March 19, 2024 / Abby Roberts

Meeting Uncertainty with Curiosity

Image Credit: Getty Images / Professor25

Before Helena Boschi returned to university to study psychology and neuroscience, her career took her first through sales and marketing and then to senior organization development roles in a number of companies across several industries. In these positions, she observed that people often responded to change initiatives in surprising and irrational ways, even when these initiatives seemed to make sense on a rational level.

"This sparked my curiosity, and I realized that I would have to investigate this in more detail," Boschi explained. "And that really started my love affair with neuroscience and psychology."

Boschi, who will give the closing keynote session at AIHA Connect 2024 in May, is now equipped with a PhD in psychology and leadership from the University of Manchester. She applies her knowledge to help companies manage change in ways that consider how the brain functions. Adjustment to change, she has found, requires a quality that has served her in her studies and professional career alike: the willingness to keep learning.

An Unexpected Vocation

Boschi didn't plan to go into psychology. She took her first job because she needed to pay her bills, but as she worked, she continued to read and learn about her interests on her own time. She tied the topics she was learning about into the presentations and training sessions she gave. "Gradually, over time, I started to bring neuroscience more and more into the initiatives that I was working on," she said. "And I found that there was such a big appetite among people to learn more about this, that I was sort of feeding hungry children, including myself." In addition to piquing her own curiosity, the field of neuroscience seemed to provide her colleagues with insight into their challenges.

"I didn't think, 'Well, this is the route I'm going to do, to take in my life,'" Boschi said of her shift from marketing and communications into psychology and neuroscience. "I developed it as I went, and I created my own path based on my learning and discovery of areas of interest that appeal to me and that answered questions for other people."

Completing her master's degree, doctorate, two more years of study in the areas of cognitive neuroscience, brain and behavior, and mental health, and a paper on stress in the workplace did not lead Boschi to believe that she'd found all the answers she'd sought but reaffirmed her commitment to lifelong learning. Neuroscience is a relatively young discipline focused on an organ of the body that scientists still don't fully understand. New discoveries are frequent, and old ideas may be disproven or built on. "I have to keep learning for the rest of my life because I know I will never be done," Boschi said. "The brain is something that we are learning about all the time, and it continues to shock and surprise us."

Boschi feels that she's always "catching up" to the discipline's rapid developments, but awareness of her own incomplete knowledge doesn't discourage her. "It's a good quality to have to never feel that you are there yet. I think doubt is very good for us because it fuels curiosity," she said. "People talk about imposter syndrome as if it's a really bad thing. I think it's bad if it paralyzes you. But I think if it spurs you on to greater endeavor, it can be very healthy to have that little piece of you that doesn't feel that you know everything."

Dealing with Uncertainty

In fact, Boschi stresses that the ability to remain curious and admit one doesn't have all the answers is vital to adapting to an increasingly uncertain world. Humans, as a group, don't handle change well. "It's important to understand how, as a species, we respond to uncertainty, how we're designed to handle the unexpected, the unpredictable, and to find ways to create certainty in our world as much as we can, while also accepting that uncertainty is very good for us," she said. "The human brain does everything it can to avoid uncertainty, and it hates anything it can't predict." The brain constructs the world around it from a mixture of predictions and past experiences, she explained. To a large extent, humans are naturally uncomfortable with unfamiliar situations that they're unable to quickly understand and extrapolate from. But uncertainty drives us to figure things out and forces us to become more aware of ourselves and the relationship we have with the world.

"We have to find this connection between the known and the unknown and develop greater cognitive agility and adaptability to deal with all the new and unexpected changes that are constantly coming at us," Boschi said. "How do we meet the future even though we don't know what the future will really bring? Everything we do today will help us deal better with tomorrow."

In her AIHA Connect closing keynote, Boschi will outline how the brain functions and then teach participants tools and techniques to increase their brain's ability to deal with uncertainty. "Different people will take away different aspects of what I talk about, depending on their own personal circumstances, their jobs, their countries," she said. "But it is my hope and intention that everybody will leave with something they feel that they can apply straight away, whether it's the way they talk to someone, whether it's the environments that they're creating, whether it's their responses to an idea that might be different to their idea, whatever it is. And my overall objective is that they find this whole area as fascinating as I do!"

Some people might find the tools she provides as applicable to their personal lives as their careers. "I always love it when people say, 'This will help me at home as well,' because that means that the learning will continue beyond work," she said.

Continued learning, she stressed, is necessary to keep the brain healthy, even for people with high levels of expertise. Stretching the brain beyond the familiar will bring discomfort at first, but over time, it will strengthen our ability to deal with different challenges. Resilience is not built during times of ease and comfort. "If we're used to being good at something, we don't like going back to not being good at something," she said. "But the more we do this, the better our brain gets at handling difficulty and adversity and change for the rest of our lives."

Helena Boschi will give the closing keynote at AIHA Connect on Wednesday, May 22, 2024, from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. Eastern time. AIHA Connect 2024 will be held May 20–22 in person at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Columbus, Ohio, and virtually. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference agenda, or register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the assistant editor at AIHA.


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