March 13, 2017

Tunnel Vision, Survival, and Who Lives

Your ship sinks, your airplane crashes, you are sliding on your back down an icy slope into a crevasse — will you be the survivor?

I had read bits of Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why but never the whole thing until a couple of weeks ago when I chanced across a used copy.

The first part mixes stories with a quick guide to brain function, especially Our Friend the Amygdala and the wondrous intelligence-reducing effects of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes you stupid.

Or as Gonzales' father, a World War II bomber pilot said, "When you walk across to your airplane, you lose half your IQ," a line echoed by a contemporary Navy pilot who observes that during the stress of a nighttime  carrier landing, "Your IQ rolls back to that of an ape."

It's that stress-induced tunnel vision that comes up again and again. Learning to get past it is the most valuable thing, whether it is through training, through mentally rehearsing scenarios, a little bit of body memory —or maybe the need to focus on other people's needs.

I am not a pilot, but I remember one day when I was still new to our little volunteer fire department. I had to take out the brush truck (small wildland fire engine) for a call. Normally you need two people, minimum, but this was a case where I would be picking up the second person en route to the incident, which is permitted.

I opened the engine bay door, walked around the truck to check for open compartment doors, unplugged the battery trickle charger (I've heard of other people at other departments driving away and yanking out the wires!) and started the engine. I pulled out, thumbed the door-close button on the remote, and called Dispatch to say I was leaving the station.

Then I pulled out onto the highway and could not remember how to turn on the overhead light bar. Traffic was light, I kept going, and when I pulled off to pick up the other firefighter, it hit me: You move that little lever down there. Maybe having someone else with me reduced my stress enough that I could remember. Memory of what to do came flooding back.

In this book's second half, he drops the brain chemistry, instead mixing his stories with Stoic philosophy, the Tao Teh Ching, and some distillation of basic principles for survival.

When you look at Gonzales' twelve-step plan for survivors, you have to realize that it is not all about falling a mountain or lying alone in a life raft. Maybe you need those twelve steps on the day your boss calls you in and says you're laid off. (He has a newer book called Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things that I would like to read too.)

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