Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Blur Of Contradictions

Vaucluse, France: It's 8:00 AM and a mother is driving her sick young son to a doctor, when a sudden fainting spell makes her lose control of their car; it leaves the road, hits a guard post, skirts a row of cypress trees before perching itself on an embankment above a thirty-foot drop.

Once the car steadied itself from this unorthodox stop, 9-year old Arthur Pipard springs into action, to save his mother. Despite the shock of the last few moments, young Arthur has the presence of mind to dig through his mom's purse, to make a call on her cel phone, selecting to phone his father, a firefighter whom he knew to be on duty that day. The child then examines his unconscious mother, adjusting her head, which had been stuck between the headrest and the seatbelt as a result of the accident.

His father, no stranger to heroics himself, given his career as a volunteer firefighter for the community of Voconces, as well as a member of the GRIMP mountain rescue unit, remarks with pride on his son's response to the crisis: "Usually, in these types of situations, reactions tend to be more self-oriented. One tries to first protect oneself. Which is normal..."

[Translated from Le Dauphine's reports here and here.]

Studying events like the one above leave us with a blur of contradictions. It's always amazing to me to read of situations like these, where individuals seem to be able to act against all expectations. That it can happen at all ages makes it even more revealing about what it says about potential as human beings... and how foggy might be our appreciation of the fullness of that potential. When it would be normal for people to be hesitate, they act, like 11-year old Dustan; when they should panic, they remain calm, like 9-year old Drew; when every impulse is to flee, they stand their ground, like 8-year old Drayden, even leaping into the fray, like 7-year old Alexis.

Of course, we've all been given an unforgettable example of accomplishing the impossible this week, courtesy of Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III and his staggeringly succesful piloting of US Airways Flight 1549 to safety in the Hudson River. He should have lost hope, he should have been numb from despair, his fear should have crashed that plane.

On the outside looking in, we might presume that there simply wasn't any fear to overcome; maybe that's how these heroic children, as well as the Captain, were able to think, and act, as they did. But that's not seeing the big picture:

In recent years, neuroscientists have been able to see what happens inside the brain when people, like Sullenberger, are forced to make decisions under pressure. Though the typical assumption is that some people don't feel fear -- that they are somehow less scared than the rest of us -- that assumption turns out to be false. The fear circuits in the brain, such as the amygdala, generate their response automatically; it's almost certain that everyone on board Flight 1549 was terrified.

What, then, allows people like Sullenberger to make effective decisions in harrowing circumstances? How do they keep their fear from turning into panic? Scientists have found that the crucial variable is the ability to balance visceral emotions against a more rational and deliberate thought process, which is centered in the prefrontal cortex. This balancing act is known as metacognition -- a sort of thinking about thinking.

Pilots have a different name for this skill: They call it "deliberate calm," because staying calm under fraught circumstances requires both conscious effort and regular practice.

This is where flight simulators enter the picture. The advantage of these realistic simulators, which have been in widespread use since the early 1980s, is that they allow pilots to practice extreme flight scenarios, such as a total loss of engine power over water. The training provides pilots with important technical skills -- they can practice flying crippled planes -- but it also teaches them something more important: how to draw on an optimal blend of reason and emotion.

I’d like to think that, for those of us without access to such high-tech gadgetry, who might be interested in learning the same self-discipline for own times of personal crisis, there's another simulation more readily available, one that aims to provide the same balanced resolution: humble prayer.

Prayer is a study in contradictions: in our stillness there is a flurry of activity. By temporarily shutting out the world we try open ourselves up to its possibilities; by closing our eyes we strive to imagine, with as much clarity as we can summon, everything from our most dreaded fear to our most cherished wish. In doing so we think about how to think about them... how to possibly survive the arrival of the former, how to probably bring about the arrival of the latter. We pause our life in order to review whether we're heading in the right direction, usually recognizing a need to take a step back so that we can resume our way forward. We measure our past actions, stretching them out into the fog of an unlived future, to dare to see how they may weigh in a more long-term balance.

Whether it's seeing children behaving with the utmost calm when our natural expectations of childhood tells us that there should be little such reserves to draw strength from... or busy people dropping everything in order to be of maximum service to total strangers, when “everybody knows” that city people aren’t friendly to strangers… we have many examples of incongruities and impossibilities to help penetrate the fog to let us see the unimaginable: an emotional light to find hope in a darkness where reason tells us there should be no hope, an emotional faith in solutions when reason denies us the likelihood of success… a simulation of the miracle of balancing contradictions.

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