Space, Time, and S(n)ap Decisions

In the midst of reading Leonard Shlain's Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. What a mind bender. I confess that over the months I've been picking up, putting down, and slowly digesting Art & Physics, I've probably read 8 other books, given that in the midst of my non-fiction information gathering obsession, I tend to need to zone out with a literary mystery rather often to feel balanced. Having been thrilled by The Tipping Point also by Gladwell, I opted to cart Blink along to the SNAG conference for comparatively light plane reading and to attempt to come down at night from the brilliant non stop art talk that often continued in my head even after my partners in crime and I would finally call it a night.

If you haven't read all three of these books, go visit your favorite book source ASAP. Despite how long I've dragged out Shlain's first book, I consider it a must read even if you're neither an artist nor a physicist. (I've read all his books, and cannot recommend them highly enough. In fact, if you consider yourself well educated or even vaguely intelligent - how about English speaking and breathing? - consider wrapping your head around one of his extremely important topics, and for you folks into Wilber, there is much that will be hauntingly familiar about Art & Physics, which sports a copyright date of 1991.)

What I found so track stopping about reading Blink toward the end of A&P is, among other things, the notions of snap decision making under excessive stress, followed by further reading into how we perceive time. Blink describes the various phenomenon involved in first impressions and embedded associations and how that plays out in people, who can correctly spot an art fake instantaneously to police officers, who, thinking someone has drawn a weapon, shoot before they have time to realize that there was no gun. It lays bare how some of our deepest associations that are inescapably part of our cultures can determine our decision making processes in who we pick as mates and friends, or who we hire for jobs and how such unconscious information continues the struggle for racial and gender equality even when we believe ourselves to be evolved, forward thinking, and totally fair.

Shlain's book describes how artists portray in painting and sculpture, scientific concepts that are only discovered, theorized, and accepted decades or even centuries later. Consider the ancient Greeks' belief that time is linear and how in their paintings and friezes all figures and actions are occuring on one plane. Though they portray the figure three dimensionally, there is no depth to the action through the use of scale. Aperspectival painting such as Cubism and the later realization that there is no fixed space in the universe is another easy and intuitive example.

The ancient Egyptians were content to portray what they believed was their best foot forward, so to speak, painting figures in unnatural flat poses. It was not that they were naive, but that the wished to show the world the way they idealized it. Chiaroscurro (shading) didn't really catch on until just before the Renaissance nor did foreshortening make a comeback until then. We take for granted the ability to 'read' three dimensional images from drawings and photographs, but in fact the ability to do so requires that one focus one's eyes just in front of the image, a fairly recent development for humans. If we must see a certain way in order to make sense of art, magazine, billbroads, and even TV, how must we see to gather the correct information needed to make the best snap decisions? How must we look to avoid the pitfalls of erroneous first impressions?

Grocery Shopping and Momentary Autism

Gladwell makes a great case for the idea that under an overload of mental and physical stress, 'normal' people behave much like high functioning autistic people. People with autism can be brilliant and quite functional, yet they take things literally and lack the ability to pick up on the subtle cues of facial expression, tone of voice, or, I would expect, even read between the lines, that essential ability necessary to communicating by email without starting too many arguments. Without these fundamental ways of gathering information anything that is taken into account to make a decision must be word for word or visually literal. For example, if someone confronted by the police pulls something out of his pocket, it can't be ID or some note explaining that the person does not speak English or cannot speak at all; it must be a gun, and officers, who have mistakenly fired will swear that they have seen a gun because they have the association of 'reach into pocket' and 'pull out weapon' for a very understandable reason, and the incredible stress they are under in such situations will actually produce the belief (even the vision) that the gun was there.

Of course, not all bad momentary decisions are life and death. Think back to a fender bender in which time slowed down, and you could see how your and the other person's decisions were playing out, but there was no time to reverse the action. How about the last time you said yes to what turned out to be a really bad date? The last time you didn't handle a situation the way you would have preferred at work? How can we increase our abilities to make better decisions under the gun?

Gladwell, and the heady researchers he quotes, say that rehearsal is everything. Practice saying, "thanks but no." to those best left undated. Practice dialing 911 when you really don't have to (just don't push 'send' unless you mean it!). Each time you practice one of these actions, your heart rate will lower from fast and panicked, and you will more likely operate in the optimal range of heightened awareness rather than literally in shock. In addition to possibly saving someone's life, it will get easier to say no to inappropriate potential mates, and you'll sound smarter at work.

A few weeks ago, someone was pounding on my door at almost midnight on a Sunday night. Even though I wasn't alone in the house, I freaked. It took me 4 tries to correctly dial 911 on my mobile phone. (I finally gave up and used the land line once I remembered where it was hung up.) now living in an urban environment, I'm no stranger to calling the police and can usually do so without freaking out, but because a few variables were different (probably not being on my own and in 'in charge' mode), I panicked. Turned out the banging was the police. They were stopping by because I'd called an hour earlier about a neighbor, who was showing the world his stereo went up to 11. Lesson learned.

Today, however, was quite different. With one trip complete, one coming up, the need for new eyeglasses, and 2 deposits that were supposed to go through before today but didn't, grocery shopping on a budget took on a whole new meaning. I had convinced myself that not having anything in the fridge but peas, Sky's favorite frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, and a few science experiments did indicate that hunter/gatherer time was now, so the downward spiral into Stressland began at Trader Joe's and ended at Whole Foods, that wonderland of organic goodies, where I swear I will only spend $40, and end up spending $100.

At Trader Joe's a very enthusiastic and sociable little girl almost Skyler's size came up and introduced herself to him. Now, having a child, who came out of the womb running for president, I didn't find her behavior the least bit curious. I turned to her mother and said, "I see you have and extrovert too!" The mother confessed to me that most people didn't take her daughter's sociability so well and then said she was high functioning autistic and tended to be more than a little outside the stereotype. After saying that her daughter seemed quite normal in my world, I explained that my son has hearing loss and blows out of the water the stereotype that hard of hearing children are quiet introverts, who miss all the jokes. If this conversation shared at the cheese section seems a little on the "too much information." side, know that this is how mothers cope. We share the most intimate details of the challenges of parenting our children, and deem it completely normal. Yes, your parents probably did this too.

We fully expected to run into them at Whole Food, 3 blocks from Trader Joe's, and perhaps if we had gotten to laugh again, my stress spiral would have adopted a livable holding pattern. Instead I spend yet another grocery shopping trip, trying to read my list, remember what wasn't on it, find what I needed, and try to guess what I might be hungry for 2 days from now (how do people know that?!?) all while constantly saying, "Come on, Skyler! ...Slow down with the cart! ...Stay with me, Skyler! ...Don't rock the items on the shelf like they're vibrating while you click your mouse on them! ...No, come on! ...Slow down with the cart! ...No, that's made on equipment shared by nuts (coconuts, peanuts, or sesame seeds)! ...Slow down with the cart! ...No, we're not geting that this trip... we don't have enough money today...No, we can't go to the bank and just get more... ...Slow down with the cart!" and so on. Mr. Social has a very difficult time with the background noise of AC and refrigerator hums, mixed with canned music, noisy people, and squeaky shopping cart wheels. I have a hard time coping with his coping mechanisms. If I'd found my new mom friend again, I'd have given her my number and suggested a park day. Skyler isn't autistic, but I find that life continues to seem doable when I bond with other outside the box moms and kids.

By the time I had 5 items in the cart, I was a walking stressfest. Aware that this was now hour 5 of my allotted 2 hours of errand running time, and freaking out at the idea of having to put anything back at the checkout, I couldn't make a decision about what to buy to save my life. Sometime before I reached the checkout, I managed to realize that I had a cart full of veggies that go in things like scallions, chips, milk, and organic face soap but nothing to eat for dinner. If in my craze of snack wheeling frustration, I had pulled over and taken a deep breath or talked with Skyler before going in the store about the cooperation I needed to get in and out quick, I might have remembered that not all the checks I wrote would clear tonight, giving me time to shuffle funds and eat with peace. Unfortunately, I wasn't much of a high functioning anything. I was "crazed crabby mom," ready to snap. Not good for a woman approaching what are known on my paternal side as the early stroke/heart attack years.

This would be where I sum up this little (ha) essay brilliantly with how Shlain's parallels of space relate to everything I was just saying, but I'm too bloody tired, and, stupidly, I still haven't had dinner. Briefly, (again ha!) I will say that what we 'know' and what we instantaneously decide are the domains of the right brain more than the left. Although Shlain spends more time discussing the functions of the right brain than Gladwell does, I would say that this area of gestalt is where much our gut lies. It is where we perceive the whole of a situation enough to intuit how we need to proceed. Creativity, which involves selecting the optimum option from multiple solutions is totally impaired when we are stressed beyond that optimal zone Gladwell describes, leaving us unable to cope with snap decisions of any kind. While brainstorming and mulling over the various options, functions of the right and left brains respectively, aren't options for snap decision making (or grocery shopping when the ice cream is melting), developed creativity allows us to draw on and quickly select solutions in adverse conditions without necessarily being weighed down by too much information (analysis paralysis).

As if I needed another reason to preach the merits of creativity... We need it in ways that cannot be quantitatively assessed by the left brain. We need it to visualize calmly where all the phones are when we have to dial 911, and we need it to remember that our world is not a linear structure that will fall apart if there are only peas in the freezer.

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