The Curious Persistence of Fast George

by Ioannis Pavlidis

Most of you are familiar with Curious George, the ape in the popular kids' program whose inquisitive nature gets him into trouble, out of which he escapes thanks to his smarts and good luck. The kids love Curious George and the parents love him even more because it personifies the most unique and adorable human quality - curiosity. Today we will put this perception into question. Not that humans are not inquisitive, because they are, but we will advance the thesis that persistence, not inquisitiveness, is the overriding human quality.

A few years back we developed a number of methods to unobtrusively quantify sympathetic responses. These are autonomic responses that our body produces to help us rise to a threat or challenge, such as faster heart rate to run out of the danger zone or increased perinasal perspiration to enhance olfaction. It is the most primal physiological mechanism, revealing of our deeper nature and with evolutionary roots that predate our species.

We used these new methods to measure sympathetic responses of surgeons as they were training in inanimate laparoscopic drills. Unobtrusiveness was key because it enabled the unbiased monitoring of the subjects' physiology and behavior in realistic conditions. After three years of measurements and observations we found that in dexterous challenges (which laparoscopic drills exemplify) cognition takes back stage and the sympathetic system drives the learning process.

Sustained negative sympathetic responses in novice surgeons - what in common language we call stress - spawn fast actions that are mismatching to their rudimentary skill level. As a result speed maxes out and accuracy bottoms. Human biology treats the challenge as a threat and mobilizes the only countermeasure that has to its avail - urgency for flight. This urgency never materializes in any real sense - nobody runs away from training. Through sheer will the novice surgeons keep trying and trying. The 'flight energy', however, is redirected from the surgeons' legs to their hands that act at the limit of neurophysiological latency.

To give you a more familiar example of neurophysiological latency, think of an instance that you involuntarily blinked at a fraction of a second, when a tiny object was perceived as heading toward your eyes. The same physiological mechanism that produces the instantaneous eye-saving blinks it also produces the awkwardly fast hand motions in unfamiliar dexterous drills.

Human biology is still fully immersed in threat-addressing mode, while Homo sapiens is increasingly immersed in challenge-solving mode, something substantively different. This creates a fundamental conflict, which I believe is the source of many curious outward behaviors. For example in the case of novice surgeons we would expect them to consciously slow down to more manageable speeds, in order to give room for their skill to grow first. This never happens. What we witness instead is the agonizing effort of surgeons to grow their skill to match the maximum speed level imposed by the onset of stress. This is equivalent to a novice driver attempting to negotiate a Formula 1 circuit at Formula 1 speeds and keep this tactic in trial after trial, until he manages to finish the circuit without any crashes.

Most people would agree that this strategy does not make much sense. However, they arrive at this conclusion through a detached and fully informed cognitive analysis. If they were involved in the action and they were not aware of the full picture, they would probably have done the same thing, simply because instinct overrides cognition during the presentation of real-time challenges.

What saves the day here and in many other human endeavors is persistence. The novice surgeons acquire laparoscopic skill at great pain because they use a non-optimal, instinct-driven training strategy. Sheer will helps them to absorb the losses from the apparent lack of biological support and they eventually meet the challenge through the path of steepest ascent - a most unnatural method which shows that we are a species in transition.

An ape, should it have exhibited the same persistence on inanimate laparoscopic drills, it would probably have followed the same instinctive strategy and it would have had similarly successful results after a long training process. But neither apes nor any other animals are interested in seemingly hopeless and not immediately beneficial operations - only humans do.

What this discovery shows is that humans are not necessarily made for many of the highly civilized tasks they come to perform and they reach there by going against their deeper nature with an obstinacy that is almost comic. The question is if this generalizes to more complex human and societal behaviors and what are its implications. A general hypothesis that seems to emerge is that when humans are presented with a threat or challenge outside their comfort zone and get caught in the action, cognition is likely to go out the window. This is what we inherited as a species. Combining this with the uniquely human quality of persistence creates an explosive cocktail that is destined to lead either to greatness or catastrophe, depending on the available timeline. If the timeline is long enough, persistence eventually leads to correction and triumph. If the timeline is short, experience or luck are the only hopes against the vicious circle of persistent, fast, and erroneous action that is likely to form, leading to disaster.

Let us interpret some stories of greatness or catastrophe through this newly formed hypothesis. First, baby training; all these countless hours of awkwardly fast motions that painstakingly build our walking and basic dexterity skills. I suggest that this is the quintessential example of fast George who is curiously persistent, working against its counterproductive sympathetic reactions often to a funny effect. No wonder humans need such a long period to reach adulthood - it is darn difficult to work around their natural limitations. At the end, the triumph of will - a being that can walk, run, chop onions, and play the piano all with apparent ease.

Take as another example the case of Air France flight 447 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009. A relatively inexperienced officer was in command of the airplane at the moment the Pitot tubes failed and the autopilot disengaged. While the plane was in danger of stalling he was repeatedly upping the plane's nose higher and higher, bringing it closer to stall. The pilot had not received training in manually handling stall at high altitude. Therefore the situation presented an overwhelming challenge to him, shutting down clear cognition and giving free range to the sympathetic system that locked into a mode of persistent, erroneous, and fast action - too fast for the pilot's level of competence.

On the other end of the spectrum consider the miraculous landing of the US Airways plane on the Hudson River after loosing thrust in both engines from a bird strike. The captain in command was an experienced former fighter pilot and glider pilot. The presented challenge was within his comfort zone, and for this reason cognition was front and central in a sequence of decisions he took that represented perfect choices. In absolute terms everything happened fast, but in relative terms not too fast for him. Experience warps time in these instances. As he was flawlessly handling a precipitous situation in the cockpit, he was also finding the room to provide calm instructions to the passengers!

Does persistent sympathetic action form only in tasks that involve dexterity? Although we do not have experimental evidence at the moment, we suspect it is a general behavior and may form even in purely cognitive tasks. A historical example that points in this direction is the series of decisions taken by the British General Abercrombie in the Battle of Carillon in 1758. He repeatedly ordered waves of infantry attacks against well-fortified French positions without prior artillery preparation and at the end he hastily retreated from the theater of operations, although he had the capability to lay siege on Fort Carillon. One bad decision after the other in rapid succession - the hallmark of the vicious loop formed by the sympathetic system in unfamiliar challenges - what we ignorantly used to call incompetence up to now.

This brings me to my closing comment. Inexplicable persistence is a quintessential and somewhat downplayed element of human nature. In the early stages of an overwhelming challenge, persistence is likely to lock with latent urgency for flight into a vicious circle that we cannot survive if the time is cut short. Given that there is enough time and resources, however, for persistence to work its torturous path through our primal instincts, it invariably leads to greatness. We persisted through this [image of middle ages], and this [image of 1st World War], and this [image of concentration camp], arriving victorious on the other end.

Is there anything we can do to break this loop early enough to triumph even in short notices? Right now the answer to this question is no - nothing other than prior experience or sheer luck. Perhaps the only solace the moment we go down, when we get caught in such a catastrophic loop, is knowledge of our transitional state as a species between primal fear and persistent cognition. Then, in a warped time moment it would all make sense, for eternity.