I’ve been thinking a lot about how self-assurance, experience and panic relate to each other. I have been thinking about them because they are prime movers in learning. They are the emotions which facilitate rational. Isn’t it funny to think that rational might be built not on cold, hard facts, but instead on emotions? Here is a little story about learning and panic: I had a student once who slipped during the first half of the performance. No one noticed, not even me. But back stage she was a wreck. I put my hand on her shoulder and I said, “J.A., don’t worry. First of all there are only two kinds of people out there, those that don’t know you and those that love you. Besides, worse things could happen. I danced with a girl once who lost her straps on stage.”
“OMG! What did she do?”
“She folded her hands across her chest like a graceful swan should and her partner carried her off the stage.”
Can you guess what happened to J.A. in the second act? Yep. She lost her strap. And what did she do? She ever so gracefully folded her hand across her chest and exited stage right. But then she did something even more amazing…she fixed her strap and gracefully came back on stage to finished the dance.
Panic can happen to anyone. You would think that a teenage girl who loses her top in front of hundreds of people might have had a little more of it. But she knew what to do, exactly. If she had not had that information before hand would she have behaved the same way?
JJ was supremely impressed with control. He revered my reaction and gloated over how calm I was as we were riding in the car one day and he took a corner that looked like there was no lane. I didn’t panic. I had confidence that he knew what he was doing, but apparently other people had not. He seemed so impressed. Panic was terrifying to him. I got the feeling that he had been most hurt by people who panicked. So, I can only imagine how very difficult it must have been for him to be with me at times. There can be blood, guts and chaos going on all around me, but no problem, no panic. There can be a room full of crying crazy children. No panic. There can be five pots on the stove, three pans in the oven, the smoke alarm is going off and Barak Obama will be arriving for dinner in ten minutes. No panic. No problem. If I know what to do, no matter how chaotic the situation, there is no stress. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, I’m in complete meltdown. Seizures trigger my panic response. Stress triggers seizures. Or hormones, or drugs or illness or the weather or one particular note played on a violin.
Panic is the fight or flight response. It serves us well in a lot of obvious ways. It gives us adrenaline, it gives us a better physical response time and all sorts of other neat tricks you might want if you were being, say, chased by a tiger. It has a big roll in learning. But there are things besides tigers that will flip your panic switch in spite of all of your a priori knowledge or experience like hormones, drugs, physical disorders, and, you guessed it, food. It’s pretty common knowledge now that we live in a culture where we are under a constant type of stress that our bodies and minds did not evolve to deal with and for many people the answer is food. Food tells our hunter-gatherer brain that everything is ok.
Well, I’ve known about this dynamic for quite a while, but I always heard researchers and others talking about it as if they need to find a way to stop this reaction. No, I’ve decided that mother nature got us this far and she might just know what she’s doing. If lack of food can flip your panic switch and food can switch it back off, can it do it for other issues? I think it can. Does that sound to you like a prescription to eat yourself into the Guinness Book of World Records or an early grave? I suppose that depends on what’s on your plate. Much depends on dinner.
A fun, fascinating read for the food nerd in your life. Available in hardcover, paperback and kindle.