Our reaction to stress and panic has evolved as a successful survival strategy.
Imagine a panic situation such as a lion attacking us.
Deep within our brains, sitting atop the brain stem, the limbic system is the first set of brain structures to comprehend and recognise the sight and the roar of the approaching lion and it responds in a way that has protected the earliest species of horses and rabbits, and man. The limbic system sends off alerts to the medulla that signals the adrenal gland to release adrenalin. Adrenalin increases our heart-rate and the blood flow is prioritised to the muscles and brain. An activated limbic system will induce a sense of panic that if not regulated will induce a fight or flight response.
But panic is the worst response we desire from a stressed pilot in a modern aircraft! The physiological response to stress that helps us evade a lion, is of no use in our high-tech world where there is more time to act, and survival depends upon the pilot staying calm, interpreting the systems, managing the team and consciously reasoning to negotiate the best solution.
Fortunately humans can reduce their predisposition to stress and panic. The solution is to enrich our brain’s cortex, where our consciousness resides. If the cortex can reason that a stressful situation is not dire and that a solution is available, then the cortex will dampen the limbic systems’ response to stress and so reduce our tendency to panic.
So how do we enrich our cortex?
Deliberate practice builds up in our cortex our knowledgebase of memories and experiences, things that give us ability and confidence; making us “bullet proof”, not “gun shy”. Deliberate practice is the best method to prepare our bodies to counter the unexpected, such as a black swan event. The result is the same for us as it was for; Mozart playing the piano since the age of four, or for Roger Federer warming up before every game; or for Apollo 13 commander James Lovell who practiced failures and “free return trajectories” in the NASA simulators.
Deliberate practice enhances ability and confidence, reduces the startle effect, panic and improves performance.
A friend recently asked me: “What do you think happened in your mind when you heard the engine explode?”. My technical answer probably surprised him:
My brain instantly became fully alerted. The brain stem instantly tuned my brain to its maximum activity. My medulla (that activates my sympathetic nervous system) would have caused adrenalin to pour into my blood-stream to prepare my body to fight, or to flee. At the same time my pre-frontal cortex that sits atop my brain would have received signals of the problem. The cortex would have found a match of the sounds of the explosions and vibrations and sirens, these patterns etched into the grey matter by past experiences and deliberate practice in the aircraft simulators. So the cortex would have sent a modulating response back to my medulla saying “Hey, I’ve heard, seen and felt this before, I’ve trained for this, I know what to do!”
My cortex reasoned that our lives were not threatened and throttled back the limbic system response to prevent the startle effect, fight, flight or play dead from overpowering our rational mind. This is clearly a good case of “mind over matter” where deliberate practice and experience provided our thinking brain (the cerebral cortex) with skills sufficient to bullet proof us against the simple failure.
There was no startle effect, no panic on the flight deck. The cortex took and maintained control. We were able to “sit on our hands and initially do nothing”. Then we knew what we had to do.
Could not all fears and phobias be rationalised and resolved similarly?
In our case, for the many teams that worked through our event, our knowledge, training, experience and deliberate practice provided us all with the tools to handle the emergency and prevent the stressful situation from startling us into a conditions of panic or playing dead. We all kept our composure on the flight deck because we knew what we had to do.
Then, what I did instinctively might surprise many; because I ignored the warning horns, the red lights on the panels above an below and the ECAM checklists on the centre panels. I focused only on one issue, the first commandment in aviation – FLY THE AEROPLANE, with all reasoning provided by my cortex. We commenced the engine failure drills and checklists only after safe flight was guaranteed, probably twenty seconds after the initial explosions.
I’ll write more about mind over matter, deliberate practice, fears, phobias, the limbic system responses and the startle effect later ….