• Prasanna Adhikari

Training our Intuition for Safety

On April 26, 2015, at about 1 PM, I had just arrived in Kathmandu after a 24-hour journey from Los Angeles. Twenty-four hours earlier, Kathmandu had been shaken by a devastating earthquake. Everyone was on edge and apprehensive about aftershocks. Shortly after arriving, as I was chatting with my family, an aftershock struck. Everyone had seen enough aftershocks in the past 24 hours to know it was a big one. They all ran out of the house to the front yard. I, without any deliberation or even conscious thought, rushed to take shelter under a table. Amid the deep rumbling sound for the earthquake mixed with frantic commotions, I could hear people calling me to come outside the brick house. But I remained glued under the table until the shaking stopped from what turned out to be a relatively large aftershock (magnitude 6.7).

Growing up in Nepal with more than its fair share of earthquakes, my instinct had been to do what everyone did during earthquakes, run out of the house. However, after having lived in Southern California for most of my life, I seemed to have retrained my intuition to act differently. And it all happened without me ever experiencing an earthquake or ever practicing a duck-cover-and-hold drill (As my luck would have it, I happen to be in Pasadena, about 25 miles away from the epicenter in Northridge, California, when a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck in 1994.) What I find interesting about my story is that I had trained my lizard brain to act differently without doing any practice. This story may shed some light on how we teach our intuition to keep ourselves safer.

In the context of the two-system description of our brain I discussed in my previous post, we can think of training as of two different types. The first type of training trains our deliberate system, our human brain. It imparts knowledge that we use to make decisions and take action based on those decisions. But these decisions and actions are deliberative. For instance, getting a half-hour presentation on ladder safety provides knowledge about what to do and not do. But that knowledge does not turn into intuitive action unless we also train our automatic system, our lizard brain. It only comes in handy for making deliberative decisions, such as answering a question about ladder safety.

The other type of training trains our automatic system, our lizard brain, our intuition. With such training, actions under the relevant circumstances are intuitive and automatic. For instance, learning to drive a car trains our automatic system. While driving, most of our activities, including navigating to places we are familiar with, are mostly intuitive and automatic.

The first type of training is easier to provide, but, for safety, its outcome is not what we want. It does not bring behavioral changes that are intuitive. Ideally, we want to train our lizard brain to produces intuitive behaviors that are safer. How hard is it to train our lizard brain to do so?

One good thing about our lizard brain that all safety managers would appreciate is, it seems to be wired for our safety. Survival of any species would not be possible if that were not the case. From the moment we enter this world, our lizard brain is constantly working to keep us safe. For some hazards, we seem to be innately set up to keep us safe. For example, most of us have an innate fear of heights and are cautious around them. For other hazards, we learn to make safe behavior intuitive. For example, we all learned to be safe drivers. All that seems to be required to produce such intuitive behavior is some practice.

However, there are countless situations for which it is not practical or possible to train for safer behavior through practice. How can we teach our lizard brain to act safely in such a situation? This is where another aspect of our brain that works marvelously well in our favor.

As many parents know, kids learn by watching their parents, siblings, and friends. We seem to be the only species that tries to train its offspring by giving them lectures, and, as most parents can tell you, it does not work well! In most species, young ones learn by watching others, especially their parents. As neuroscientists now tell you, just watching other people perform actions wires our brains similar to practice does, making such actions intuitive.

That is likely what happened to my lizard brain after living in California all of my adult life and seeing children perform their earthquake drills. I erased the intuition I had gained through a few practices in my childhood with another intuition built solely by watching others do it. Consider the first action you are likely to take when oxygen masks drop in an aircraft when flying. Thanks to all the training you received watching flight attendants’ safey demonstrations, you likely have the intuition to put on the oxygen mask without even thinking about it.

And for us humans, it gets even marvelous. We not only learn by watching others. We have a fantastic ability to learn from the stories of others. Telling each other stories and learning from those stories is a trait that makes us different from most, if not all, species. Our ancestors have been passing knowledge and wisdom from one generation to another in the form of stories. Most educators today would tell you that stores are one of the most effective tools for teaching. Scientists now believe that stores create similar neuron connections that our own experiences do.

Thanks to Mother Nature, all of us are endowed with these fantastic methods to train our intuition. For some training, practices may be the only effective method. For others, practices may not be practical, but storytelling may be more so but as effective when done repeatedly. Safety managers have all these methods available at their disposal and should consider using combinations of them to elicit safer behavior from their workforce.