Daniel Levitin: Would Stress Be Less Stressful If We Planned For It In Advance? After smashing his basement window to retrieve his misplaced keys, Daniel Levitin wondered, did stress prevent him from making a better choice? And how could he better prepare for these situations?
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Daniel Levitin: Would Stress Be Less Stressful If We Planned For It In Advance?

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Daniel Levitin: Would Stress Be Less Stressful If We Planned For It In Advance?

Daniel Levitin: Would Stress Be Less Stressful If We Planned For It In Advance?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So we're going to start out today with Daniel Levitin. Daniel's a neuroscientist. Hello, Daniel. It's Guy Raz here. Thanks for joining us.

DANIEL LEVITIN: Guy, thanks for having me.

RAZ: Now, unexpectedly, one of the first things Daniel told us about was a recent car accident.

LEVITIN: I was stunned by the accident. I got whiplash. I got a concussion. But I had rehearsed the situation that if I get in an accident like this, the first person I'm going to call is my doctor and let him know. And then I'm going to call the police and ask them to come out because I'm not in any kind of state where I can evaluate what I need or don't need.

RAZ: Wait. You actually - even though you had not been in an accident before this, you had rehearsed this exact scenario in the past?

LEVITIN: Exactly. I had rehearsed this scenario. If I'm in an auto accident, what do I do? You know, I didn't think about it more than five minutes. And then I just kind of filed it away. OK, that's what I'm going to do. I think that the principle for all of us is that because in moments of panic we're not at our peak, we need to think ahead and train ourselves, although I wasn't always that way. I've just - you know, it comes from 45 years of making mistakes and realizing that the amount of time it takes to clean up the mess is a lot more than the amount of time it takes to frontload the effort.

RAZ: On the show today, Ideas About Prevention, how the things we do today can change the way we experience tomorrow and why it's sometimes so hard to do the stuff we know we should do like planning ahead for a crisis or exercising or eating the right things because the future, even the near future, often seems so far away. But some people? Well, some people are just different, like neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who started to think about how he might prevent or even mitigate future crises after one particularly bad day. Here's Daniel on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEVITIN: A few years ago, I broke into my own house. I had just driven home. It was around midnight in the dead of Montreal winter. I'd been visiting my friend Jeff (ph) across town. And the thermometer on the front porch read minus 40 degrees. And as I stood on the front porch fumbling in my pockets, I found I didn't have my keys.

So I quickly ran around and tried all the other doors and windows and they were locked tight. I thought about calling a locksmith. At least I had my cellphone. But at midnight, it could take a while for a locksmith to show up. And I couldn't go back to my friend Jeff's house for the night because I had an early flight to Europe the next morning, and I needed to get my passport and my suitcase.

So, desperate and freezing cold, I found a large rock. And I broke through the basement window, crawled through. I found a piece of cardboard and taped it up over the opening, figuring that in the morning on the way to the airport, I could call my contractor and ask him to fix it. Now, I'm a neuroscientist by training. And I know a little bit about how the brain performs under stress. It releases cortisol that raises your heart rate. It modulates adrenaline levels and it clouds your thinking.

So the next morning, when I woke up on too little sleep, worrying about the hole in the window and the mental note that I had to call my contractor in the freezing temperatures and the meetings I had upcoming in Europe, my thinking was cloudy, but I didn't know it was cloudy because my thinking was cloudy. And it wasn't until I got to the airport check-in counter that I realized I didn't have my passport.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So, I mean, what happens to us when we're faced with a crisis, any kind of crisis that requires us to make a quick decision? Is - what is the sort of the physiological response to that?

LEVITIN: Well, so the brain developed mechanisms for coping with stressful and potentially dangerous events. And the brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone. It's partly mediated by a structure that's part of the reptilian brain, the amygdala. And this causes a cascade of really interesting things to happen to your brain chemistry. First thing that happens is adrenaline is released. And then your body tries to conserve energy in order to deal with the crisis at hand.

And so a bunch of stuff shuts down like your digestive system. Your reproductive drive shuts down. You don't need to be feeling - reproductive is the nice word for it. And your immune system shuts down. And unfortunately, rational, systematic thought shuts down and you start dealing from your gut and your instinct. But there's - most of the jams we get in in modern life the reptilian brain isn't equipped to handle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LEVITIN: And I started wondering, are there things that I can do, systems that I can put into place, that will prevent bad things from happening? Or at least if bad things happen, will minimize the likelihood of it being a total catastrophe. But my thoughts didn't crystallize until about a month later. I was having dinner with my colleague Danny Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner, and I somewhat embarrassedly told him about having broken my window and, you know, forgot my passport. And Danny shared with me that he'd been practicing something called prospective hindsight, also called the pre-mortem.

Now, you all know what the post-mortem is. Whenever there's a disaster, you know, a team of experts come in and they try to figure out what went wrong. Right? Well, in the pre-mortem, Danny explained, you look ahead and you try to figure out all the things that could go wrong. And then you try to figure out what you can do to prevent those things from happening or to minimize the damage. So part of the practice of the pre-mortem is to recognize that under stress, you're not going to be at your best and you should put systems in place.

RAZ: So this idea of a pre-mortem, this has actually become a habit, like, a part of your life? Like, you regularly imagine in advance how you would react to different kinds of problematic scenarios?

LEVITIN: Yes, it's exactly that. And you know the military uses this, ideally. We hope that the government uses this kind of thinking. And pilots, they go through endless exercises about what you're going to do in various stressful scenarios so that you don't have to think. It becomes automatic. Certainly successful businesses tend to do that.

But there's no reason it can't trickle down to the rest of us, right?

RAZ: Sure.

LEVITIN: I'll give you an example. So today, you're in Washington, I'm in Los Angeles. I woke up in San Francisco this morning, and I took in an early flight this morning knowing that if that flight, for some reason, was canceled or delayed, there was a backup flight that I could take and still make it to talk to you on time.

The other thing I knew was that if all flights were canceled, there was a studio near the airport that I could run into and do the interview from there. And we booked some backup time there. So, you know, it's just a matter of thinking ahead. Can I take control to make sure it doesn't upset the schedule?

RAZ: But, I mean, I think it seems like despite all of the planning that we could do for a variety of scenarios and situations, we just sort of kind of have to accept that we can't prevent the things that will happen to us, whatever they may be.

LEVITIN: I agree. And again, what I come back to on this is you can't control the future. You can attempt to influence it. But some of the things you can control are your responses. You can be ready to think about something because you've thought about it before. You can be ready to adapt and adjust. You can learn skills, whether they're practical or psychological.

You can practice and learn those so that when the unexpected happens, you can roll with the punches.

RAZ: Daniel Levitin, he's a neuroscientist. His most recent book is called "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload." You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

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