Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Dying from Failure to Reframe

Many people consider my writings on perceptual framing to be philosophy, but, nyuh-uh. Failure to reframe can be fatal, and it doesn't get more practical than that!

I keep pointing back to my account of a Christmas Eve when my cooked-up emotional bullshit felt just as convincingly real as objective reality. I couldn't distinguish truth from the dramatic story-telling in my head, and I've spent the years since then analyzing, from every angle, how I'd been sucked into this sadly commonplace derangement. That exploration eventually pointed me toward perceptual framing, explaining depression (also this), autism, creativity, addiction, gods, messiahs, theology, cosmology, art, and virtually every other juicy mystery of the human experience.

Slippery though it might be to talk about, framing underpins everything. The storytelling in your head can not only make you needlessly miserable, it can also get you killed.



Death by Left Turn

I was waiting in a rush hour column of cars to make a left turn at a busy intersection 1/4 mile ahead. It was a fast light, so locals know to aggressively punch through when opportunity arises. But the driver at the head of the queue was hesitant. She kept inching nervously forward, missing a couple of marginal opportunities to complete her turn. This infuriated the waiting drivers behind of her, who began honking en masse.

A quarter mile of hot, angry, impatient drivers leaning on their horns added considerable pressure to the already fraught driver (I was up a slight incline, giving me a perfect view of it all). She jerked spasmodically toward oncoming traffic, and, as the honking peaked, suddenly floored it directly into the path of a fast oncoming car, who flattened her.

I was 18 years old, a new driver, and I never forgot it. You could have attributed it to stupidity under pressure, or confusion, or other clich├ęs. But having been there, I had a deeper cognizance. There's a point where you're so flustered by your feeble uncertainty, and so intimidated by crowd hostility, that you can be compelled to slam right into a plainly visible oncoming car. It's not confusion; it's a loss of perspective.

Death by Train

In 2015, a driver came to a stop too close to a red light in front of a railroad crossing in Valhalla, NY. So when the gate came down (due to an approaching train), it clunked solidly onto her hood. This surprised her, and momentarily transformed her into someone with a dire gate-on-her-hood problem.

She found that creeping forward could extricate her car more easily than backing up. But the thing was, she was also someone with an oncoming train problem, so she and her vehicle were instantly pulverized.

It was the deadliest crash in Metro-North's history, with 6 killed and 15 injured. And investigators pulled out all the stops to determine why this person failed to get out of the way of a clearly approaching train. They scoured the remains of her car for mechanical issues. They analyzed her blood for drugs or booze. They interviewed family and coworkers for evidence of emotional anguish. To this day, it remains a mystery. But not for me.



Both catastrophes were due to an inability to reframe. Failure of perspective. When you've tightly latched onto a certain perspective ("I need to make this turn or the people will be angry", or "I must free my car from this gate"), you can easily fail to reframe - to shift perspective - even while in clear mortal danger.

These people weren't "stupid" or "crazy" or "confused" - all empty hand-waving terms. In their minds, from their perspectives, within the mental models in which they'd placed themselves, both had rational explanations for their actions. Driver One got out of the way, and Driver Two got out from under the gate. Those were their primary occupations, so they acted accordingly.

At some level of consciousness, both were aware of the approaching Clobbers. But they were busy! When we zero in on an immediately needful problem, we block out the rest. We don't process our kid’s request for soda, or notice a favorite song coming on the radio or recognize the urge to pee. We zoom (i.e. frame) in on the crisis, and it's very hard to free up attention for broader awareness, because all assets have been diverted to the surprising circumstance that has barreled into our life.

Surprise compels a sudden sharp shift of perspective, framing the world in tight close-up, overriding normal patterns of attention. While recovering from such disruption, it takes most people some time to reacquire situational awareness (i.e. a higher perspective). If you're lounging in shallow waters and get walloped by a freak wave crashing over your head, it will take you a significant amount of time to notice the shooter firing indiscriminately at beachgoers, despite the screams.

I've seen highly competent people disrupted and temporarily incapacitated by seemingly trivial surprise. It can happen to any of us, and it doesn't take much. Remember the barber!


A lithe perspective - the ability to zoom in on surprises and blithely expand back out to wider frame at will - can be life-saving. When surprised, I deliberately expand, rather than contract, my perspective. It’s like learning to steer into a skid. I go directly from “What the hell was that?” to “What’s next?”. While everyone else scrambles to get their bearings and reboot a sensation of normalcy, I’m methodically scanning the perimeter. It’s often noted that problems/disasters tend to cluster, and I know why, and I take steps to avoid that trap.

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