Split Second Decisions

I just finished reading Blink - The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a fascinating book about rapid cognition. Our brain is a super computer and although you make thousands of decisions a day that you are aware of, you also make thousands of decisions everyday that you are not aware of. Within the blink of an eye, or about half a second, you might be able to decide if you like a new model motorcycle you see on the showroom floor. You don’t know why you like it or don’t like it. But your super computer has taken in the data, computed it and made a decision. Some people call that a gut feeling, instinct or prejudging.

Interestingly enough, the more you think about something like this motorcycle and try to think of what you like about it and what you don’t like, your mind can change. You can over think the situation as you take in more information. If you take that same person who on a half second impression likes a certain motorcycle but instead give him a whole bunch more information and more time and ask him what he likes about the motorcycle and why, he might decide to buy something else. But guess what? That first impression was correct and we dismiss it because we don’t trust our brain’s rapid cognition abilities! The psychologists and scientists that have studied this phenomenon have found that when it comes to minor decisions like buying a toaster, we get better results taking in all the data and making an educated decision. On the other hand, they find that when it comes to important decisions where the stakes are high, like buying a new Harley-Davidson, we make better snap decisions than if we over think it. That explains all the Honda sales! Too many people over thinking. Just kidding. Like I said, the book is fascinating!

Our brains rapid cognition isn’t always correct. In fact there are many instances where we can be led astray. I’m sure that many police officers see a leather clad biker and immediately think “this is a criminal”. This is a perfect example of where rapid cognition can be misleading. Understanding good rapid cognition and bad rapid cognition is the key to harnessing The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

We have the ability to read people’s faces. Since we are not trained in it we probably use this skill at a very limited level, but you could call this skill mind reading. There are experts in the field that study facial expressions that can pick up things and tell what peoples intentions are without hearing a thing about what is going on. Like the fictional character Gibbs on NCIS. He can pick up on things on a person’s face that tell him when someone is innocent, guilty, lying or being truthful. There are situations where people lose their mind reading ability. When we are in a state of arousal (not sexual arousal) our heart rates soar and our adrenaline flows. This is how humans deal with extreme stress, the kind you experience in life or death situations. In these cases our brains shut down a lot of unnecessary functions to increase performance in order to survive. Some situations get so extreme that the brain can shut down muscle control and you mess your pants!

Lets say you haven’t taken your meds today and you go crazy and lead some cops on a wild high speed chase. You’re doing 100mph on your Honda (because in this example you are a nice person) through a residential neighborhood and the cops are on your tail! All of of sudden you come to your senses and stop for the police. You put your hands up and surrender. Guess what might happen! Think of the Rodney King incident and others like it. Those police officers have entered into that state of high arousal. The excitement of a high speed chase has put them in a state where their mind reading ability doesn’t work anymore. They don’t recognize that your intentions are now peaceful. They very well might shoot you! So don’t ride a Honda, take your meds, and if you lead the police on a high speed chase… don’t get caught!

The optimal state of arousal is when our hearts are at 115 to 145 beats per minute. I can think of a few examples of when I have experienced this heightened state of awareness. When I was a teenager I raced in one motocross on my 1980 Yamaha YZ80. I was fourteen or fifteen. I remember entering the first turn after the holeshot. Everything was in slow motion like in a movie where the fireman enters a burning building to save a kid. There was dust everywhere, all the racers were jammed together elbow to elbow. It was bumper to bumper or tire to tire. Other kids were crashing and falling down all over the place. Some right in front of me! Somehow I was able to steer in and out of the chaos and I remember it all in slow motion although we are talking about a period of thirty seconds. Until reading about this state of arousal I didn’t understand that memory or how I was able to do that. Some star athletes are able to function in this state during the key moments in a sporting event. They see everything around them in vivid detail, their senses are keen and they see the action in slow motion. They score!!!

I have another memory like this involving my YZ80. A not so pleasant memory. It was shortly after the above mentioned race when my father told me that was the end of my racing career. He thought if he took me to one race I would get it out of my system. That was my dream! I wanted to be a motocross racer with every once of teenage angst in my fourteen year old body! I lost my mind and I actually did lead some police on a high speed chase through a residential neighborhood and into the local motocross park. No, I did not get shot, but I did get arrested and my parents wanted to shoot me.

From the time the police car turned on the lights and I made the stupid decision to hit the throttle adrenaline coursed through my veins and took over my body.  I got tunnel vision and even though I had crossed into the motocross park where a car could not follow me, I felt like a fox being chased by hunters with dogs. My brain and body reacted to the extreme stress of being chased by police.  I was running for my life! My field of vision narrowed to what was directly in front of me. I couldn’t slow down or stop even though there was no reason to. The police really weren’t going to chase me into the off road park. They couldn’t. I crossed an impossible creek crossing at high speed that involved going straight down five foot ditch into the muddy creek and immediately back up the opposite side. Then I raced through another residential area before coming to my senses and stopping. I started to walk my motorcycle home because if you didn’t know it, riding an unregistered motor vehicle that is meant for offroad use only is illegal on a residential street or any other kind of public road. Especially when you aren’t old enough to have a driver’s license! Of course the same police car that initiated a 5 second chase ten minutes earlier came cruising by, saw me walking and stopped to make the arrest of yours truly. Having racing numbers on my jersey, motorcycle, and helmet didn’t make it too hard to identify me. I didn’t understand from a scientific stand point what had happened until now!

After 145 heart beats per minute bad things happen! Motor skills breakdown and we can’t do simple things like dial 911 successfully. At 175 our ability to think breaks down. Our forebrain shuts down and our mid brain takes over. This is the same part of the brain that all mammals have. Basically we become the equivalent of a frightened animal like a dog. In the above story I didn’t lose my motor skills but I do feel like a primal part of my brain took over. I felt like an animal being chased and my only thought was to flee!

There was another time where I did experience a full breakdown momentarily. I thought it was shock. Maybe it was. I was at the crash scene of a motorcycle accident where my friend was killed by a driver under the influence of drugs. Two other friends were injured in the same horrific incident, one with a broken leg and the other with a broken foot. There were police cars, fire trucks and a medevac helicopter. Motorcycles, parts and luggage were scattered across the highway. Firemen were instructing me on what hospital to go to and all I could hear was “wa wa wa wa” like when the teacher speaks to Charlie Brown. My brain and my hearing could not function at that moment. Another friend was standing with me and remembers the same exact thing. We stared at each other blankly and asked each if the other got that. We both shook our heads “no” and walked away in opposite directions.

What I was really trying to blog about in regards to this book was how it relates to split second decisions on the road. Motorcyclists often encounter situations where a split second decision is the difference between going home or going to the Shock Trauma Center and having a leg amputated or taking a dirt nap at the local cemetery. All the training and practice you do on your motorcycle is data for your super computer. All the reading you do about motorcycle safety goes into your super computer. When your riding and all of a sudden a car illegally enters your path of travel cutting you off you are going to activate your powers of rapid cognition! Some rider’s brains will crunch the data, calculate their options and come up with “lay her down”. Others will subconsciously access the routine for a quick stop. Others might “instinctively” swerve. Worse yet, but not uncommon, are those who come up with nothing! They just freeze and ride straight into the oncoming vehicle because they never learned how to execute a quick stop. This is why it is so important to visualize what you would do ahead of time, to practice ahead of time and to get training and books on how to handle these situations. You’re brain will have a fraction of a second to rapidly access the information in your head and react. It will happen too fast for you to be cognizant of what is going down! In an emergency situation like this your super computer will take over and make a split second decision that will either save your butt or not. I think understanding and harnessing the powers of thinking without thinking are worth reading about.

Read Blink! It’s fascinating!

3 Responses to “Split Second Decisions”

  1. I’ve had the book in my hands a couple of times but have not read it. Based on this review I think I’ll pick up a copy the next time I’m at Chapter’s. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Definitely give it a read Canajun.

  3. Love anything he writes. Fascinating guy.

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