On not getting run over
Rushing impairs judgement. Luckily, there’s something you can do about it.
For Londoner Christian Jansen, that night was supposed to be thoroughly mundane. First, he planned on taking his German Shepard, Tinka, out on a walk. Then come back and prepare some dinner, and maybe spend the rest of the evening watching TV. But dinner was not to be; during their walk, Tinka leaped into the road just as a car was speeding towards her. Dashing to save here, Jansen was fatally hit.
On the other side of town, my neighbourhood boasts an equally busy road, a zebra crossing, and a crimson biased traffic light. Visible just beyond, with the lure of Aladdin’s Cave, lies the entrance to a London Underground station. There’s a macabre quality to the scenes of near-misses, as people hurl themselves with gusto into heavy traffic trying to reach it.
But here’s a question: Mr Jansen sprung into traffic out of his deep sense of attachment to Tinka. By contrast, the salaried men and women catapulting themselves into the road every morning seem to do so as if by compulsion. What makes them risk their lives like that?
Obviously, they are terribly rushed. Desperate to get to the office in time, their haste could be pegged on anything from an important meeting to a scrupulous boss. Most likely, though, it’s due to the pervasive urge to comply with social conventions. Show up late and everyone can see:
You. Are. LATE.
Observe Jennifer from Marketing, anxious to make it to the office on time. From her standpoint, she’s merely taking on a calculated risk; assessing the right moment to take advantage of a lapse in traffic, long enough to make it safely across.
She’s rushed so she’s stressed, but being stressed she feels even more hurried, and this vicious cycle is playing havoc with her body’s hormonal signalling. The adrenal glands, located above her kidneys, are releasing a surge of hormones, particularly adrenaline and cortisol. Together, they make her feel like a superhero:
Adrenaline pumps Marketing Jen’s body for rapid response, increasing her heart rate and raising blood pressure. Cortisol floods her bloodstream with glucose, and inhibits insulin production to maintain the elevated blood-sugar levels until a fight-or-flight response has been completed. Jumping into that road is therefore exactly what Jen’s body is pushing her to do in response to stress. That gush of relief she feels when arriving at the other side? In part, it’s her body’s cue to switch off the sirens.
The problem is, this hormonal roller-coaster is deeply at odds with taking calculated risks. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that people under stress, marketing execs included, are likely to consider fewer alternatives before acting, and be less systematic in evaluating the alternatives considered.
A vehicle–pedestrian collision is 19 times more likely to result in a fatality than a vehicle–vehicle collision, and the evidence suggests that all age groups are equally lousy at assessing the dangers of traffic-diving. However, as we grow older, we do grow wiser: Young adults (aged between seventeen and twenty four) proved to be at a much higher risk of being hit than older crossers. What accounted for the difference was not risk assessment, but the perceived value of crossing.
Having been hit by a car when I was thirteen, I think I know what this means. I didn’t think that cab was going very fast. And I had a bus to catch, which only came once an hour, so into the road I sprang. As it turns out, the cab was going fast enough. But I recall my utter bewilderment: How was I hit, if that vehicle couldn’t have possibly reached me in time? It was as if the cab that had actually hit me was different to the one I had seen coming; a crouching, uninvited cab, in what was otherwise a situation under control. As my adult self, I would have probably stayed put. I’m a mother now and don’t like much the thought of leaving two orphaned children behind.
Most days, that is. Because there are days when I, too, am terribly rushed. I feel the stress building up in my body. I’m seeing Jenny leaping and arriving safely across. She’s buggered off into the station; she’ll be making it to her marketing morning roundup, and my monkey brain is yelling at me to seize the day. Jump!
Good lord, I don’t want to get killed today.
What is there to do?
The part of the brain that perceives danger and triggers the flight-or-fight mode is known as the amygdala. When judging a situation dangerous, it signals the hypothalamus, which calls those adrenal glands into action. The amygdala lies deep within the emotional brain, so its responses are primal. Rational thinking will not sway its activity, nor will self-talk. But a loophole does exist:
Faced with an input of an anxious situation, acting in an un-anxious way triggers a sense of safety, training the amygdala to chill with the sirens. This sounds suspiciously circular (act un-anxious in order to become un-anxious), but therapists do recommend it, advising to deliberately evoke the memory of a pleasant experience during a time of stress.
Except that, my monkey brain is not being very deliberate right now. If only there was, somehow, a way to recall feel-good memories without having to think about it.
There is. And it’s all because the human memory is extremely susceptible to manipulation.
Stu, bespectacled and flustered, is currently standing opposite me at the crossing, waiting for the damn lights to change. He works in accounts; a smart, trustworthy type. When Accounting Stu is walking down the road, random memories constantly resurface, triggered by what his senses perceive. Sometimes, he’s conscious of the trigger: That lady’s shoes remind him of ones his girlfriend used to own (those heels were idiotic, thank god she threw them away).
At other times, though, a long-forgotten memory springs to mind and he’s no idea what brought it up. Was it a ray of sunshine that resurrected a long-forgotten sunny day? a whiff of cinnamon? an overflowing bin? A trigger will lie among the vast amounts of input, but Stu won’t consciously register it.
This memory-triggering mechanism can be hacked. But despite this being known for over two millennia, very few people seem to do so in everyday life. One such hack is the method of loci, also known as the mind palace technique. It’s particularly useful for memorising long lists, which is why Stu took an instant liking to it.
It always begins by imagining walking a deeply familiar path. Be it around the house or down the street, whenever trotting this path there are plenty of objects encountered time and time again. Each item on the list being memorised is turned into a vivid hook, through an absurd and unlikely link to a familiar object on that path. Walking around his house, Accounting Stu links the bread on the grocery list to the front door by imagining a door made of breadcrumbs; he links milk to the sink by imagining it coming out of the tap; and apples are linked to a window by imagining a few smashing into it in full force (Stu’s not that keen on shopping).
At the grocery store, he imagines himself entering the house, following that familiar path. Because the hooks are deliberately extraordinary, his mind is unlikely to forget or confuse them, leaving him to collect the groceries without a scribbled note in sight. This recollection tends to hold firm for future trips to the store, and the more it’s used, the more it becomes anchored into memory.
I’ve stood next to countless Jens and Stus waiting for the traffic lights to change before it struck me that the mind palace technique can equally be applied to paths in which I walk not just mentally, but physically. Except that instead of tomatoes and pasta, onto crossroads and traffic lights I would hook glowing, joyous memories.
My neighbourhood still boasts an equally busy road, a zebra crossing, and a painfully-brief traffic light, but now I have them tagged. Onto each I hook honeyed recollections, often of my children cuddling as kittens. Like a marathon runner hitting their route’s timing mats, my memory dutifully registers the mundane to evoke a gentle, muscle-soothing reminder of everything I stand to lose by giving into rush.
Standing at the road gazing at the traffic, I feel victorious. Flawed I may be, with my silly urgency, my primal, hormonal-driven instincts and my porous, gullible memory. And yet I stand here, waiting.
Until finally, the light changes.