Brainwave: The Firefighter

When I have a lot on my mind I go for a long run to clear my head. Clearing the mind of anxieties, fears, and thoughts is therapeutic and we all have outlets that can help us. Some people chase the thrill of an adrenaline rush, find a humdrum task to occupy the mind, medicate, meditate, or, in extreme cases like Lt. Dennis Gordon of the FDNY, run into burning buildings to put out fires and rescue trapped occupants.

Clearing the mind was an important theme—as were fear and panic—at last night’s Brainwave discussion, “The Firefighter,” between distinguished New York City firefighter, Lieutenant Dennis Gordon, and psychologist Jeremy Safran, Ph.D., at the Rubin Museum of Art. The conversation between the clinical psychologist and the introspective, Buddhist practicing, firefighter of 36 years became quite spiritual.

firefighter(From right to left: Lieutenant Dennis Gordon and Jeremy Safran, Ph.D. (Credit: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

Safran wanted to understand Lt. Gordon’s ability to face and react to fear in perilous situations. Gordon responded by describing two cases where he found himself trapped in a burning house: one a second floor bedroom and the other a bathroom. In both cases, Gordon stressed the importance of breathing to prevent panic from taking hold. The importance of breathing resonated with Safran, who as a clinical psychologist, often notices that patients experiencing intense emotion or distress unintentionally forget to breath. “Let yourself breathe,” he reminds these patients. While breathing helped Gordon in the face of fear, for the most part, Gordon insists that fear is only realized before and after these moments.

Gordon believes that if you allow fear to take hold during extreme moments, you will not act. This is a sentiment echoed by fear expert and Dana Alliance member Joe LeDoux, Ph.D., in a New York Times opinion piece from 2012: “the automatic nature of the activation process reflects the fact that the amygdala does its work outside of conscious awareness. We respond to danger, and then only afterward realize danger is present.” Explaining his experience, Gordon said that he became so focused that he shut everything out. Without the distraction of fear, these moments of danger are where, for most of his life, Lt. Gordon felt “present.” Through Safran’s questions it became clear that these moments had been therapeutic for Lt. Gordon. The intensity of putting out a fire or saving a person in danger forced Gordon to temporarily? forget all his anxieties and fears—not only regarding the present situation—but of his everyday life.

Recently Gordon discovered Buddhism and meditation. He and Safran discussed how the mindfulness of Buddhist meditation can replace the need to do something—from substance abuse to thrill seeking behavior—to clear the mind of anxieties and fears. Lt. Gordon loves firefighting; however, it appears the mindfulness of meditation helped him accept retirement and appreciate that he does not need the danger of firefighting to clear his mind.

The Firefighter was part of the Brainwave: Mind Over Matter series. The Dana blog will be covering upcoming events from this series. For event listing and tickets, visit The Rubin Museum website.

The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner.

For more information on the neuroscience behind meditation check out these two articles from the Dana Foundation website: “Meditation: No Longer Such a ‘Black Box’” and “Teasing Out the Benefits of Meditation.”

–Simon Fischweicher

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