Adaptive Unconscious & A Coin Toss...
According to Wikipedia, the adaptive unconscious is that liminal zone between dreams and reality, what might be called a reciprocal of experiences, memories, and dreams. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the part of our brain responsible for fast thinking...
I have always felt the present of this part of my psyche, my brain structure. Very quick thoughts that come seemingly from out of nowhere, but upon examination, show me that they are based on some other part of my mind taking in a great deal of information rapidly.
It is a bit tricky because one never really knows (until the moment has passed) whether this presence sense impression is actually real. You have to be aware enough to know you are having this thought, then have the guts to follow it through when the reality of the experience hasn’t yet caught up to the conscious working mind. And the problem is because it is adaptive, it is always working behind the scenes.
In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates for us exactly how it works with a great many examples. The best of which, at least to me describes a firefighter captain who saved his entire team because he was capable of taking action based on this adaptive unconscious.
Here is the story:
Firemen respond to a house fire. A long, narrow one story house with the fire appearing in the kitchen at the very back of the house. Immediately things did not add up to the Captain. When they doused the fire, the fire did not respond the way fire should have...the living room (where they were fighting the fire from) was too hot, the fire should have been quiet but it was noisy, and after they doused the fire well enough to extinguish the fire, it reappeared. The Captain was busy fighting the fire with his team. He didn’t have time to step back and evaluate the situation. He didn’t know what was wrong, but his adaptive unconscious knew something was up. He quickly ordered everyone out of the house. And they left, just before the fire engulfed the entire home.
Turns out the fire was in the basement. He didn’t know the house had a basement. He just knew, on some unconscious level, that the fire wasn’t behaving correctly given the information he could assess immediately. He didn’t know what was wrong, he just knew something was wrong, and he took action based upon that. And because he did, he saved everyone, including himself, on his team.
We all have this ability. This present sense impression where our bodies, and minds have taken in information that has not really registered to that part of our brains that we can apply logic and reasoning. We just know something and some of us can take action and avert danger or disaster.
Malcolm Gladwell’s whole proposition about the adaptive unconscious is for us to learn to use it so that we may free the mind up so that we may pay attention to other things.
Rapid cognition has a place that overrules and in fact, out performs rational experience.
And to some degree, I have been developing my ability to tap into this adaptive unconscious my whole life. There are times when I just know things. I have no idea why I know them, I just do. And although it has taken years, I have come to trust it enough to follow the intuitive urging, even when my rational mind tells me something else.
It is that first impression that comes out of nowhere, that isn’t unlike immediate distaste for a person or situation. It is finding a way to connect to that part of my brain that sits behind a locked door, so its ability to communicate and effectuate action, is more limited than my conscious mind. But I am learning there are signs...and I can heed them.
I was in an almost plane crash once upon a time. We boarded a small plane in Miami and were headed for Tallahassee. The flight took off like any other flight I had been on. Shortly after takeoff, I looked up from my book and felt the cabin felt hazy. Like there was an almost steam in the cabin. I looked around to see if the other passengers were alerted, they were not. I didn’t smell smoke but I could see there was a haze that shouldn’t have been there. I allowed myself to feel comforted by everyone else on the flight carrying on. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong, like really wrong.
A few minutes later, I looked up again and the cabin was filling with smoke. Other people started to notice. The Captain came on the loud speaker and told us there was indeed a fire on the plane and we would have to make an emergency landing...
A few minutes later, we were losing altitude rapidly, we were told to assume crash positions, we were not going to make it to an airport and were likely going to land in water.
I didn’t know what to do, did I call my family to say goodbye? What the fuck was a crash position?! I didn’t recall anyone instructing us on that previously. I became overwhelmed with the very real feeling that I was going to die and I was not fucking ready to do that.
Long story, short, we made the airport runway by seconds and inches. We were evacuated off the plane, evaluated for smoke inhalation and rebooked on another flight.
It was a harrowing experience to be sure...I was unclear whether or not I would be boarding the next flight home...I thought that perhaps booking a car and driving would be a better option, in fact a permanent better option. But I would never make it home for my daughter’s birthday party if I drove. So I got on the next plane, feeling sure that my near brush with death gave me a pass for the next flight. Really what I thought was that if I survived a plane disaster to only be killed immediately following in another plane disaster, then I couldn’t really argue that it was my time to fucking go...
A few months later, I was boarding another plane when the airline made us get off the plane due to a situation with the air-conditioning system...this was what had caught fire on the other plane. We were boarded, then unboarded then in what seemed like far too short of time for them to properly evaluate an entire air-conditioning system, reboarded us and prepared to get us on our way.
I freaked out. I really needed to be on that flight but I was in full panic mode at that point. Everything in my being was telling me to not get back on that plane. The rational side of me was wining, because I was not getting back on that plane. But I also really needed to get to where I was going...I had shit to do, commitments to honor. But I also did not want to die. And I sat there in conflict with myself and a little irritated that the airline would put me in that situation....
What to do?
My rational mind was a mess. I couldn’t figure out if I was talking myself into a fate that I couldn’t come back from, or if my adaptive unconscious was activated and giving me a path through all the crazy information I was being flooded with...I could feel in this moment both parts of my mind working...against each other.
Ultimately, I flipped a coin. Heads I stayed on, tails I got off. And I was completely married to following either directive. For me, this was my way to access the information contained behind the locked door. And turns out it was heads. And so I stayed on and had a lovely flight to Atlanta. And spawned a new way of accessing this adaptive unconscious for myself going forward. I have come to flip that coin now whenever I come to a place in my life where that present sense impression, that gut level charge that tells me something is off, is occurring simultaneously with some real world issue that perhaps seems ok on the surface, but my gut doesn’t think so.
And it works for me. In an instant, I have the sense, I flip the coin (there is actually an app for that) and then I follow what it says....every time. There have only been a couple of times that I contravened the coin, and I paid for it every single time!
Now I just do it. I see that my adaptive unconscious is alerted and I take heed. I do not brush it aside or tell myself that how I feel, isn’t real. I just listen to it and then flip the coin to give me directional access. Then I just blindly follow.
This whole experience happened almost eight years ago...and I can tell you that my feeling, that intuitive thought that something isn’t right, coupled with some means to access it, has steered me correctly thus far.
And I know that many of you think I am nuts. But now I know, because I read a book that tells me so, that what this whole experience has really been, is a gateway into being able to cut through all the information overload that is happening to us all the time, and allow me to respond quickly and decisively in times of crises...regardless of what the crises actually is.
There is great power in thinking without thinking...Don’t believe me? Give it a try sometime, if you dare. The life you save may just be your own or someone you love...