It should all be rather simple. The heading indicator tells you which direction you are going, the altimeter tells you how high you’re flying, the airspeed indicator tells you how fast you are going. But it isn’t so simple, because aviating isn’t just about reading our gauges; it’s about how we read them.
Many, many moons ago, I attended an “Evolution of Psychotherapy” conference, which those of us who have been in the head-shrinking field for a while will remember as the mecca for psychotherapists. Roughly every decade, Jeff Zeig, a renowned Arizona psychologist, would bring together the living legends in the world of psychotherapy, until they died out one by one and it just got too depressing. At one of those conferences, the brilliant psychoanalyst James Masterson was asked by a member of the audience why it was that no matter how confrontive she was with a particular patient, the patient remained unphased. Masterson replied quite masterfully that the therapist was likely using “the wrong gauge” by judging her level of confrontation by how she would feel if someone said those things to her. What mattered, of course, wasn’t her confrontation gauge, but the client’s.
It used to be thought, and likely still is, that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty understanding others’ perspectives, a lack of what the prolific psychologist David Premack originally called a “theory of mind”. That observation has led to the view that people on the spectrum lack empathy, but it may well be that the problem instead could be caused by reading the wrong gauge. It turns out, some new research indicates, that while it may be true that people diagnosed with autism often have difficulty understanding the perspectives of so-called “neurotypicals,” they don’t seem to have difficulty understanding each other. In that sense, they only “lack empathy” when dealing with people who lack empathy for them. We may, mistakenly, be looking only at the person with autism, and not the people with whom they are interacting. That has led to a revision of the “empathy problem” such that some prefer to call it a “double empathy” problem. The problem only occurs when two people lack empathy for each other. Otherwise, the world turns just fine.
Reading the wrong gauge can have tragic consequences. The crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (the day the music died) took place in snowy conditions in Northern Iowa. 21-year-old pilot Roger Peterson, in spite of his young age, was not inexperienced, but although he passed the written portion of the instrument exam, he failed the instrument checkride and wasn’t technically legal to fly on that snowy day. No one could determine exactly why, just 5 miles from the airport, the airplane that Peterson was flying turned and crashed nose-down at high speed, but one theory that emerged is that the airplane he flew on that day had a new attitude indicator (or “artificial horizon”) installed, one that was different from the gauge in the airplane Peterson had been used to flying but that happened to be out of service that day. In one gauge, the depiction of the airplane in the center moved in relation to the static horizon line, and in the other, the airplane symbol remained stationary while the background horizon moved. The result is a “figure-ground” difference such that up is one direction on one gauge and down on the other. Flying blindly in a snowstorm, Peterson could have thought he was climbing when in fact he was descending. He may well have been flying the “wrong gauge.” Had he not done this, Buddy Holly would likely have lived to know his son and Don McLean may never have been able to retire.
In primary flight training, we are taught not only how to read our gauges, but how they relate to one another and even the best ways to scan from one gauge to another. In psychotherapy, we try to teach our clients how to read their own gauges, especially the one that tells us what to do with the other gauges. When clients first appear, it’s not uncommon for them to perceive themselves living in a world in which they can’t tell up from down.
It should be simple– the airplane is climbing or descending, I’m getting too angry or too tired. It’s making sure we are reading the right gauge at the right time in the right circumstance, and then knowing how to level out and stabilize ourselves; therein lies the challenge.