Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Instinct v presence of mind

A thinking-out-loud post.

This morning, thanks to my new glasses, I nearly fell down the stairs. Instinctively, I grabbed the banister and rescued myself... at the cost of my right shoulder, which is now killing me! The instinctive reaction probably saved me from a different injury, but if I were a professional violinist, I would probably have preferred the other injury.

I know a man who is possibly the finest osteopath/physio/sports injury therapist on the planet (okay, that's a huge overstatement, but I would recommend him unreservedly to anyone). He was hiking in the Swiss Alps with a bunch of teenagers who were working towards their Duke of Edinburgh awards. One of the kids above him dislodged a rock, which hit him on the head and sent him over the edge (literally, not metaphorically). As he fell, he had the presence of mind to protect the tools his trade: his hands. Where someone else would have wrapped their arms around their head, or used them to try to break their fall, John crossed his across his chest and tucked his hands into his armpits.

When he came to a halt, most of his scalp had been ripped away and his knee had been very seriously damaged. He applied first aid to himself and, when the first of the kids arrived on the scene, got them to call the air ambulance.

He was taken to a Swiss hospital, where the doctor who saw him was tickled at John's professional interest in his own injuries and their proposed treatment. After stitching his scalp back in place, he operated on John's knee, using an epidural instead of general anaesthetic, so that John could watch the surgery, and keeping up a running commentary - which he enjoyed enormously!

Instinct is focused on survival. Presence of mind, it seems, is focused on preservation of the things that are important to us on other levels. I excercised instinct. John exercised presence of mind.

Military training appears to impart to people the ability to override the instinct for personal preservation and to carry out actions that serve the purposes of the bigger picture.

I find myself musing on this today. Military drills are based on behaviourist principles... with good reason. Is there any other way to learn to override instinct? For example, how did John learn to do what he did?


Anonymous said...

Perhaps we have a default instinct to protect us in the absence of an informed, cultivated presence of mind. You used instinct when slipping, but you will not use instinct when you decide whether you will include a particular point in your blog posting. Why not? Because you are informed regarding blogging, and have conditioned yourself accordingly.

I found the book Blink (Malcom Gladwell) very intersting in this regard. He explores the power of the trained mind to make split second decisions - and make the right decisions. But the secret lies in the "trained" mind, like the guy who protected his hands (his mind was trained in this direction - he probably has also insured his hands).

Thanks for a stimulating posting.

The upsycho said...

@Kobus Thanks for the comment, and the book reference. I'll have to track that one down.

I think, though, that there is a difference between 'informed' and 'conditioned'.

An informed response would be cognitive, and I can't help thinking that it would, as a consequence, be slower.

A conditioned response would be faster, but behaviourist - something that would have to have been practised (like a military drill).

John is unlikely to have practised crtical situations in order to have acquired the conditioning to protect his hands, so I can only think that it was a conscious, informed, decision, but that still doesn't explain (to my satisfaction, anyway) how that conscious mind overrode his instincts when he was in genuine danger of being killed.

I think I'll have to see if I can track down Mo Costandi and ask him to give his very informed take on the matter!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I get your point. But I still believe that if our minds are well informed, and we train our minds to react on the training (military drill-style - brainwashing if you like) we will be able to condition ourselves to act in harmony with the the informed mind in a crisis situation.

I suppose the test of how well this theory works is when I land in a crisis situation ...

The upsycho said...

@Kobus - let's hope you never get to test your theory!

Jim said...

I think you miss the point of military training, It is not over come the instinct of self preservation, it is to enhance another instinct, preservation of the group. Human are social beings, People would not hesitate to place themselves in danger to save their child or spouse. Most would do the same for anyones child. Military training makes you part of an extend family, a family would would gladly risk life and limb for.

The upsycho said...

... which requires you to overcome your instinct for self-preservation by means of conditioning

Jason Allen said...

What a great post. I have been struggling with the basic "behaviouralist" nature of training people to sell on the phones.
In life, if someone tells you No!, most people's instinct is to say "Sorry to bother you."
In sales, if you do that, you starve.
I blogged last night about the whole behaviouralist principle that if you teach someone a sales tactic that will reward them with a sale every 100 tries, but punish them with a rude response or a hang-up every 10-15 tries - then how the heck do you get that to stick?
My struggle, is how you make that 1 in 100 reward SO BIG, that a sales person is able to overcome their instinct for - let's call it - psychic self preservation, and ignore the first "no" and keep going - risking a rude retort, or a phone slamming down.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this - if you have a moment!

The upsycho said...

@jammasterjay I'm afraid I'm clueless on sales training. To be brutally frank, since your trainees are often the bane of my rare evenings of leisure, I'm not sure I want them to succeed! ;o)

Jason Allen said...

EVERYONE always says that! Don't hate me, I only train business to business sales people, not those dreaded telemarketers!
Telemarketers drive me nuts. I've got loads of wonderful ways to get what you want from them - and especially from customer service agents. Drop me a line sometime if you are ever struggling with a CSR in India - I used to train those too!

The upsycho said...

@jammasterjay "Don't hate me!" Would I ever?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there's much more I can add, but since you ask:

Instincts are primordial, default behaviours which are mediated by the so-called "reptilian" brain (the upper part of the brainstem) but can be overridden by cognitive processes (neocortex) and, presumably, emotions (in the limbic system).

The ability to override instincts therefore involves the influence of the cortex and decision-making, and likely differs between individuals, with some people being less able than others to resist their urges, for example.

There are also cases of patients who become more impulsive as a result of brain damage - their injury impairs decision-making, by reducing or completely abolishing the influence of the cortex on the instinct-related activity down below.

(As an aside, recent research suggests that some of the decisions which we regard as conscious are actually nothing of the sort - they can be predicted accurately by brain activity, before we are aware of them.)

All that is needed to override instincts is a bit of thought, but I suppose training of various kinds can predispose us to think in particular ways. Military training surely fosters the instincts of aggression and destruction more than any other.

Of course cognition requires time, but on the timescales that we deal with as humans, the speed of thought is negligible.