PMBAPsychology & Communication

Deep Survival

Deep Survival - Qui Vit, Qui Meurt et Pourquoi

One sentence summary: In extraordinary circumstances, like accidents or catastrophes, some people survive and others die, such that sometimes things lead you to believe that the first ones die and the second ones survive; this book explains, using numerous stories of accidents and catastrophes, and by exploring the latest scientific theories – from neuroscience to the theory of chaos – what makes one person die and another survive.

By Laurence Gonzales, 2003, 295 pages.

Summary and book review:

The author begins by telling us the story of his father, a B17 bomber pilot – the flying fortress – during the Second World War. While conducting a raid on Dusseldorf, his plane was hit in midair by a shot from a German flak, which cut the left wing in two and killed nine crew members on the spot – out of ten. With his plane spinning around, pinned by centrifugal force, seriously wounded, he failed to grab his parachute and jump. He remained imprisoned in the cockpit for a six kilometer descent while the plane was cut in two. Then he fainted. When he came to, he was on the ground, and looked out at the world through the shattered window of the cockpit. He whole body was in agony, and a piece of the cockpit had penetrated his leg. A German farmer was standing in front of him, his gun pointed at him – at that time, they did not hesitate to kill American pilots from time to time. The German fired.

He survived. He was taken to a prisoner camp, then freed at the end of the war.

Laurence Gonzales’ interest in survival began when his father told him his story. The fact that he lived while so many others died fascinated him, and he wanted to understand, with the help of his interest in science. When five people were shipwrecked and only two came home, what was it that made the difference? Who survived the Nazi camps? Why did Robert Falcon Scott die during his expedition to the North Pole and Roald Amundsen survive? Why was a 17 year old adolescent girl the sole survivor to escape in the Peruvian jungle, while the adult victims with her in an air crash died? Why can some people survive the worst psychological catastrophes, like divorce, death, layoff, serious illness, while others suffer terribly? In his quest, he discovered principles that he tells us about in his book. Follow the guide.

Part 1 : How accidents happen


  • Chapter 1: Look out, here comes Ray Charles (The impact of emotion on our actions and how they are the cause of certain mistakes, the impact of fear and the effectiveness of humor)

Shortly before the author reached the American aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, an important step in his quest that was leading him to explore the frontier between life and death – frontier because some people succeed and others fail – a pilot was in the middle of landing, a normal sort of thing on such a boat. But his approach was too low. And many signals were indicating that to him, both in his cockpit and on the runway – the landing officer had turned on large red lights which meant your approach is not good, you should not land! And of course he yelled into his microphone, his voice echoing in the pilot’s helmet. But the latter continued, even though he only had to push down a fraction of an inch on the throttle to take off again and try a new approach.

The impact of the tail against the aircraft carrier cut the plane in two, and sent the pilot ricocheting off the runway in a shower of sparks, still clinging to his seat.

He survived. That was not the end of the story, that is not where the frontier is. The frontier can be found in this question: What was he thinking? He was intelligent, well prepared and had undergone extremely rigorous training. Something powerful blocked him. Something strong enough to continue trying to hit the runway even though all signals indicated that he wouldn’t make it. This reminded Laurence Gonzales of numerous accidents in dangerous sports like canyoneering which happened because people were ignoring the obvious signs for some inexplicable reason. It is this mystery that the author was trying to solve.

What the pilots of the Carl Vinson know, is that some time issues come up. There are things that you cannot control and you would be better off knowing how you are going to react to them.

The first rule is: face up to reality. Good survivors are not immune to fear. They know what is happening and fear permeates them completely. The whole question is what they do right afterwards.

When a pilot takes the controls of a plane and soars off the runway, he is often in a state of advanced excitement. Flying is his passion and sometimes he only lives for that. Every flight is a pure moment of joy and happiness, even though he is piloting several tons of a highly unstable machine that is full of explosive fuel where the slightest mistake could be fatal. They take a calculated risk just as snowboarders do before taking off from the top of a mountain, alpine climbers, parachutists and numerous other sports.

At times like that, people are not really totally present. They are each in a state of perception, of awareness, of memory and of deeply altered emotion.

Today, scientific studies tell us that emotions are an instinctive response designed for survival. These are faster than intellect, and occur due to many physical changes which are preparations for action. The nervous system becomes more energetic, blood changes its chemistry so that it coagulates more quickly, digestion stops, and numerous chemicals are sent in the blood to help the body become ready for everything that must be done. Reason is hesitant, slow and fallible, while emotions are sure, rapid and unhesitating.

There are primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are those you are born with, like the need to search for food or the sudden desire to catch something when you feel it falling. And the emotional system can get hung up on anything and everything. If you are a soldier at war, evolution has not formed your brain to throw you to the ground at the slightest gunshot. But once you have made a connection between gunshots and the risk of death, this connection becomes so deep that you don’t even need to think when it happens; your reaction is automatic. These are secondary emotions: connections between things and primary emotions that make reactions automatic.

Fear is a very powerful emotion. During a fear reaction, amygdale in the brain – as opposed to throat amygdale – helps to put in motion a series of incredible, complex events designed to produce a reaction that aids survival, bypassing the intellect. For example, if you are walking up a mountain path and notice something on the ground that looks like a snake, you will stop dead before you have even really registered what is on the ground because the strategy that evolution has fashioned with amygdale is “better be safe than sorry.” Then the neocortex takes over and tells you whether you are looking at a simple stick or an actual snake.

Many pilots, therefore, experience fear when they are in the landing stage – taking off is optional, but landing is a must – and fear in the cockpit is like knights dueling in a telephone booth. Pilots out of necessity develop a very strong secondary emotion associating safety, and even ecstasy with the ground – or the flight deck – and the overwhelming feeling that if only they can get this thing on the ground they will be safe and sound. A pilot develops a physical memory of this feeling, which is a powerful driving force for action coupled with direct experience with a primary emotion. He also has intellectual know-how telling him that if he tries to land, if it is too low or too slow, he could die. Unfortunately, he has no secondary emotions linked to that event since he has never experienced it. It is an abstract concept which cannot fight on equal terms to become a driving force to act upon.

So fear is often a stress trigger. In the case of stress, the brain secretes cortisol, which has many effects, one of the most important being the fact that it erodes our ability to perceive things and constrains our field of vision by targeting only what we think are the most important. And sometimes these are not good things. Therefore sometimes a pilot focuses too much on what he feels is the most important thing: the landing strip. His home. And thus the pilot of the Carl Vinson very well may not have heard the voice of the landing officer and not seen the red lights on the bridge. His body was doing what it knew was best for him: escaping the danger and getting to safety as quickly as possible. The rest of the environment became uninteresting noise efficiently filtered out by his brain.

So he hit the carrier.


  • Chapter 4 : A gorilla in our midst (How the brain filters reality, mental models, and the limits of working memory)

As complex as the brain is, the world is even more so. The brain cannot deal with and organize all the facts it receives. It could not define a reasonable plan of action if everything was treated equally and perceived with the same intensity. Thus, the brain must simplify reality and only perceive a part of it in order to be able to deal with it, otherwise it would cave under the weight of the complexity. This is what is difficult about logic: it happens step by step in a linear manner. Reality is not linear.

The brain’s role with respect to reality is similar to that of a search engine with respect to millions of pages that it finds on the internet. Without a powerful search engine you are paralyzed.

One of the brain’s search engines involves emotional book-marks, in which emotions help to direct logic and direct reason towards a place where they can do useful work. A second strategy that the brain uses to manage complicated problems is to create mental models, simplified schema of reality. A mental model can tell you what the rules are for a particular environment or the color and shape of a familiar object.

Magicians use this creation of a temporary mental model in their most subtle tricks, a short term memory of the world. Every world model has its own underlying assumptions based on experience, memory, secondary emotions and emotional book marks, which influence our expectations and what we see and what we plan to do about it. The magician creates a world model then passes from one model to another so quickly that you remain stuck in the first model, and you are surprised by the new reality he shows you. It is the disconnect between the first model and the second model that is surprising. You believe that it’s the magician doing the trick, but in fact you are doing it yourself.

One of the reasons why magic tricks work can be explained by the working memory. The working memory is a temporary memory which manages what we are doing at the moment. It can only manage a few things at one time, maybe half a dozen or so, when new things require our attention, these elements are forgotten. The working memory can also use information from long term memory. The fact that you are able to read this long sentence is the result of your short term memory which is capable of remembering the beginning, the middle and the end of the sentence, while using definitions and associations coming from your long term memory to understand the meaning of the words. It is also the result of the fact that you have created mental models of the words, you have associated to the symbol – the word – a meaning, an image of reality. When you read camel you immediately think of a camel, if you have ever seen a picture of that animal. If you have never seen a picture of that animal, then the meaning that you attribute to this word will depend on knowledge that you have acquired about this subject – perhaps you will classify it in the general category of “animal,” you might associate it with the desert or put it simply in the case of “I don’t know what it is” – and you do this in an instant.

The fact that new information – and in particular emotionally laden information – forces things to leave our working memory means that we cannot pay attention to many things at once. Unless something is transferred successfully to our long term memory, it is lost.

Working memory is therefore our attention. Its limited nature, together with the inevitable failings of the mental models, can cause surprising deficiencies in the way in which we comprehend reality and make conscious or unconscious decisions.


  • Chapter 5 : Anatomy of an Act of God (the need for humility, the cause for mistakes)

If you distill all the cognitive sciences, psychology and neurosciences over the last hundred years, you will find that we are always Homo but only sometimes Sapiens. We are emotional creatures, which is to say physical creatures. Neurologist Joseph Ledoux concluded that “people do all sorts of things for reasons they are not conscious of…and that is one of the principal jobs of the conscience to make our lives have a coherent manner, in a self concept.” Therefore, each of us is the hero in our own movie.

It is therefore not surprising to note that in many cases the mechanisms underlying survival, which are directly wired in us and sculpted by experience, are revealed not only to be powerful motivation elements pushing us to action, but also work to their maximum which they short circuit conscious mechanisms. Once an emotional reaction has taken hold, this can lead to an imperious desire to act.

But there are many ways to revise the script and adapt to dangerous situations. Training is one. All performers at the top of their profession train hard, and if you follow in their footsteps you are interested in being well trained as well. If we are beginners, we are confronted in mother nature with the same level of difficulty as the experts: she does not adapt herself to our level.

The practice of Zen teaches us that it is impossible to add anything to a teacup filled with water. The same thing is true of our mind. A closed attitude that says “I already know that” can lead us to miss important information. Zen teaches openness. Survival teachers refer to it when they talk about “humility.” Generally, highly skilled performers such as professional rescue personnel have an exceptional personal balance between bravery and humility.

Just being aware of nature’s pitfalls can help; it helps us remember that we are primates with a recent new functionality that is only somewhat tested; the neocortex. What we see as failings in the mind are probably nothing more than nature’s process which is quietly tinkering with simple rules over a long period of evolutionary time. Nature always uses plenty of individuals of all species in her experiments, and we are her ultimate experiment. It’s nothing personal then, when our brains play tricks on us. It’s nothing personal either when we die, as Marc-Aurèle, the philosopher emperor put it.


  • Chapter 6 : The sand pile effect (Accidents as a natural effect of systems)

What we call “accidents” do not happen by themselves. People must assemble the framework that makes them happen. Furthermore, nothing can stay happening for a long time. That is how mountains can have the reputation for being easy and well suited for beginning climbers. However accidents do happen, often involving experienced people who have climbed much more difficult mountains.

It was like this in 2002 that a drama unfolded on Mount Hood, a supposedly easy mountain in Oregon. 4 mountain climbers, one of whom was very experienced, arrived at the summit. After enjoying the view, they began their descent, all attached to the same cord, the novice at the bottom and the most experienced at the top. They did not use pitons to attach the cord, it was attached to them. The cord helped hold someone if they fell, but only on condition that the person at the top did not fall. Effectively, the distance between the climbers could be 10 meters (about 32 feet), so that if the person at the top fell, the second would absorb the impact when the first falls 20 meters (twice as long as the cord between the two of them), leading to an impact of such force that the second person would have to fall, and so on. That is why the most experienced person is at the top. They are not supposed to fall.

So on that day, Ward, the experienced mountain climber, slipped and fell. He led the other three in his fall, and this fine group led another two climbers who were down below them, then three more who were making their ascent. The nine of them fell into a crevice. Three died, including Ward.

This kind of accident must happen, as is always the case, to someone somewhere. All the available theories tell us that it is an inevitable part of the system at large that puts climbers on snow-covered slopes in large numbers. In his book Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow defends the idea that in certain types of systems big accidents, while rare, are both normal and inevitable. Accidents are a characteristic of the system itself.

Mountain climbers roped themselves in a team without belaying to anchor themselves all the time. They use axes for support poles while they descend


Alpiniste utilisant un piolet

Photo par massimobottelli

The accident on Mount Hood involved two big categories of effects: the mechanical system that the climbers were using and the psychology and physiology that contributed to the accident.

In system accidents, unexpected interactions between forces and components are generated naturally by the complexity of the system. This type of accident is made up of conditions, judgments, acts and events that would be inconsequential by themselves; at least if they were not associated with “right time” and “right place,” they would pass unnoticed. So Ward had slipped in the past, but he had always managed to catch himself before a fatal fall. He had also already belayed, but without ever falling to the point of it being useful to him. Thus Charles Perrow observed that most of the time, nothing serious happens, which leads operators – in this case climbers – to believe that the behavior of the system that they see is the only possible state of the system.

When a system is tightly coupled, its effects can expand in an exponential manner. In a system that is loosely coupled or uncoupled, the effects don’t affect other parts of the system. Therefore in a closely arranged row of dominoes there is a strong relationship between the state of an individual domino and the state of all the dominoes: if one falls, all the others will be affected. But if the dominoes are sufficiently well spaced, if one falls there won’t be any consequences for the others.

If the climbers were not attached to each other, the consequences of Ward’s fall would have been much less dramatic. But the accident was, however, no-one’s fault. It was a logical consequence of the self-directed system. So the Mount Hood accident was predictable, but no-one could know which mountain climbers were going to fall, nor where, nor when, nor with what injuries. The climbers were familiar with the system and had a good idea of how it worked, but only of its most common states. This type of huge accident, when it happens, happens very fast and can’t be stopped.


  • Chapter 7 : The rules of life (psychological causes of accidents)

There are two environments, two worlds, on Mount Hood. One is designed for the survival and comfort of humans. The other is not. There are mechanical chair lifts, pavilions, and a five star restaurant with its pinot noir and its rosemary crostini. In that place you can look out over thousands of square meters of natural wilderness while sipping your white wine, with an indifference more impudent than any animal would dare to entertain. The mountain is safely contained behind double-paned glass.

But we can only reign over our little model of the world. It is easy to cross this invisible line between that which has been adapted for us and that which requires that we adapt to it. But it is also easy to forget and bring with us this false sense of security that can be fatal for us when we cross the line. So the nine mountain climbers could have taken a little bit of this attitude with them from the pavilion to the mountain. Their success in life, their objectives, their plans and their imaginations took them there. They earned money to do this sort of thing. They earned the reward that their life mastery had bought them. People are part of a mechanical system but they are also a system in themselves.

Risk homeostasis theory states that people accept a certain level of risk and the more you perceive the environment as less risky, the more risks you take and vice versa. Therefore when the ABS breaking system was introduced in cars, the number of accidents overall remained the same because drivers who had them felt safer and took more risks. In the same way, the mountain climbers who have tackled reputedly dangerous mountains with maximum precaution, have a tendency to relax when they are climbing on reputedly safer mountains.

So, as Heraclite put is over 2500 years ago now, “every time we enter a river, it’s a different river.” And every time you hike on Mount Hood, it’s a different mountain. Studies of mountain accidents show that there are three factors that contributed to Mount Hood: 1) the descent, 2) everyone was roped together and 3) no belay. These three factors mean that on a global scale, accidents similar to the one on Mount Hood are very common.

There are three difficulties with the descent:

  1. Attitude
  2. An emotion tied to reaching a goal
  3. Stress

In the first place, the climbers, like many, had celebrated their arrival at the summit. “It was a glorious morning,” one of them recounted, “we had fun up there for half an hour, cracking jokes.” Humor. The tool that gives vent to emotional response. The pitfall they were up against was that they were only half way there. They partied even though the hardest part still awaited them. Mountain climbers are the only athletes to do that. So, it’s a natural part of the cycle of human emotions to let down your guard once you have reached a goal.

So the climbers were at the summit and faced the descent with the 5 star restaurant below them. Suddenly, the positive state of celebration upon arriving at the summit was transformed into the perspective of slowly descending the length of the long slope. Images of previous experiences popped into the minds of all the climbers: they saw themselves sitting quietly in the warm, resting. They saw rest and safety within their grasp: they only had to get down quickly and reach the pavilion as quickly as possible (a warm shower, pinot noir, rosemary crostini). So securing themselves by belaying would be long, annoying and tiring. They were already tired, and had already spent a lot of time climbing. A succession of emotional book marks had already been etched in their minds and one of the book marks reminded them that is was enough to go down one foot in front of the other for safety. Another told them that belaying would mean prolonged pain, thirst, hunger and fatigue. And they had no emotional book mark tied to falling 300 meters, or for the energy that would build up with a rope system if the highest climber fell.

So they had a false sense of security, due to the fact that Mount Hood is reputedly easy, of Ward’s experience, and by the training in self-arrest that they had successfully carried out the day before, and by their discussions on what behaviors to adopt to secure their descent.

Thus, piece by piece, unconscious of the fact that their model of the world was no longer valid, they assembled their accident. And they began the process long before their arrival at Mount Hood.

This kind of accident has to happen. But it does not have to happen for you and me.

More in the next episode 😉 .

Read more reviews of Deep Survival on Amazon.

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2 thoughts on “Deep Survival

  1. just wanted to say thanks for this. I have been doing this book Audio style, which is fine, but easy to tune out sometimes.

    Really appreciate the summary, gives me some great memory-joggers.

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