Are You Smart Enough to Survive the 21st Century?
Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees, is famous for his perplexing, yet perceptive opinions. With regard to what America should do in the face of our uncertain, pandemic-driven future, I think Yogi’s most useful piece of advice would be this one;
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”
This is one of Yogi’s funnier quips. Like all his other quotes, this one somehow makes you smile, perhaps even laugh a little, at the sly way Yogi manages to sneak a book’s worth of wisdom into a 10 second quip.
I believe this quip is a particularly apt piece of wisdom for America as we search for a way through the coronavirus pandemic. A month ago, in a Costs and Consequences blog I wrote I tried to offer my version of Yogi’s “fork in the rode” advice. Problem is, it took me three pages to barely hint at what Yogi got said in eleven words.
Here’s my version of Yogi’s quote:
“Across the world, we’re in the midst of a momentous transformation,
an open-ended period of time during which the entire world is
making a shift from a modern industrial society to a postmodern information society.”
My primary message was and still is the suggestion that America, as a society, and each of us as its citizens, are facing our own fork in the road. A fork in the road that’s being brought to us by the world’s transformation to a postmodern information society. A fork in the road that I believe is one that fairly soon will be demanding an answer from us. Whether or not we’re prepared to give it.
What Yogi and I are trying to say, him with his quip and me with my three pages worth of words is this.
Right now America, and each of us as its citizens, is standing on the brink of what’s quickly becoming an existential choice.
One of the forks in front of us lets us continue to try to solve America’s most complex problems — issues like global warming, regressive politics, and of course the coronavirus pandemic — by using the same rational modes of problem solving and the one-perspective storytelling that we’ve been using for the last 300 years. The other fork in front of us is asking us to set aside these well-worn modes of problem solving and one -perspective storytelling and instead to try responding to our most complex issues — like the coronavirus pandemic — by using an arational, multilinear mode of thinking.
If you will, our own complexity mindset.
THE COMPLEXITY MINDSET LEARNING JOURNEY
Our ability to choose this second fork depends on our willingness and our ability to develop the arational, multi-linear habits of mind that complexity experts like Jennifer Garvey Berger, Mieke van der Bijl, and Doug Silsbee are showing us is the right approach to today’s complex crises.
Our ability to develop this kind of mindset will depend, at least initially, on our willingness to start teaching ourselves how to notice our brain’s instinctive reactions to the dangers and threats that today’s complex problems bring into our lives.
If we want to teach ourselves how to “notice” our sensory reactions to a threat like the coronavirus pandemic while it’s happening, we need to teach ourselves how do two things:
1. Consciously notice and interrupt our anxiety responses as they happen.
2. Re-channel these instinctive reactions away from our instinctive, knee-jerk behaviors toward more complex and experimentally playful responses.
It’s simple to suggest this. But it’s especially difficult to learn how to do it.
Nonetheless, the task is learning how to recognize, interrupt, re-interpret, and then respond more experimentally to the threats that complex situations like the coronavirus pandemic are pushing into our lives.
FIGHT, FLIGHT, OR FREEZE
The scientists who study our brain’s and our body’s visceral reactions to complex threats like the coronavirus pandemic have named our instinctive, visceral responses to these threats our “fight, flight, or freeze reaction.” The scientific term they use for this is our “threat management system.”
Knowing something about these three reactions, and the threat management system they’re a part of, is important because these days we’re all living in a world that’s essentially devoid of the kinds of terrifying threats that immediately catch our attention. Most of us can go an entire lifetime without ever coming face to face with a tiger, a poisonous snake, or a hostile tribesman.
A friend that insults us, a boss that bullies us, or a leader who consistently gaslights us are the closest most of us are ever going to get to coming face to face with events that are serious enough for us to either fight, flee, or freeze. Today, these kinds of threats are the ones that activate our fight/flight/freeze reactions.
When compared to the threat reaction a tiger evokes, our reactions to today’s threats are barely noticeable. Which is why, at this point in history, we need to consciously know something about our amygdala hijack responses. Today, knowing the words that describe the anxiety reactions that a threat like the coronavirus pandemic evokes in us helps us remember that we need to recognize, interrupt, re-interpret, and then respond in new ways to the bullies, riots, and leaders that these days are the things that threaten us.
THE VITAL HALF SECOND
Practically speaking, getting control of our fight, flee, or freeze reactions is hard to do. This is so because each of these three reactions happens so quickly — and unconsciously — that they’re almost impossible to notice.
MRI studies of the amygdala hijack process show that at most there’s about a half second between the time our brain and body unconsciously sense a threat and the point in time when our brain releases its fight, flight, or freeze chemicals into our body. Which means that, if we want to interrupt this instinctive process, and consciously develop for ourselves a more reasoned set of responses, we only have a half-second’s worth of time to do five things;
1. Consciously sense our amygdala’s earliest sensory signals,
2. Recognize them for what they are,
3. Interrupt them,
4. Reroute our amygdala’s signals to the rational portions of our brains so we can develop more rational, measured, and appropriate responses, and
Louis Cozolino, the cognitive scientist who discovered this time frame, has named this period of time between when our amygdala sends a threat signal to our brain and when our brain receives it our “vital half second.” This half-second is the amount of time we have if we want to consciously intervene in our amygdala’s automatic, pre-programed fight, flight, or freeze reactions in order to insert some more complex thinking, feelings, and behaviors. Reactions that are a better fit with the situations we’re in.
Cozolino suggests that making this change is difficult, but certainly possible.
The time it takes to teach ourselves how to notice and then interrupt our brains’ fight, flee, or freeze signals varies from person to person. Personal learning styles come into play, as does the ability to play in an experimental way. No matter what though, teaching ourselves how to recognize incoming danger signals and then insert some kind of conscious decision making that lets us consciously develop new, more complex forms of behavior is certainly never going to be easy. For anyone.
Today, thanks to recent neuroplasticity discoveries that prove our brains’ neurobiological networks are malleable across our lifespan, we all have the opportunity we need to learn how to perceive, interrupt, interpret, and act on our incoming danger signals. This ability is what we here at Transformational Learning Opportunities know as an “experiential learning journey.”
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
There’s no doubt the 21st century is asking us to revamp our sense of the world we’re living in. And to think carefully about how we interpret and respond to the threats in it that are shaping our lives. We may not be aware of the anxiety we’re carrying because of this world’s transformation to a postmodern information society. But we can teach ourselves to notice the anxiety reactions we create for ourselves in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, the protests of George Floyd’s killing, or the polarized and polarizing politics that just now are disrupting our lives.
In this context, there’s no doubt that a big part of moving forward — especially if we want to survive and even thrive — will involve developing for ourselves the kinds of complex mindsets we need to interpret the multi-faceted, seriously complex events that are our new normal. Events like our efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic while simultaneously reacting to the disruptive protests, the militaristic police responses, and the mean-spirited psuedo-leadership that just recently has been driving this country.
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