Finding Time for Deliberate Calm on Flight 1549

Deliberate CalmMost everyone by now has heard the story of Flight 1549 and Captain Sully.  Many have used the word miraculous to describe the landing of this plane and the survival of everyone on board.  I see it, even more, as an inspiring and hopeful illustration of the powerful convergence of thorough training, extensive practice, good time choices, and solid decision-making.

Jonah Lehrer, author of the just-published book How We Decide, editor of Seed Magazine, and writer of the blog The Frontal Cortex was a guest yesterday on the NH Public Radio Show Word of Mouth.  Virginia Prescott interviewed Mr. Lehrer about what is involved in decision-making in general, and how that may have played out in particular on US Airways’ Flight 1549 on Thursday, January 15th at @ 3PM.

As our understanding of the brain has evolved, one theme has remained fairly constant throughout the history of Western thinking.  That is that our thought processes are governed by either the emotional or the rational.  What is being discovered now is that human thought processes involve a combination of these elements.  It’s not really an “either/or” proposition.

According to Mr. Lehrer, the key element in the good outcome for Flight 1549 was the exercise of deliberate calm by Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III.

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.

Barry Shore, Professor of Decision Sciences at the University of New Hampshire supports this conclusion in an interview appearing in the article “Miraculous Outcome of Flight 1549 Offers Critical Lesson to Management”:  “In the case of Flight 1549, Shore says because everyone had been trained extensively, decisions that normally take longer to make were made in an instant.”

Practice, then, is key.  It lays the groundwork for making wise choices in emergency situations, when our panic might lead us toward less helpful choices.  Pilots are trained to take a deep breath and exercise reason in harrowing circumstances.  It is not a special element of a pilot’s character.  Like creativity (which I wrote about in yesterday’s post) it is not magical.  It is a result of training and practice.

How might the lessons of Flight 1549 be applied in our daily lives?  Well, one lesson that I take from this incident is to pay attention when flight attendants review emergency procedures!  Another lesson is to try to visualize and plan for (to the extent possible) emergency circumstances that could arise in daily life.  A third lesson is to always, always, always take a deep breath before making a choice in an emergent situation.  It only takes an instant – and that split-second time choice may spell the difference between a miracle and a disaster.

Have you experienced emergency situations in your life?  How did you handle them?  I’d love to hear!

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