What shapes our health more directly? Is it what happens in the world? Or what we think happens? The virtual reality of our perceptions can be more far reaching than the truth.
Mid afternoon January 15th I was busy writing for this website, looking things up at the New York Public Library on line (go NYPL!) when I noticed an alert appear in my email window. A US Airways flight had gone down in the frigid Hudson River. A few clicks of my mouse quickly brought me to an astonishing live news photo of dozens of people standing at that very minute on the wings of the Airbus A320 floating just off 48th street. It was totally surreal.
For days, weeks even, all of New York rightfully celebrated Captain Sullenberger and the crew of the flight for the mind blowing cool that had saved the lives of everyone on board. Then news appeared about an unsung hero who was quietly getting his life back together after the plane went down. He was still recovering from the tragedy that didn’t happen in reality, but did happen in his mind.
Patrick Harten was the air traffic controller for flight 1549. The last thing pilot Sullenberger said to Harten before his plane disappeared from the traffic controller’s screen was, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
Harten says he asked Sullenberger to repeat what he said even though he “heard him just fine. I simply could not wrap my mind around those words.”
The Hudson River is no place to land an airplane, and the air traffic controller knew it. (In the New York Times coverage that day, an experienced pilot commented, “Better to land at an airport where there’s actual crash-fire-rescue.”) Harten later told a congressional committee “People do not survive landings on the Hudson River, and I thought it was his own death sentence,” he said. “I believed at that moment I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive.” (Controller Patrick Harten – In First Public Comments About US Airways Flight 1549 – Air Traffic Control – ATC – Aviation) The strength of his beliefs created a parallel reality that gripped him.
Harten, who as the aircraft rapidly lost altitude was lucidly clearing runway options for Sullenberger at both La Guardia and Teeterboro airports, described himself as “hyperfocused during the emergency.” (You can listen to the last 3 minutes of his extraordinary attempts to help Sullenberger in a sound file that is half way down this wikipedia page.) When he had no response from flight 1549, he quite logically feared the plane and all of its crew and passengers had just died. “It was the lowest I had ever felt. It hit me hard.”
It took six weeks for a determined Harten to go back to work. He suffered from classic post traumatic stress: “Even after I learned the truth, I could not shake the image of tragedy in my mind. Every time I saw the survivors on the television, I imagined grieving widows. It has taken over a month for me to be able to see that I did a good job.”
We can learn from this unusually clear description the capacity of our nervous system to make, and then to insist upon, incorrect sense of stimuli. There was no mental illness involved, no incorrect data on his screen, no rush to judgment. Harten’s assumption of tragedy was based in previous experience. The truth turned out to be wonderful: Harten was actually wrong. Yet his body could not easily let go of the chain of events he had forged from his initial perceptions. In spite of subsequently knowing and seeing that in fact everything had ended well, Harten experienced grief when he saw pictures of survivors.
Though Harten’s experience is magnified by the heroic scale of events, day-to-day events are not so different. Survival as a species and as individuals depends on “sense-making,” our ability to learn, to draw at least some conclusions on a moment by moment basis, to compare information at hand to past experience. From this instant review and analysis we create a model of the future complete with a map of how to get there. We do it when we cross the street, when we go to college, have children or manage money. Or land planes.
I’m not making the argument that “everything is all in our heads.” The world exists. Our difficulties arise when we take that semi permeable membrane of experience for granted (as we are biologically primed to do – otherwise we’d be endlessly bogged down in details) because so much of what we think of as “out there” isn’t.
Ironically, inaccurate “models” of reality gain authority from the unerring verifiability of certain discreet pieces of information. We consciously and unconsciously fill in around those validated items with inferences, lending undeserved legitimacy to blends of “truth” that are, literally, conjecture. What’s astonishing in human behavior is how this “make-believe,” deeply embedded in normal brain functioning, asserts itself as physical reality even when we are observing in with our own senses that it isn’t real at all. Harten knew he was looking at survivors, but he felt them in spite of this as “grieving widows.”
Trauma is far from the only thing that triggers parallel worlds. Another striking example of perceptual reality that goes completely against personally known contradictory evidence is shown in research by Luke Clark on brain activity during games of chance and gambling.
In a study published in the journal Neuron, February 2009, Clark’s group demonstrated that nervous system-wise, we experience a near-miss as a win even when the near-miss and a loss have the same real-world consequences. “Compared to full-misses, near-misses were experienced as less pleasant, but increased desire to play.” Though the real world game was binary – only win or lose, with no accumulating skill or opportunity – brain activity showed participants making sense of a near-miss loss as a win.
Clark reiterates, “These data indicate that near-misses invigorate gambling through the anomalous recruitment of reward circuitry, despite the objective lack of monetary reinforcement.”
in other words, unrelated to any real world satisfaction of a task, data from this study show neural sense making activity “in the striatal and insula circuitry” of the brain, the same areas of the brain “that also responded to monetary wins,” demonstrating that we physically experience the nearness of winning as though it were the same thing as winning, though in point of fact we have lost and we know we have lost.
Neuron, Volume 61, Issue 3, 481-490, 12 February 2009
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