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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