Three things happened to me when I was 17 that turned out to have a significant effect on my interest in communications, and specifically non-verbal communications, later in life. First, I read a book about the Dalai Lama, and took him on as one of my heroes immediately and forever. Second, I learned my father was gay. And third, I died.
I talked about seeing the Dalai Lama in person in my first post in this series. His effect on me and on the rest of the audience was so powerful, that it forced me to think about the power of non-verbal communications. How could one person transfix me with a look?
In my second post, I described learning that my father was gay in a nanosecond at Christmas. Once again, a look conveyed information powerfully, and changed my understanding of my father’s life completely.
But then came the sequel.
Later that Christmas season, I was tobogganing with a couple of friends, on the other side of town, on a cold, icy afternoon. The first run went smoothly, and so, with 17-year-old bravado, I said, “we didn’t go fast enough.” My friends suggested that perhaps I’d like to try a solo run if I was so full of it, and so I did.
I got a running start, jumped on the toboggan, and crashed headfirst into a tree on the second turn. I fractured my skull, and was taken to Geisinger Medical Center in Hershey, PA, and operated on by neurosurgeons there for a subdural hematoma – a blood clot – that was putting pressure on my brain and causing intense pain.
I was in a coma for a few days, and at some point during that coma, I died briefly – for a total of about 15 minutes. I came back to life, woke up, and asked the nurse “Where am I?” because, despite the cliché, it was what I wanted to know first. I was lost, confused, and had no memory of what had happened to me.
As I gradually regained awareness, I noticed that something odd had happened to my mental processes. I couldn’t figure out affect – intent – in other people. Their words seemed hollow, and the world seemed gray. I couldn’t tell what they were thinking, or feeling. Their mouths moved, and words came out, but without a sense of intent behind them, they didn’t make much sense to me.
So I began to study their gestures and facial expressions consciously, in a deliberate and indeed panicked attempt to figure out what they were feeling, what their intent was, what they actually meant.
I felt cut off and completely alienated from the world. Everyone around me seemed like automatons, robots, without the affect I was used to from before the accident.
After a couple of months, I was able once again to read people’s emotions, and the world once again seemed filled with emotion and attitude and once again made sense. The part of my brain that read other people effortlessly, more or less, switched back on as mysteriously as it had switched off.
But the whole experience awakened in me a lifelong interest in body language, gesture, and the conscious effort to understand what other people took for granted, content to pick up emotion and intent for the most part unconsciously.
And one other thing. The experience allowed me to occasionally tap into my unconscious mental processes and make them conscious. Like moments of insight into how the mind actually understands the world around it – a glimpse behind the scenes.
Over the years I’ve continued to study our unconscious behavior to try to understand how people actually communicate. And more recently, advances in brain science have given us the beginnings of a true understanding of this essential piece of human behavior.
Most of our communication is indeed unconscious. Our conscious brains can handle something like 40 bits of information a second. That sounds like a lot until you know that our unconscious minds can handle 11 million bits of information per second. And so we’ve evolved to push much of our behavior down to our unconscious minds because they can handle the chores so much more powerfully and rapidly.
If something dangerous is thrown at you, and you duck without thinking, getting out of the way a split second before it could hurt you, that’s your unconscious mind at work. If you move at virtually the same instant and with the same gesture as someone you love, that’s your unconscious mind at work. And if you get a suddenly powerful gut feeling that the person across from you is concealing an important feeling or piece of news, that’s your unconscious mind at work.
Precisely because all of this mental activity is unconscious, we’re not aware of it, until it has already started to happen. In fact, we make most decisions unconsciously, and only become aware of them consciously afterward, once we already start acting physically on that decision. The delay can be as long as 9 seconds.
For most of the things that matter, your unconscious mind rules you, not the other way around.
I believe that we humans can unlock enormous communication (and leadership) potential within ourselves by training our conscious minds to understand those unconscious thought processes better, and taking control of them. I’m writing a book right now on how to do exactly that, and in future blog posts I’ll share key points along the way.