Tools & Tips
Captain Sullenberger and his Vulcan mind powers

Listen to the air traffic recording of US Airways Flight 1549 that crashed into the Hudson River in New York on January 15 (all 155 passengers and crew survived). The plane lost power in both engines after a bird attack by a gaggle of geese. Air traffic control informs Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III of nearby airports with open runways where he can land the disabled aircraft. Not knowing if the plane will make it to the airport in New Jersey or if it will crash in the Bronx, Capt. Sullenberger calmly radios back with, "We're gonna be in the Hudson."

Unlike what you'd expect to hear in the movies, when the pilot and co-pilot are shrieking coordinates into the radio, Capt. Sullenberger is totally calm. Cool as a cucumber. So even though the recording lacks the drama and excitement you'd expect, it is fascinating to hear his calm, rational decision-making as he narrows down the options for where to land his aircraft.

How'd he do that?!? What allows some people to remain calm under extreme pressure?

LA Times Columnist Jonah Lehrer helped me clear this up. He says that in recent years, neuroscientists have been able to see what happens inside the brain when people, like Sullenberger, are forced to make decisions under pressure. A typical assumption is that some people just don't feel fear. But that's not the case. Our brains trigger fear circuits, such as the amygdala, automatically. It is likely that everyone on Flight 1549 was terrified.

So what's the trick?

Scientists have found that the crucial variable is the ability to balance visceral emotions against more rational and deliberate thought process. Logic, Mr. Spock, it's logic.

The scientific name for this balancing act is called metacognition and the reason why pilots are good at it is because they've had hours of practice. Pilots spend hundreds of hours in flight simulators learning the technical skills needed to operate a disabled plane, but they're also learning to hone the skill of balancing their primal emotions (fear, panic) with reason. They learn how to ignore their fear when it isn't useful and engage quick, complicated decisions in the most fraught situations.

So what can we learn from gifted pilots like Captain Sullenberger? No matter how crazy/hairy/life-threatening/annoying/serious the problem, we have the ability to look past our primal emotions and carefully think about how we need to think.

This is an important skill: learning to thoughtfully respond instead of reacting. And like Capt. Sullenberger and his fellow pilots, it requires practice. Responding instead of reacting can keep you from barking at your spouse, snapping at a co-worker, or flipping off the person who just cut you off. Taking a moment to quiet your emotions and let the "smart" part of your brain take over will make your relationships more harmonious, reduce stress, help you solve any problem that comes your way.

How do normal people do this in every day life? (Those of us who don't have access to a flight simulator or hours of spare time to practice.) A great tool is to use my BACK technique. It's effective, simple, and just 4 easy steps: Breathe, Acknowledge, Choose, and Kick into Gear. (But it probably won't help you land an airplane )