on June 18 with coach Gretchen Nemechek. We’ll be talking about how job seekers can use breathwork and other body-based tools to support the often stressful search. If that sounds of interest to you, let us know you’re attending here, or share the link with anyone you think could benefit from this.

  • Reading Mentally Tough by Jim Loehr (fascinating to read how he was already writing about the neurochemistry of our emotions, and the control we have, back in the 1986!)

Thanks for being here! Any questions, comments, thoughts… just reply to this email. ☀️


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