What’s your default mode?

29 11 2009

K2 The Savage Mountain

Last week, an old climbing buddy, Eileen Bistrisky, invited me to a presentation by Canadian climber, Don Bowie. K2 – The Ascent of the Savage MountainI was both inspired and horrified as he described his successful ascent of K2 without the use of supplemental oxygen.. At 28,253ft above sea level, K2, located in Northern Pakistan is the world’s second highest peak. It is widely considered to be the hardest and most dangerous mountain on earth to climb. On July 4th, 2007, Don became the 4th Canadian to summit.

Those are the raw stats. But they don’t begin to describe the strength of character of this young man. Not only did Don and his two team mates make it to the top, shortly after watching a fellow climber slide by and disappear over the edge of a cliff forever. But on the way down, in the falling dark, he stopped to help a fellow climber who had collapsed and was lying motionless in the snow. He could have kept walking. In fact, one got the feeling from hearing the story that the large majority of climbers on that mountain, would have done just that.

While helping that guy down to camp four, Don lost his footing and shot down the icy slope. Maybe it was karma, but it seems it was not his time to die, as he slid feet first into a snow-bank and stopped. 10 feet either was and he would have been toast.

The good news was that he was still alive. The bad news was that his toes on one foot were facing the wrong way; down instead of up – He had badly fractured his ankle. However, when you only have one good leg and you are 24,000 feet up a mountain, you might as well  be dead.

Unbelievably, other than his team-mates, no one else offered him any assistance. Don was stunned. Finally, just before the treacherous ice falls, getting impatient with the lack of empathy, he lashed out in frustration. This seemed to have guilted a few of the otherwise oblivious climbers into action and with that, they carried him through the last stretch. As it turns out. Don, did make it to base camp in one piece and with the help a US Army helicopter, he made it the rest of the way home.

In the ensuing Q and A, someone asked why he was willing to help a fallen comrade when he was surely close to total exhaustion himself. (remember, he has been climbing without oxygen) This is where Don really blew me away…

He said, “I train so that when I’m down to my last 5%, and I’m at the end of my rope, that my default mode is kindness”.

Kindness, now that’s an interesting concept. How many of us are even aware that when push comes to shove, when our brain is being hijacked by pain and fatigue that we even have a default mode? And how many of us have been conscious enough, in that storm of emotions, to be able to step back and pay attention to how we feel, how we are behaving and how we are being perceived? Now, take it one step further…How many of us train to control our behaviour in default mode?

I’m going to suggest that that level of self awareness is pretty rare.

Neurobiologically, we are driven into fight or flight mode when our amygdala, the part of the brain that perceives danger, flips the switch triggering the sympathetic nervous system which responding to the amygdala’s wailing siren, prepares us to either put up our dukes, or get the hell out of Dodge.

On the other hand, when we are down to our last 5%, lactic acid coming from our fatiguing muscles sends an inhibitory signal to our sensory cortex that says, “Batten the hatches, we’re going down”. At that point, parasympathetic functions like consciousness, digestion, cognition and the like start shutting down to conserve energy.

That is why you have to train your default mode.

Because, whatever happens at that point had better be automatic or else it’s not going to happen. So, in fact, not only do you have to have an idea of what you want your default mode to be, but you have to practice putting yourself in that situation over and over in order to train yourself to behave the way you want to in default mode.

In my daily work as an addictionologist, I work with people who are precisely those who in their QuestForFire become completely unconscious of the consequence of their actions Their default mode is to use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with their dysphoria. I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. It’s just the way it is. That’s the definition of addiction. Continued use of drugs or alcohol as a way of managing distress despite evidence of continuing negative consequences.

So that is why I was so impressed with Don Bowie. In his QuestForFire, his mindset is exactly the polar opposite of impulsivity. In fact, it is the essence of impulse control.

And, when you look at the massive social, economic and interpersonal harm that results when we are unable to adequately control our impulses, you can see the amazing value of Don’s ability to ride the horse, instead of letting the horse ride him.

I for one struggle with my impulse control. It may be in my genes as I come from a long line of short-tempered Spaniards who are known to succumb to temptation. I’m not trying to make excuses. It’s just that I often find myself doing and saying things in default mode that make me shake my head.

“What were you thinking”? I wonder to myself. That’s just it. I wasn’t thinking. I was in default mode. So now the challenge is to imagine a more sensible default mode and to see if I can behave differently enough times to crack the mould and hopefully sculpt something I can be proud of.

Next week we’ll talk more about impulse control, what’s behind it neurobiologically and how we can harness it.

Cheers, A

Dr. Anthony Ocana   MD, MSc, CCFP, ABAM                                                               Family Physician, Addiction Specialist                                                     drocana@telus.net


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5 responses

30 12 2009
Twitted by DrAnthonyOcana

[…] This post was Twitted by DrAnthonyOcana […]

14 02 2010
Johanne Bessette

Hello Dr Ocana. Reading this last text about our inner default mode reminded me of many a domestic fight… Most of us don’t get to train ourselves until our last 5% in order to force our default mode into kindness. It results that like most of us, I have said things I regretted when I felt at the end of my theather.

I believe the fight or flight reflex is such a powerful reaction that in most cases, it might even be unrealistic to try to tame or modify it. After all, this reflex is there for survival, and the message it gives us must be listened to, as it may warn us of an imminent need for change. During those instances, we are in survival mode and we become automatically self-centered in order to save ourselves first before being able to help others. And usually, this is a reasonable thing to do. So is it realistic or even desireable to change this reflex?

Maybe Don Bowie is the exeption to the rule? I like to think not, but since most of us will not achieve his level of self control and self awareness rapidely or easily, what are we to do in the mean time?

What I personally strive for is to be self-aware enough to recognize when I behave in my default mode. If my default mode is anger and blame on others, then I take the time to put the situation in perspective and humly offer my appologies if my words were less than kind…

This doesn’t mean I don’t strive to push the limits of my comfort zone, though, so as not to get into a fight or flight mode too often. But physical exhaustion and emotional stress cannot always be avoided…and it is not always easy to recognize when we have stretched ourselves too far.

What would I have done if I would have met Don Bowie on the Mountain, his ankle broken, if I was myself on my last 5%? I don’t know. Would I have even been able to hear his call, if all I heard was my heart pounding and my struggling breath? I think that if I were alone with him, I would either pass my way, or we would both die trying to get down together. What saved Don Bowie was the collective effort of many exhausted climbers, who were able to share the extra effort to bring Don down to base camp.

Ah! Mountaineering survival stories can be so horrendous. They test the very limit of mankind’s resolve and endurance.
I truly admire ther resolve, without sharing nor truly understanding their desire to risk their lives to test their very limits on each ascent…

Johanne Bessette

17 02 2010
Johanne Bessette

Hi Dr Ocana.
I am still thinking of Don Bowie on the Mountain. It deeply touches me and humbles me to think of human beings being faced with the choice between self-preservation, what our most powerful instincts tell us to do, and with honoring one of our highest human emotion: compassion for others. And what truly touches me here, is that this means that to be compassionate in such dire circumstances, one must have struggled wit his fight or flight instincts, quitd those voices down enough to then decide to do the honorable thing; to be compassionate and help others, even if doing so possibly means adding their own deaths to the count.

So I come to ask myself if: For those mountaineers, is all this really about dealing with the fight or flight response and choosing their default mode? Or is it really the resolution of a grieving process, to choose how you want to face death should it come down to it on the mountain?

Maybe I misunderstood a distinction you may have made between the fight or flight response, that split second instinctive reflex that is by definition self-centered as it if meant to garantee our own survival, should our higher thought functions be confused or otherwise occupied at a crutial moment, and with the “default mode” you were talking about. The way I see it, the default mode is how we think or analyse the situation in the moments following being alerted by our fight or flight response: when we realize that our best interrest is at risk and that an imediate action is needed from us. Now this might still be hapening all in a split second, and you could confirm this for me Dr Ocana, not nececessarily enough miliseconds time for our impulse control centers to kick in… No?

So the default mode would be akin to me as being able to regain contact with our higher thoughts and our humanity fast enough not to do anything dramatic or mean and senseless, which might be what the mere reflex of “fight or flight” may command us to do. To resond to the fight or flight would be to think: “Do anything, ANYTHING, but do it NOW!”, wereas if we have enough impulse control, we might be able to regain access to our rational mind processes before actually doing anything.

Now, to analyse what Don Bowie calls his default mode, I think he might have considered how he might want to behave, should he be faced with the choice of choosing to garantee his own survival VS risking death but thus chosing to possibly die while following the callings of his heart and higher mind, and not merely listen to his survival instincts. And I think that since the situations where he decided to help his fellow wounded mounteneer happened in more than milliseconds, thus he had time to access his higher thoughts to consider what to do, I believe it was simply the conscious choice he trained himself to make: That if faced to risking death, he would rather risk dying on the mountain helping a fellow human being rahter that to choose to garantee his own survival and have to live with the remorse for the rest of his life.
When down to one’s last 5% of energy, I really couldn’t judge nor blame anyone for chosing survival. Frankly I am not certain I would have the courage to abandon an option that would give me higher chances of survival in order to help another where this option is not garanteed with success either…
But as far as advancing the dignity of our human nature, I really hope I could make that choice, just as Don Bowie. He possesses a really admirable spirit…and his story is a really uplifting example of the human escence at its best.

Thank you for reading.
Johanne Bessette

14 11 2011
Dustin steeves

This concept is normal for any member of the armed forces. We are trained to never leave a comrade behind. It is not some exceptional behavior, it is an understood way of life. The armed forces is full of amazing stories of heroism, individuals who unquestionably gave up there lives running directly into the line of fire because he didnt want the fallen comrade to die alone,men fighting to jump on a grenade that fell into a tank. These individuals are held to a higher standerd than civilians and it would do society good “politics aside” to be made more aware of the lessons we can learn from such valor selflessness.

14 11 2011
Dr. Anthony Ocana

I would agree. I think we give police and armed forces a hard time. It’s a hard job. I think we should show a little more respect.

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