I attended a Creativity and Innovation Summit last week. A number of research-steeped speakers pointed both to the need for creativity and innovation in the world, and to the overwhelming complexity of that very same world. The speaker who excited my brain science bent most turned out to be the keynote: experimental behavioral psychologist Danny Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for … economics. In collaboration with Amos Tversky, he essentially offered convincing proof that economic markets, long argued to be rational, were anything but. His recent popular book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, details much of that research.
What I found most interesting about Kahneman’s talk was a short anecdote he offered. He and his wife Anne, were visiting with a well-known colleague who was serving as their host. Later that evening they were discussing their impressions of the man and Kahneman’s wife concluded an exchange by remarking, “… and he rarely undresses the maid himself.” Kahneman thought this a somewhat peculiar thing to say since the man neither had a maid, nor would Anne have any direct way to know if or how their host undressed her. For Kahneman, interestingly, the thought apparently never occurred to him that he might have mis-heard what his wife had said. In his mind, she simply wasn’t making sense. He may have been concerned that she was exhibiting behavior associated with a cerebral stroke or some other cognitive malady.
All of this is interesting enough, but for me there was an ancillary piece that Kahneman presented which beautifully connnected up with neuroception and Polyvagal Theory. Before his wife made reference to the host and his care for the maid, she also confessed to Kahneman, “I find our host really sexy.”
My Life’s in Danger and I Have No Clue
Now if my wife confesses to me that she finds another man sexy, through the process of neuroception – threat detection without awareness, as described in detail by Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory – unless I tend toward alexithymia (unaware of feelings), I’m going to find that to be a pretty threatening claim. Or more precisely – my body is. I very well may not have a conscious clue however, that I am being potentially threatened with abandonment. But my smart and vegetative vagus nerves will unquestionably register and respond to her statement, while my rational mind might deny and dismiss it out of hand. That neuroceptive response from my nervous system will most likely entail secretion of adrenaline throughout body and brain. And almost simultaneously the secretion of cortisol will attempt to stem the tide in the pursuit of arousal regulation. Along with this over-simplified regulatory process, simultaneously my visual field becomes very narrowed as my eye pupils contract in order to be able to pointedly focus on the threat.
But what this kind of neuroceptive response also does when confronted with real or imagined threat is – it constricts the small muscles of the ear. When that happens, what we hear and how we hear it, is often significantly altered. Only no flashing red LED light shows up announcing: “Distorted Hearing Zone Ahead.” We DON’T KNOW we’re not seeing or hearing the same way we do when we’re NOT under great stress or threat.
And this is one key takeaway from the conference: our five senses aren’t the static, stable, infinitely reliable apprehenders-of-reality we think they are. They’re dynamic sensory processes always in flux, always doing their best to adapt to the current momentary safe or dangerous environment we happen to find ourselves operating in. And that’s a good thing, allowing for great innovation and creativity, both fast and slow.
Recognizing this neurophysiological reality, I am like the witness to a crime and simultaneously the trained detective taking down the statement word for word; but all the while aware that eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. It’s not that I can’t trust my senses, it’s more that I’m required to gather as much corroborating evidence as I can if I want to stand firmly in the truth of unfolding-world reality. Which is precisely what Kahneman – a Nobel prize-winning investigator, remember – subsequently ended up doing. He eventually asked his wife, Anne: “Why do you think our host rarely undresses the maid himself?” Her reply: “I never said, ‘He rarely undresses the maid himself.’ What I said was, ‘He rarely underestimates himself.’ “
P.S. Many thanks to those of you who took The One Question Poll. I was quite pleased to discover there is much greater interest than I imagined.