Saturday, September 4, 2010


I’m reading a book entitled “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales (Norton, 2003)

It’s not found in the “adventure/survival” section of the bookstore but in “science.” The author has been studying accidents and their roots in human behavior for 35 years, and uses actual stories of survival to illustrate various theories about who survives and who doesn’t.


Early on in the book he proposes as a key to understanding survival behavior, the differing roles of reason and emotion. It seems that the emotion part of our brain is wired to react immediately and “unthinkingly” in the presence of perceived threats, and so is a primary player in the survival game. When experienced soldiers hear the whistle of an incoming bomb they flatten themselves onto the ground by trained instinct. The new recruits, who go through a quick reasoning process (“That sound means an incoming bomb, so I need to get down quickly”), they are the ones who get killed. If you have to think about it, you’ll be too late.

He writes quite a lot about the anatomy and physiology of the brain, and describes how (in my own poor words) the senses and emotions and instincts are wired directly to the action part of the brain for purposes of survival. And so “reason is tentative, slow, and fallible, while emotion is sure, quick, and unhesitating” (p. 31).


It seems that the survivor is one who manages to keep the delicate balance between the rational, planning side and the emotional action-directed side. Take the case of forty-four-year old Peter Duffy.

He was rafting on the Hudson when he fell out of the boat wearing his life preserver. He knew that he was supposed to draw his feet up and let the life preserver keep him afloat. But he instinctively tried to stand instead. In an instant he caught his food under a rock, was drawn under three feet of rushing water, and his life vest was torn off by the swift current. He drowned, trapped helplessly beneath the surface. Gonzales remarks, “Duffy knew intellectually what he should have done. But knowing was no match for emotion” (p. 35).

Here’s another comment from the same chapter: “How well you exercise [self-] control often decides the outcome of survival situations” (p. 39). This control involves keeping your emotions and your rational side in balance so that they work together to produce a successful outcome. But emotions always have a head start on our rational side:

“Emotions are survival mechanisms, but they don’t always work for the individual. They work across a large number of trials to keep the species alive. The individual may live or die, but over a few million years, more mammals lived than died by letting emotion take over, and so emotion was selected” (p. 39).


Gonzales quotes insights from Zen masters and other philosophers and religious thinkers. He mentions that Plato wrote of the intellect as the chariot driver whose role was to control the steeds of the passions and lead them in the right direction.

Gonzales’ investigations seem to treat some of the questions that Saint Paul raised concerning his own struggles: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom.7:19). I began to wonder how the author’s ideas about the way our brain is wired affect questions of human morality, free will, and responsibility. "Duffy knew intellectualy what he should have done. But knowing was no match for emotion."

Deep Survival” is a marvelously detailed and well thought-out work combining modern findings in the anatomy and physiology of the brain, psychology and a number of other fields into a clear but complex picture of why some people survive disasters and others don’t. I haven’t even finished the book but I’m already planning to read it again soon, looking for more connections with moral philosophy and theology.

I’ll keep you posted.
.......................(No, that's not me!)

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