Mental Models – Teja Van Wicklen

Wherever You Go, There You Are:

Mental Models and Emergency Management Skills

You are walking down a familiar block. You have lived in this area all your life, the buildings, lampposts and trees are as familiar as the inside of your house. You turn a corner and there is an immense park where your house and your friend’s houses used to be. You were only gone for twenty minutes so this reality isn’t possible. It’s like someone erased your world and put something else here. You stare, close your eyes, open them, try to reconcile the discrepancy. Your brain hangs in the space between what should be and what is. Then you start to panic….

In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales talks about Mental Models, an important element in understanding why some people, trained or not, survive emergencies while others don’t. Mental Models are short cuts the brain creates–maps of people, places and things we count on so we can make other more urgent decisions like, whether to cross the street against the light. Early in the book Gonzales talks about how mental models work, “You scour the house looking for your copy of Moby Dick and you remember it being a red paper back book but you don’t know where you left it. When you search, you don’t examine every item in the house, that would be tedious…”  He explains that your mental model of the red paper back allows you to screen out everything else, but that if you are wrong and it’s a blue hardcover, you may not find it even if the title is right in front of you. In other words, we get into trouble when our internal and external worlds don’t match. We say we are lost or confused when what we see or hear doesn’t make sense.  Gonzales argues that being lost is more a state of mind than a state of being. If you are at home wherever you are, you are never lost. The feeling of being lost creates anxiety and hinders both instinct and logical thought. Anxiety gives rise to panic and in an emergency, panic is often the last thing we feel. Being truly lost can feel a lot like suffocating. Substitute the absence of comfort and safety for being lost and you can see this discussion reverberating across many different types of circumstances. Think the end of a long and deeply ingrained relationship or the sudden loss of a child. It seems that older adults who adapt better to the loss of loved ones are documented as living longer. Of course there are lots of variables in these studies, but they make sense. If we spend too much time holding on to what used to be or grasping desperately for the comfort of the familiar, we have less energy to expend adapting to our new and urgent reality.

Quicker recognition and recovery from emotional shock in emergencies large and small may be an emergency management skill we can cultivate during the course of daily life. As with most issues, the first step is to recognize the problem-then to learn to arrest it’s forward momentum and redirect our energies. Easier said then done. Again, action follows recognition. Remember Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

Lots of things contribute to survival in tough situations–widely varying and appropriate experience, self-awareness, physical fortitude, humility, determination and will to live. But if you refuse to accept the situation that presently assails you, all your training and worldly experience may be for naught. This may at least partly explain the many instances in which the most unlikely people survive things like plane crashes where lifelong pilots and survival experts fail. Some people are just born with an empty cup and the ability to start from zero with few expectations.

In general, we don’t necessarily train to adapt to a great discrepancy between the multitude of things that are most likely to be and the thing that goes vastly wrong. The emotional space we have not mapped and are not in tuned with is vast and can exert a powerful effect on how much of our knowledge we are able tap into. Gonzales talks about a firefighter lost in the woods who doesn’t make a fire because he knows it’s forbidden in the park. He might have been found earlier if he had thought to break the rules. Sometimes the answers are right in front of our faces but our mental models blind us.

In martial arts, survival training, rock climbing, long distance swimming, indeed any extreme endeavor, we can only train for what we think will happen. And, there are many emergencies that can only be partially recreated for training purposes. The military is probably the most experienced in this capacity. Even so, we can’t effectively simulate a rape without it actually being rape. We can’t effectively simulate starvation for the same reason. We are consistently wrong in thinking we are training for the scenario that will occur in the future. Only part of our experience will apply. Adaptation to the unfamiliar is something to keep constantly in mind. The worst thing you can do is assume you are ready for anything. You are, in effect, creating a static mindset that will be your downfall. The more set you are in your overall sense of yourself and the world, the harsher it is when those two things fail you.

The stages of being physically or emotionally lost are apparently virtually identical to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Gonzales explains, “The research suggests five general stages in the process a person goes through when lost…. first you deny that you’re disoriented and press on with growing urgency, attempting to make your mental map fit what you see. In the next stage the urgency blossoms into a full-scale survival emergency. Clear thought becomes impossible and action becomes frantic, unproductive, even dangerous. In the third stage, usually following injury or exhaustion, you form a strategy for finding some place that matches your mental map. It is a misguided strategy for there is no such place now. You are lost. In the forth stage, you deteriorate both rationally and emotionally as the strategy fails to resolve the conflict. In the final stage as you run out of options and energy you must become resigned to your plight. Like it or not, you must make a new mental map of where you are. You must become Robinson Crusoe or you will die. To survive you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.”


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