The Neuroscience of Giving Up and Hope: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

You’re in an enclosed space. A person you’ve never met before points a gun to your head. What do you do? 

Much of the neuroscience of decision-making and social psychology on behavioral choice selection revolves around the actions we choose to take when we are faced with unexpected situations that are critical. Some of the most spectacular, of course, are life-threatening. 

One of the most public and, arguably, most studied is what is popularly known as “the miracle on the Hudson”. Relating to that event in The Sniper Mind I wrote: 

Intuition, itself a mental heuristic, is triggered when the brain knows it needs to decide something fast on relatively little information and needs some guidance to ascertain its threat level. Mental heuristics keep us safe when they tell us not to get in that car, not to take that shortcut via a back alley or when we enter a place and can “feel” the tension in the air. 

Studies have shown that the signaling is bidirectional. When the gut talks to the brain, the brain kicks into high gear, carries out its own subliminal assessment and talks back. The enteric nervous system is an ancient evolutionary holdover we share with insects, snails and marine polyps and its role is to allow the rapid assessment of a situation in the most energy-efficient way possible, so it’s not even uniquely human. The cross-signaling that takes place with the brain however is. 

The moment it is activated by a gut reaction the trained brain brings its considerable resources of knowledge, experience and training to bear and achieves seemingly impossible feats. Consider the case of the now legendary “Miracle on the Hudson”. The moment when the US Airways Flight 1549, on January 15 2009, barely two minutes into its take off from New York City’s LaGuardia airport on a domestic flight, experienced catastrophic twin engine failure because of bird strike. The incident rendered the aircraft on a climb at 3,000ft suddenly, completely powerless.

Within just 208 seconds, veteran pilots Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, had made aviation history. In that brief space of time they had assessed a complex situation for which it was impossible to practice. They had then gone through every option possible while, worked to calm the passengers, communicated with control tower on the ground, continued to attempt to cold start the two dead engines and all the while gliding the completely powerless plane, turning it around until they could coolly fly it into the Hudson. In what has become one of the most watched YouTube videos, the subject of at least one book and a major movie, the ditching of the A320 Airbus and the fast-thinking of its pilots saved everyone on board.

The video below has Captain Sully, who piloted that flight and made the crucial decisions under conditions he’d never met before explain it in his own terms: 



Connection and Hope

There are studies that show that mental defeat leads to what is known as “psychogenic death” . Basically, the mind gives up and the body follows suit. Captain Sully’s personal account of the circumstances that led to his incredible action highlight a lot of factors that came together: the experience of his co-pilot and crew, the conditions on the day, his knowledge of the flight areas and his intuitive understanding of the choices available to him. 

Two things stand out from all he says though that are now also backed by a body of neuroscientific research. First, the automatic understanding he had with his co-pilot of what they should do. Brain synchronization is a phenomenon whereby different brains when faced with a specific set of circumstances independently understand the options available to them and act to maximize the opportunity for a positive outcome through cooperation. This requires, the seemingly impossible, non-verbal coordination we see in elite special forces, sports teams and, in this case, co-pilots. 

Second, despite his quick assessment of the dire circumstances they were in and the realization that there was going to be a crash landing in this instance, Captain Sully did not give up. Instead he prioritized everything that could give him and his passengers and crew a fighting chance, knowing full well, that there was no guarantee of survival. 

Blind hope is not a strategy, much less a survival tactic, any more than blind trust is. The scientific definition of hope however is that it is: 

“a positive cognitive state based on a sense of successful goal-directed determination and planning to meet these goals.”

We give up when there is no hope. Like every other trait, hope can be worked on in a systematic way. In Intentional, my latest book, I detail how emotional regulation gives us a sense of control over, even, the most chaotic situations that enables us to better direct our life. 

When we give up not only do we refuse to work to build hope, we also refuse to work to control ourselves. This makes us subject to the vagaries of our environment and the random chaos of our circumstances. Giving up, then is a choice.

If you don’t want to make that choice here’s what you must do instead: 

  • Prioritize the moment. Understand what your goal is right now. Focus on the steps you need to take to achieve it.
  • Believe in yourself. This may seem obvious but there can be no time for doubt when you need to act. Doubt only weakens your resolve and blunts your focus.
  • Take every action you can. Your goal is to get past the moment of crisis. There can be no action related to that goal that you should leave undone. 

That’s it. 

For a deeper dive into the systems that run us under the hood check out: Intentional – How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully

Related Links
'All the pieces had to come together': Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger says on 10th anniversary of miraculous Hudson River landing

The 'Miracle on the Hudson' Flight: 8 Things You Might Not Know, a Decade Later