The Frontal Cortex

Capt. Sully and Deliberate Calm

I’ve got an op-ed today in the LA Times on how Captain Sullenberger managed to stay calm in the face of terrifying circumstances:

We can all learn something from Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III. After his US Airways plane lost power and the smell of smoke and jet fuel filled the cabin, he needed to make a decision. The air traffic controllers were instructing him to proceed to a small airport in Teterboro, N.J., which was less than 10 miles to the west. But could the plane make it that far? Or would it crash in the Bronx?

In recent years, neuroscientists have been able to see what happens inside the brain when people, like Sullenberger, are forced to make decisions under pressure. Though the typical assumption is that some people don’t feel fear — that they are somehow less scared than the rest of us — that assumption turns out to be false. The fear circuits in the brain, such as the amygdala, generate their response automatically; it’s almost certain that everyone on board Flight 1549 was terrified.

What, then, allows people like Sullenberger to make effective decisions in harrowing circumstances? How do they keep their fear from turning into panic? Scientists have found that the crucial variable is the ability to balance visceral emotions against a more rational and deliberate thought process, which is centered in the prefrontal cortex. This balancing act is known as metacognition — a sort of thinking about thinking.

Pilots have a different name for this skill: They call it “deliberate calm,” because staying calm under fraught circumstances requires both conscious effort and regular practice.

This is where flight simulators enter the picture. The advantage of these realistic simulators, which have been in widespread use since the early 1980s, is that they allow pilots to practice extreme flight scenarios, such as a total loss of engine power over water. The training provides pilots with important technical skills — they can practice flying crippled planes — but it also teaches them something more important: how to draw on an optimal blend of reason and emotion. They learn how to ignore their fear when fear isn’t useful and how to make quick, complicated decisions in the most fraught situations. Flight crews don’t panic because they’ve practiced staying calm.

Read the whole thing.

Comments

  1. #1 Ginny Deerin
    January 17, 2009

    Jonah- Brilliant article. You were able to help people understand what is behind the “calm” and that, most important, you can learn the skills.

    I founded Wings for kids twelve years ago. We teach elementary school age kids who are growing up in poverty social and emotional skills by weaving a comprehensive social and emotional curriculum into a great after school program. Yale has done research about our results. And UVA is beginning a study. One day I’d love to tell you more.

    Thank you for your article. We will link to it from our site so many more can read it.

  2. #2 Mariah
    January 17, 2009

    Make them fix the typo in the tag line under the title over there:

    “A mental state called megacognition probably kept Flight 1549′s captain cool and collected.”

    Although I like the idea of megacognition, I don’t think that’s what you mean.

  3. #3 James
    January 17, 2009

    I read your piece, and I have a question. How do you know that the pilot chose the best option? Is it simply a function of the outcome? Can’t good decisions sometimes have bad consequences, and vice versa?

  4. #4 Markk
    January 17, 2009

    Who is saying the pilot chose the “best” option? What does that even mean? He chose an option in which no one was killed in a situation where the odds of that were high (>10% at least which is higher than I would like to face). That is a good outcome. That is all one looks for, so in that sense since 0 people died it was the “best”. Even looking at old books like “The Right Stuff” or other older works, the pilots and others in those situations didn’t say “let me do the best”, they said “Please don’t let me screw up”. Not making the bad choice is the key.

  5. #5 James
    January 17, 2009

    In the op-ed piece:

    “It is almost certainly what allowed Capt. Sullenberger to assess his options and settle on the best one.”

    There is a difference between evaluating the decision-maker’s performance and the outcome of any particular decision. It’s like running an experiment and drawing conclusions from the results of a single cell.

  6. #6 Jim Thomerson
    January 17, 2009

    I suspect he felt like an observer, sitting there watching his training, experience, and muscle memory do the right things and thinking “Gee, this is cool”.

  7. #7 anonymous
    January 17, 2009

    AAARRGGHH. I just can’t handle it anymore. I read your posts and you always want to make the claim that cognition is the joint exercise of “rational” and “emotional” processing, then you go on to use single locus language all the time (“centered in the prefrontal cortex” in the above piece, but pick your poison), instead of emphasizing the circuitry! It drives me batty.

    Not only that, NPR reported in two different ways (interview and in a story, quoted below) yesterday that there are not simulations for double engine loss in the way this event happened. Ditching yes, engine loss, yes, but not this combination. To quote:

    The range of emergencies for which pilots train is extensive, says John Ladd, a pilot who has flown with American Airlines for more than 17 years. American Airlines captains and first officers go through simulator training every nine months, practicing what Ladd calls “plain vanilla” emergencies like engine failures, wind shear, total hydraulic failure and two-engine loss at high altitude.

    “They also give us emergencies that allow us to explore the flight envelope of the airplane,” Ladd says, explaining that losing both engines on takeoff, airplane fires, structural problems and high-speed descents are still practiced, although not as regularly as other emergencies.

    Early reports indicate that Flight 1549 lost both engines, leaving the airplane at a low altitude with little thrust.

    “Typically, we don’t practice double engine failure ditchings,” Ladd says. “That’s not a normal training thing. We talk about it, but we don’t do it in a simulator. Engine failures? All the time. Double engine failures? Not so often.”

    Executing a water landing is especially tricky, and Richard Fanjoy, associate head of the Aviation Technology Department at Purdue University, says there’s not much of a history of successful water landings for commercial airliners.

    Ladd says there is a checklist for “ditching” an airplane, but Sullenberger most likely didn’t have time to go through it.

    Furthermore you suggest neuroscientists can look into the brain when we are faced with choices under pressure – I highly doubt the situations are like this (although I do recall some very interesting work Hans Breiter did years ago with OCD patients in the scanner that would cause extreme duress).

    Finally, I thought metacognition was a slow, deliberate process – you certainly say this. Then you state that the decision must be quick. What is the mechanism by which these two processing modes come together in action?

    I guess I should read the whole thing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I will, but reluctantly. You really are an oversimplifier.

  8. #8 dreikin
    January 17, 2009

    anonymous:
    I agree with most of your points, but I’d like to propose something in regards to the metacognition one: The brain can ‘overclock’ itself under certain circumstances – it’s limited in time and function (or more so than ‘normal’), but it can allow “a slow, deliberate process” to happen much faster than usual – although with a corresponding lack of accuracy/precision. Which is still better than the basic fear-response thought process (except when in their appropriate situations, like ‘run!’).

    Although, from personal experience, that all misses the point anyway – anytime I’ve been in a situation that evokes (or would evoke) a fear response, while I still get all the physiological symptoms (heightened pulse, slight twitchiness, etc), it’s not really like mentally ‘negotiating’ with the fear or anything – it’s more like an awareness that the panic option is there, but not a compulsion to take it. Kinda like knowing you have a gun in your holster while you’re taking an exam – you *could* use it to get out of the exam, and as a gun it has a distinct place in your awareness, but it’s easy enough to focus without it. Most of the cognitive issues I’ve experienced are due more to the physiological response than any mental fear response – and some of the mental responses are quite helpful to cognition in the circumstance (narrowed focus to the present and immediate problem, and how to resolve it).

    Of course, the less I know about/can control the situation, the less effective that is – the problematic fear response only seems to come about when you lack the knowledge and power to manipulate the situation (except for phobias and the like).

  9. #9 Donna B.
    January 17, 2009

    Is the phenomenon of ‘time slowing down’ the same as the brain overclocking itself?

    The only serious car wreck I’ve ever been in probably happened in less than 30 seconds, but it ‘felt’ like several minutes. No one was injured, but my Corvette melted.

    This emergency likely could not have happened to a better pilot, in the sense of years of flying experience, his glider training, his work on safety procedures, his work in the area of psychology of flight crews, etc.

    I haven’t read whether he exclusive flew the Airbus model involved, but extensive experience with the machine likely played a role as well. If I’d been a more experienced Corvette driver and more experienced with it’s sensitive steering, I would likely have avoided that wreck.

  10. #10 Ira in L.A.
    January 18, 2009

    Jonah, you write “That’s why … he pretended the river was a runway.”
    Could it simply be that he pretended he could land on the water and that his pretense was borne out? I get the quick analysis … the bridge, the distance/time, plugging in the risk of not making it and being over a city. It’s like what quarterbacks do. Or anybody making decisions in real time. Only the stakes are higher.
    Once you peel away the stakes, it’s just a least-squares analysis: how do I get from here to there, and ‘there’ may be undefined in specifics but is conceptually known if not unique.

  11. #11 anon
    January 18, 2009

    Michael, you’re so tactless. You have some good points, but you can say everything that needs to be said in a much more polite manner than you choose. No reason to be so dang hostile all the time. If it’s so exasperating for you to communicate with mere mortals, maybe you should stop reading other people’s blogs.

  12. #12 scott crawford
    January 18, 2009

    Great post. Makes perfect sense from my old days of instructing sports car racing. You practice getting into and out of trouble so you don’t have to think about what to do when your student, behind the wheel and inexperienced, suddenly decides to spin a few timea and smack a barrier backwards.

    The sensation is almost like a feeling of being underwater. Very quiet, calm, orderly. Your eyes get extremely wide and your processing kicks into high gear, little cranial cooling fans whirring away. An event that takes 15 seconds feels like 15 minutes as you click through the action-reaction-adjustment-observation-adjustment-etc-etc, without second-guessing. That’s the most fascinating thing to me. The learning is real-time, but a second-guess spells failure. No time to catch up.

    Muscle memory plays a major factor, of course. But so also does the use of verbal cues. I found that I talked myself through such situations, instinctively, and that the language was consistent and calming. The added breathing likely enhanced oxygen flow, as well. Breathing under pressure is vital. Reptiian response has you tighten every muscle, including the diaphragm. Talking, shouting if necessary, forces you to get back to breathing fast.

    Enough of my rambling. And apologies ahead of time if I dared to convey that I thought myself in the same league as Captain Sullenberger. Not by a long shot.

  13. #13 Jean
    January 18, 2009

    I’d like to suggest that ad hominem comments do not support rational discourse. “You really are an oversimplifier” and “you’re so tactless” are irrelevant to the topic of brain function in stressful situations.

    And that’s my sermon for the day.

  14. #14 Johan Strandell
    January 18, 2009

    Frank Herbert was a neuroscientist? I’m reminded of the “litany against fear” in the Dune books, which even though fictional, seems to be similar to deliberate calm.

  15. #15 Tom
    January 18, 2009

    Scott Crawford,

    Your point is excellent and I would extend it even further to circumstances that don’t always involve danger. Anyone who has ever played a sport at the highest levels is aware of rehearsal effects that lead one to see what is happening in a way that seems as if time is slowed down. I’ve played two sports at the highest amateur levels and this is my experience in both cases.

    One of those sports is baseball. I never felt more assured about what I was doing than when I stepped into a batter’s box. With a fastball climbing up against my chin, I would stay calm, see where the ball is going and let it pass harmlessly with a slight jerk of my head. And as a ball I’m going to swing at is headed toward the plate, I have the distinct feeling that there is plenty of time as I watch the path of travel, even though it all looks like an instant to an onlooker. Rehearsal and practice at staying calm and attentive to the task makes us calm and attentive to tasks that would otherwise seem impossibly difficult under pressure.

    Although flight simulators may not create the sense of danger that the real dangerous event creates, I suspect that the experience of calm rehearsal kicks in when the real event occurs.

  16. #16 Dan Erwin
    January 18, 2009

    Although metacognition is a rarely understood concept in management, we’re learning that better business people understand and use the skill of metacognition in their decision making process. We also believe that a high degree of expertise in a given discipline is requisite for metacognition.

  17. #17 Matt Springer
    January 18, 2009

    “Finally, I thought metacognition was a slow, deliberate process – you certainly say this. Then you state that the decision must be quick. What is the mechanism by which these two processing modes come together in action?”

    Deliberate and quick are not exclusive. The legendary gunfighter Wyatt Earp once gave some advice on how to win a gunfight that’s apropos here (paraphrased): take your time, fast.

  18. #18 Charlie Unkeless
    January 19, 2009

    I suppose it was fortunate that I was teaching aeronautics to middle school kids when a teachable moment arrived with the quick thinking and heroic actions of a veteran pilot. New Yorkers have been in the midst of a funk about the collapse of the financial industry and the tales of scurrilous advisers who sank their portfolios, so it was good that they could rejoice in a momentary miracle. Captain Sullenberg’s great skill and experience along with fate allowed him to ditch his airplane in the Hudson River. As it happened, two ferries, engines running and ready to go, plucked the 155 survivors off the wings of that sinking airplane, and the captain, checking the aisles one last time was the last to leave the ship.

    We all need teachable moments. My students, needing a way to understand how valuable their skills could be in a time of crisis, saw how good judgment and experience could avert a terrible disaster. Flying a plane is challenging and you may only have a short time to avert disaster when your engines ingest multiple geese and all power is lost. Reason must triumph over fear if lives are to be saved.

    Jonah Lehrer published an excellent article in the Los Angeles Times in which he talks about a pilot’s, “deliberate calm,” a phrase he equates with metacognition. Teachers learn this concept in their training as showing students how to be self reflective. Mr. Lehrer suggests that, “the crucial variable is the ability to balance visceral emotions against a more rational and deliberate thought process.”

    We have to engage our students and put them in the moment when they have to make quick decisions based upon training and skill and show them how to triumph over fear. The simulators in my classroom are one good teaching tool but every teacher can take this moment and find a way to motivate students to call upon the, “better angels of our nature.”

    I’m planning a mission for my students where I put them at 3000 feet over Santa Monica Bay and turn off the engines in their Cessna 172 simulators. They will need to calculate their rate of vertical descent and come in for a glider landing at the nearest regional airport.

    We may never be tested like Captain Sullenberger but that doesn’t mean we can’t emulate his, “deliberate calm,” and act like real pilots.

    Charlie Unkeless
    Computer Lab Instructor
    John Burroughs Middle School
    Los Angeles, California

  19. #19 bigTom
    January 19, 2009

    I think it is really a fascinating subject, as to how we react to a rapidly developing emergency. Thinking back to the handful of such instances in my own life, I think having expertise in the needed skills, and knowing that might be key (at least I think I might have panicked had I not been confident). Its kind of a matter of a detached (some might say out-of-body) mood, where one knows that the most/only thing that matters is that you do your best possible (as distinct from I gotta save the day). I didn’t think I’d be successful, just had a feeling a satisfaction, that I was making the very best response possible, so everything is cool.

    I think, not having confidence in one’s abilities can lead to the opposite response, “I am so uncomfortable with the state of fear, that I am going to take the first action which will end that state as soon as possible -regardless of the likely outcome”. The later reaction is not likely to lead to a favorable outcome.

  20. #20 Pravalika
    January 22, 2009

    Really Useful information Here.

  21. #21 Deal with Change
    January 25, 2009

    Great story and I referenced it in Deal with Change too

  22. #22 Hoyt Duff
    January 26, 2009

    You touch on this in “how We Decide”. The benefit of the flight simulators is to learn that fear is not useful in those situations and that the feelings fear can safely be ignored. Difficult to do without practice because fear is so overwhelming and rarely the optimal strategy in modern times.

  23. #23 Marco
    January 28, 2009

    I’ve been going to Buddhist meditation for a few months, and metacognition and deliberate calm are major themes. Buddhism seems to be a set of practices designed to help resolve the conflicts among different brain modules.

    One teacher has described putting your anger “on a pillow” or observing your own emotions or behavior patterns as though they were “TV reruns.” We can all observe or analyze ourselves in distant hindsight; the difficult part is learning to do it in realtime. As you mentioned, we will always feel fear when it’s appropriate, but we must “feel the fear and do it anyway.” Such a skill can be learned only through practice and repetition as that’s how neurons get wired. A good set of practices, done daily or weekly, will gradually make more sense over months and years until they seem natural.

  24. #24 youtube
    January 28, 2009

    Very good. Thanks.

  25. #25 tuba büyüküstün
    January 28, 2009

    thanks you

  26. #26 Ralph Hitchens
    February 11, 2009

    You’re right, it takes practice, practice, practice. Which Capt. Sullenberger got plenty of in the military. The Air Force doesn’t assume that all successful pilot training candidates are reincarnations of Charles Lindbergh, they assume that unless they train us thoroughly and often in emergency procedures we will fly apart in a panic when the s**t hits the fan. My own accident was on a smaller scale that Capt. Sully’s — a light twin with a fuel transfer problem that killed both engines, descending in the weather. I recall being calm and performing what limited emergency procedures were available, while what seemed like a wholly separate part of my brain was running over the fact of my probable imminent demise. We survived a crash landing because of the hundreds of hours of emergency procedures training I received in the Air Force, which imbues most pilots with the self-discipline they will need in a crisis. Sully is obviously a great pilot, but he also came out of a great training regime.

  27. #27 mantar bariyer
    February 25, 2009

    thanks

  28. #28 yer tuzagi
    February 25, 2009

    arma arma arma arma

  29. #29 hidrolik
    March 2, 2009

    hidrolik

  30. #30 David Ebaugh
    March 5, 2009

    “Deliberate calm” is very similar to mindfulness, a process of engaging in a deliberate and focused awareness of your surroundings. As a psychotherapist here in Portland, OR, I use experiential exercises and visualization much like a pilot uses a flight simulator, to walk clients through stressful or anxiety provoking situations. Just as simulators help pilots learn to respond effectively to highly stressful situations, visualization and experiential exercises help clients to develop skills to get them through stressful episodes much more effectively.

  31. #31 webcrea
    October 6, 2011

    Although metacognition is a rarely understood concept in management, we’re learning that better business people understand and use the skill of metacognition in their decision making process.
    The sensation is almost like a feeling of being underwater. Very quiet, calm, orderly. Your eyes get extremely wide and your processing kicks into high gear, little cranial cooling fans whirring away. An event that takes 15 seconds feels like 15 minutes as you click through the action-reaction-adjustment-observation-adjustment-etc-etc, without second-guessing. That’s the most fascinating thing to me. The learning is real-time, but a second-guess spells failure. No time to catch up.

  32. #32 webcrea
    October 6, 2011

    One teacher has described putting your anger “on a pillow” or observing your own emotions or behavior patterns as though they were “TV reruns.