It was a hot, humid east coast summer day. We were the kids of 1984.
Back then the parents in our neighborhood had the same summertime rule. Do not enter the house, except for lunch and dinner unless someone was bleeding out of their eyes or something was broken.
We drank from the garden hose if we were thirsty because we had to, while we sipped from the firehose of life. As much as those long summer days seemed like years at the time, it was the milliseconds then, and now, that made and can make all the difference.
On this particular day, me and my (still) best friend, Dong, couldn’t organize enough friends to play war in the woods, which amounted to all of us arguing about whether any of us was shot-and-dead, or not. Today, we decided to play a round of “ninja fight”, which meant he grabbed the nearest wooden broomstick and I the nearest metal pole, because we did not begin with the end in mind back then.
It started with the usual parries and lunges. We knew each other well. We had enough experience to build some basic expectations of possibility. We both were (and are) also competitive. He used some new moves. Spins and dips. And, I did too…
Now, I don’t remember exactly how or when I decided it was a good idea to jump up in the air like the Conan the Barbarian, hammer-swinging down with my ‘sword’, and presumably through Dong, but it was too late. We were both lucky he was fast. I did not want to have to go home with someone bleeding out of his eyes. I managed to only hit his hand hard — very hard — with that nearest metal pole.
I also don’t remember exactly what he said in reaction. I’m pretty sure it was, “you hit my hand!” I do vaguely remember hearing 10-year-old cussing. I know I saw some tears in his eyes.
I can, however, tell you the exact millisecond I realized my miscalculation and saw the rage in his eyes.
You know how ninjas do that crazy sword swing in front of them where you can imagine anything around them is gutted?
(Here’s your sample, if you’re not sure).
That’s what happened next. He was unstoppable. He swung so hard he bent the metal pole closer to my face with each hammering blow. I knelt before him, toggling between terrified and paralyzed.
Finally, the words came out, “STOP!!!”
I yelled it again, but now with his name, hoping he would hear me. “Dong! Stop!! PLEASE.” His eyes finally saw what he was doing. He was completely checked out.
He told me later he didn’t remember anything about that moment except me hitting his hand and then hearing his name and “stop” those seconds later. He was “so mad he couldn’t think.” But we were just kids so, of course, he’d have that reaction. Chalk it up to a teachable moment on the playground of life, right? Except now I know, as an adult, that even adults faced with the same scenario might yield pretty similar results.
During crimes of passion and moments of herculean strength and self-preservation, the people who are left standing afterward often offer the same explanation. They were so mad or scared, they just went into action and “couldn’t think.” Maybe you’ve experienced a moment like that, where you felt so much, good or bad, that you couldn’t think for a second. There’s actually a very good reason for that.
The thalamus, known in Greek as the chamber, is where you get the first real message about what’s happening at that moment. The thalamus has multiple functions but is generally believed to be a relay, or a hub, and one of your initial processors. In moments like these, there are two key destinations for thalamus messages to be sent: your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex.
In moments like these, in equal and opposite reaction to whatever the input might be (like your friend hitting your hand with a metal pole, or kneeling down in paralyzed fear) that output is sent to your amygdala — in about 12 milliseconds.
The amygdala, which in Greek means almond, has a very emotional job. It processes and signals the feelings of fear, anxiety, arousal, and aggression. All the fun stuff. Its job is basically to act as an early warning system designed to keep you alive. At its extremes, it’s fight or flight. Kill or be killed, in 12 milliseconds. Not bad for a 200,000-year-old computer.
Now, if the amygdala is the devil in moments like a ninja-fight-gone-wrong, the prefrontal cortex is your angel…your more calm, rational angel.
The prefrontal cortex is where your brain plans, makes decisions, and moderates social behavior. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be your conductor in the orchestra of thoughts and thoughtful actions. It’s where you think and reason. There’s a small problem though. While the thalamus sends information to the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex simultaneously, your amygdala gets that signal 233% faster. It takes 40 milliseconds for your rational mind to get the message, not twelve.
C:/ System Failure
Doing the math, there are 28 milliseconds where you are left with only emotion. Depending on how energetic that message was to your amygdala, something else is happening too. The amygdala sends a message to start creating cortisol, which is a clotting agent. Basically, cortisol’s job in moments of stress, is to send a very clear message. “Divert all power to the front shields now!!” So, things can get dicey quick.
The cortisol pulsing throughout your body is telling everyone to shut down unnecessary operations while you’re on red alert. There’s no getting around it. It is simply cause-and-effect. The signals to your circuits move at the speed they do. You’re emotional first, and logical second. You’re designed that way. There might be genetic exceptions and accidents that have created a different relationship for some, or you might be a sociopath, but likely not.
The point of this story is to remind you of this now, while the markets are calm and you have more than 40 milliseconds to process what I’m saying. You are 2.0 software running in 200,000 year old hardware. I’m also here to remind you that if you’re expecting a different output from whatever your moment might be, you’re kidding yourself. There is nothing you can do to change that — at least until we start genetically biohacking ourselves.
To attempt make this post a bit more evergreen, I also want you to realize that logging into your portfolio when the market is down 2000 points is most definitely going to create a reaction — probably a very strong reaction. And, for 28 milliseconds, which will make you want to ninja kill everything on the screen in front of you, you’re only going to be feeling, and definitely not thinking.
We also know that when people experience financial loss and financial trouble, aside from the initial chain reaction I’ve mapped out, they also experience physical pain. The science is clear here. Your brain is programmed to create these outputs.
For me, as a kid, I thought maybe someday as an adult, I’d finally grow up and be able to conquer these outputs. I’ve since learned to accept the math of these moments because I know better.
The only thing we can control is the outcome, not the output, by trying to remember that whatever you’re feeling in that moment…. in about 28 more milliseconds you’re going to have access to the angel on your shoulder.
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