What can tinnitus teach us about thriving in uncertainty?

A good friend of mine received a disturbing email early one morning from his son, Billy, who was travelling in east Asia on a gap year. Billy had become beset by anxiety and was finding sleep difficult due to a pervasive and consistent sensation of noise. Time did nothing to lessen concerns or his distress and when Billy returned to the loving embrace of his family the true depths of his plight became apparent.  He couldn’t sleep – could barely function –  and couldn’t begin to contemplate taking up his place at university.

Billy was suffering from a form of infection acquired tinnitus…what I had previously though of as a persistent noise or ringing in the ears resulting from damage caused by prolonged exposure to loud noise. The swift, dramatic and all pervasive effect on the psyche of a confident young man was shocking. A breakthrough in understanding came when a psychologist explained to Billy that the human fight-or-flight response is particularly sensitive to auditory stimuli. So, in effect, Billy was constantly on red alert. And where the adrenaline fuelled state of hyper-arousal is just right if you hear a rustling in the undergrowth, it’s otherwise a damaging assault on all the senses which can very quickly become profoundly disorientating.

Through medication, talking therapies and other interventions Billy has come to manage his situation and has made his way to university. One tactic seems paradoxical.The fight or flight arousal is particularly pronounced where noise is against a background of relative silence…the unexpected crack of a twig in the undergrowth on a still, dark night. So Billy has learned to use white noise to create a background against which his tinnitus casts a less dramatic contrast.

The musician and artist Brian Eno contends that creativity is enhanced by putting people on the alert – introducing some uncertainty into the context to stimulate a sort of creative fight or flight response. What happens, though, when we are assaulted by a pervasive and consistent sensation of uncertainty in our cultural and professional context? Even where we might recognise and acknowledge the obvious symptom (the tinnitus, the observation that, in the words of John Humphries: ‘“This is the era of uncertainty indeed”) the actual impact on the psyche can be profoundly disorientating and hard to trace back. And so how do we cope? The instinct is to pin things down, to grasp for more certainty: to look for an answer…any answer. I was minded of this while reading the book Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (the second in a ‘future history’ trilogy about the colonisation of Mars). A member of the ‘first 100’ to inhabit Mars observes:

”In psychology we have scientifically identified a pathology in which a person needs to know everything because he is afraid of not knowing. Monocausotaxophillia as Pöppel called it, the love of single causes that explain everything. This can become a fear of a lack of causes. Because the lack might be dangerous. The knowledge seeking becomes primarily defensive….”

Might compulsive online fiddling be an outward expression, a mania or coping mechanisms for this pathology? Is an urge constantly to nurture and harvest a social media echo chamber a defensive mechanism against uncertainty? Does ‘defensive knowledge seeking’ explain the rise in populism, the success of post-truth political strategies and other uncertainty-driven phenomena?

Could be. Maybe.

But in any event perhaps the contrast of the felt experience of uncertainty against all this online certainty – a torrent of ‘facts’ and unshakeable opinions – actually ratchets up the fight-or-flight response and makes the disquiet more unsettling: like tinnitus in a silent room.  If we were to borrow from Billy’s approach we might attempt to create some white noise against which the contrast of our uncertain environments are less marked. That is, follow Bran Eno’s lead and consciously create or seek out more uncertainty.

How might one do that? Stuff like this perhaps:

  • Take a different route to work
  • Regularly read a paper or subscribe to a feed whose ideological stance you don’t agree with
  • Invite students from an interesting course at a local college or university to attend your next team workshop
  • Experience Twitter as someone else using antipersona

Or even ask your close colleagues and family to help you make a list like this for yourself.

Tinnitus Awareness Week in the UK takes place from 6-12 February in 2017. Find out more on The British Tinnitus Association website.