There’s a fundamental question your brain is always asking. Every second of every minute of every day. In fact, it’s the most fundamental of all questions. Not only is it foundational to learning, but it was this question that allowed humans to evolve, survive and flourish.

The query occurs when you are walking into your home, eating a bowl of cereal, standing in line at the grocery store, starting a new job or traveling to a new city. It allows you to find comfort in love and anxiety in fear as well as feeling a sense of flow or being in the zone.

This question determines your level of stress and mood as well as how thoughtful you are about the present and future. More importantly, understanding this question is one of the most important things any person can do to strengthen their relationships, whether personal or professional.

The question is also quite simple, going something like this (drumroll please): What is new or different that I need to be paying attention to?

This question creates a constant feedback loop in the brain of information retrieval and analysis, a covert mental algorithm repeating in an endless loop until one day it calls it quits for good.

And you don’t even know it’s happening.

The Discerning Brain

Through the history of human evolution, this question has served the purpose of helping understand one thing: is there a potential threat in the environment. 

The question doesn’t tell a person that there is indeed a threat. Whether the answer comes back as “yes” or “no” simply lets us know that something isn’t normal, and we need to be alert and pay attention. This is no small task.

Your brain has a finite amount of energy, which cannot be wasted on things that don’t matter, i.e. non-threats to survival. Still, it can’t assess the potential for risk in every sight, sound, smell and physical sensation. So, it has to first decide whether there is even a potential for risk. If so, it flicks the mental light switch to see better and look around.

This means that attention is a finite and valuable resource. Like anything of value that has a limited supply, there’s a cost to its acquisition and use. Consequently, the brain seeks to mitigate opportunity costs where attention might be spent on the wrong things.

Cognitive Ease and Strain

Given the value and limited availability of attention, the brain relaxes when the environment appears safe and familiar. It exerts less energy and spends less attention currency. In this state, which is referred to as cognitive ease, people are more likely to be in a good mood, less analytical, more trusting and prone to making quick and intuitive decisions. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman refers to the sum-total of those ease-inducing mental thought processes as System 1.

What happens when the brain identifies new and unfamiliar stimulus in its environment worth paying attention to? System 2 kicks in. When this happens, the brain decides it’s time to spend some of its attention currency as it shifts from a state of cognitive ease to cognitive strain. It then analyzes and thinks more critically to determine whether the new information presents a risk. The thing to understand about System 2 is its objective is not to gain new insights, wisdom or expand its understanding of the world. It doesn’t care about new ideas, perspectives and views.

System 2 is designed to defend and protect the perceived safety of the beliefs, perspectives and physical conditions that make up the status quo. Anything that challenges the status quo is a potential threat that poses risk, regardless of whether the status quo is a good place to be or not. It isn’t looking to make new friends, only protect those it already has.

Empowering or Threatening?

Consider this for a moment. Newness, novelty and unfamiliar information or situations require the cognitive strain of System 2. So, cognitive strain is necessary and important. Without it, we couldn’t learn, adapt, grow or create. We could not evaluate our past to understand our present and then make plans for the future. We would only exist in the moment, a life void of challenge or aspirations.

It’s important to realize, then, that the mental processes humans use to learn, meet new people, redefine old relationships and create new experiences are the same as those they use to identify environmental threats. This means that the threat and potential of risk, real or perceived, is at the heart of both learning and survival.

The Takeaway

Life is a process of learning and seeking to understand the unknown, which is a place of risk and uncertainty. There are costs to exploration as well as the potential for gains or losses.     

Professionally, when starting a new job, getting promoted, learning a new skill or trying to do something differently than you have in the past, there is always the potential for failure. Personally, when developing new and existing relationships, there is the risk of rejection, undesirable commitments or relinquishing autonomy and freedom.

Your brain can interpret these life changes, even the good ones, as having the potential for threat. They all present risk. So, you need to fight against your brain’s natural impulses, because eliminating risk in your life is to willfully stunt your potential and growth.

This is why feelings of safety and security are crucial to your personal, professional and social development, whether in the home, classroom or place of employment. Otherwise, you will do what evolution programmed you to do: fight or flee.

You will take calculated risks at work if you don’t worry about it destroying your career. You will also learn and apply a new skill if the expectation for perfection is replaced with an environment the supports continual improvement.

You will seek new relationships or risk telling someone you love them, if you don’t fear rejection. Or, more importantly, if you feel valuable and worthy of love, respect and appreciate – knowing that there are others in the world who will happily accept all you have to offer.

If, however, you feel that taking these risks will send you down a dark whole from which you can never emerge, you will not grow, learn, succeed or create lasting relationships.

So, don’t create threats where they don’t really exist. Jump into the unknown and take a chance. @poedge (Click to Tweet!)

What risks have you avoided that you now regret?

Matt Nelson is the owner of Performance Ownership Edge (POE), the result of his obsession with answering the question, “How do you best engage people in a way that helps them change their behavior, accomplish great things and transform their lives?”. The mission of POE is to help leaders drive innovation by creating Empowered Engagement cultures that maximize the potential of their greatest resource: their people. Matt has extensive experience leading organizational change, coaching leaders and managing and developing regional and national teams. He holds the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, and Certified Professional in Learning and Performance designations in addition to an MBA where he studied finance. You can connect with him on FacebookInstagramLinkedIn and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Nathan Dumlao.