“Reality often is inaccurate.” ~Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In 1995, a 29-year old construction worker in England jumped off of some scaffolding and onto a plank on a building site, landing on a 7-inch nail. The nail pierced his boot, punching through the sole and fully out the top of the boot. The pain hit instantly and the man started screaming. He was rushed to the ER, where a surgeon injected him with midazolam. The man kept screaming in pain. Finally, the surgeon administered fentanyl, a sedative 100 times more potent than morphine.
When the man had finally calmed down, the surgeon removed the nail carefully from the boot and then took the man’s boot and sock off as well. That’s when the hospital staff discovered something astounding. The nail had passed between his toes and hadn’t even scratched his skin! There was no damage whatsoever to his foot, no blood, and no puncture wound.
And yet the man experienced excruciating pain that was all too real. So what happened? Basically, the man’s brain collected what sensory information was available – he could literally see the nail sticking out the top of his boot, as well as the horrified looks on the faces of his fellow construction workers – and filled in the blanks, using context to determine what happened (you have been hurt) and how to respond (here is some excruciating pain. Get to a hospital immediately).
The process of combining prior knowledge with uncertain evidence is known as Bayesian integration. This phenomenon has a major impact on our perceptions, thoughts, and actions. We take what we can sense and then fill in the blanks to create our reality. In fact, our expectations so influence our experiences that our expectations often become our experiences.
What I’m saying is this. The world is what we think it is and what we predict it will be. So it might behoove us to slow down our thoughts and become more flexible with them.
The construction worker thought he had plenty of “evidence” to support his belief that the nail had penetrated his foot. He couldn’t actually see any damage to his foot, but his brain made a “best guess” as to how bad the injury was and responded with pain.
This reminds us to stay flexible in our thoughts and opinions, to remember that what we “know” (both individually and collectively) is dwarfed by what we don’t – and cannot – know. If we assume that our reality is, as Douglas Adams says, “often inaccurate,” then our days should be lived with a more open-minded perspective. Because a flexible mind is a powerful one. Flexible thinking is imaginative, intuitive, insightful, and investigative; it improves the outcomes of Bayesian integration by creating several possible scenarios instead of quickly jumping to a single conclusion. Had the construction worker considered there was more than one way to interpret the experience, he could have saved himself a lot of pain.
We can all think of a time when our expectations created more pain than was necessary. The biochemical lifespan of an emotion is only 90 seconds. Biochemical means the sensations – like an adrenaline rush, tightness in the throat, a rapid heartbeat, for example – arise, peak, and then dissipate on their own in about 90 seconds. So pain and fear and joy and surprise? They are generally metabolized in the body in under two minutes. So why does it feel like so much longer?
It’s the accompanying narrative we write that makes the emotion linger. The story we tell about the experience keeps it hanging around. Because humans are designed to think in stories, we often tend to conflate our body’s signals as emotions, when in fact, they’re just biochemical processes. They will pass – unless we attach a story to them and keep them alive. A flexible mind can more easily identify an emotion separately from the stories, opinions, and experiences we tell about that emotion.
So the next time you encounter a stressful experience? Slow down to let the emotion dissipate. Then think of all the stories that could be true. And while you’re at it, you might as well pick the most optimistic outcome.