Monday Musings...Duck, Duck, Goose!

How many times as a child did you hear the words: “Think before you speak”? Or after some epic fail moment from a reckless choice: “What were you thinking?!” And as you hung your head in guilt and shame (or not because it was too fun in the moment), you processed your words and actions and realized that in fact you were thinking! What you do or what you say are products of your head space.

Our mind is an amazing engine that is fuelled by memories from learned experiences. To help you understand this, I'm going to give you a brief PSY101 lesson to show you (and your mom) that you are in fact always thinking. At birth, humans have over 100 billion nerve cells that, for the most part, stand as separate units, but as you grow the neural pathways connect so that you can crawl and walk and talk and so on. An infant takes in the world through their senses and learns very quickly what is pleasant and what is not. Each sense has receptor cells that take in the information you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell and then transmits this to the brain for processing. This processing is called perception and its role is to give meaning to the information that is sent to the brain. Sensation is the sound that is picked up in your ear and travels through the auditory nerve; perception determines the tone, the loudness, and whether you like the sound or not. So sensation and perception work together. This is the proof that you are always thinking. Your mind is always working.

Two things happen next that help explain why you do what you do: emotion and our subsequent reactions. So, for example, your brain takes in the sound, perceives it as pleasant, which cause you to feel good (emotion), resulting in your smiling and moving to the beat (reaction/behaviour). Your tapping of your foot doesn't just happen, though the seemingly spontaneous movement may make it feel that way. It is a process. And it begins with the thoughts. The connections in your brain are being strengthened to enjoy that type of music, so that when you hear it in the future, you will react in a similar way.

The key is: we DO think before we speak or act and it is based on what we have been exposed to and learned from. This is such a powerful thing to consider because it explains why we respond or react in certain ways on a daily basis. It also explains how assumptions are made, and how very often they can be wrong.

This past week, I was travelling in the GTA, and as I proceeded to my destination, the traffic was stopped. Pretty typical experience in the urban jungle. And like most of you, I am sitting with my passengers looking around for the cause of the delay. Our senses are trying to pick up a sighting of the problem. A crashed vehicle, perhaps? Construction? Our sense of hearing is also straining for the sound of a siren which then we perceive as an accident. Sensation and perception working together. But on this day, our vision didn’t pick up an accident or construction. Our hearing didn’t sense any sirens. We had a hard time bringing meaning to why we were stopped. Until my passenger saw something: “Look there’s a guy running across the road!” Instantly, we see him. We notice that he is young, carrying a hover board and running in a helter skelter pattern in the road and then up a hill. But once he’s on the hill, he throws everything down, crosses over the crest of the hill, then comes back and slides down all with what seems like aimless energy. That’s what we see. So our minds try to make sense of this. We think: what would make a person run like that? Is he running from something out of fear? Is he going to throw up? Is he on drugs? We process. We make assumptions. We judge. He’s young. He just did an incredibly reckless thing and could have got himself or someone else killed running through traffic. I mean what was he thinking?

And then my passenger, whose senses were sharper than mine, shouted: “There’s a duckling! He’s trying to save the duckling!”

Now whether or not you think it was ridiculous for him to risk his life and potentially the lives of other drivers to save a small animal is not where I'm going. The point is, how quickly we make assumptions about other peoples’ behaviour. There is always a reason for why people do what they do. For this young man, he sensed something waddling into traffic; he perceived potential harm and certain death; he felt fear and then compassion for this defenceless animal; and he decided to dash toward danger to rescue the bird. Did he think? Yes, you can see he did. The core of his thinking wasn't to enjoy being reckless and cause a traffic jam. It actually was empathy and protection of the innocent.

So just as this young man made a quick decision to save the duckling, we made an equally quick decision to judge. What connections were working in his mind to make him do that? And what connections were formed in our own minds?

In a world that is promoting individualism, perfection, and the pursuit of materialistic goals, we are being trained to view helping behaviour, particularly of animals, as being a waste of time. I mean what did the young man have to gain from helping the duckling? But somehow he connected his thoughts to think outside of himself with no anticipation for reward.

So I’d like to make one more assumption about this stranger from suburbia: if he was willing to do that for a duckling, I like to believe that he would be willing to do that for a person who needed help. And with no expectation of compensation. Maybe, just maybe, he would be willing to do that for me, a stranger. I know that’s a leap in my own thinking, but I want to think that way. I want to believe that in the busy, congested, deadline-oriented world we live in, that there are people who are willing to run to help, rather than ignoring what they see in front of them, or running away from it.

Just like game “Duck, Duck, Goose!” he tagged me. He pricked my consciousness to look at the world a little differently.

So the next time I see someone behaving in a way that doesn't fit with my idea of what is ‘normal’, I need to check my closed minded assumption at the door. I don’t have the whole story. I don’t know what is going on in their mind unless I look at their situation a little closer or ask them about it. So maybe I need to be more in tune with what my senses are picking up and how I am perceiving the world around me. My assumptions and my judgements say a lot about the core of who I am.

May the drupe of my distraction never cause me to lose sight of what is really important! That’s what I'm thinking!

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