Friday, December 14, 2007

Deep Survival: A Book Review

Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why (New York: W. W. Norton, 200), 324 pages.

Drawing from his vast experience as a reporter of natural disasters, an acrobatic pilot, a prison guard, his family, literature and philosophy, Laurence Gonzales sets out to discover what traits are needed to survive a disaster? Why is it that someone lives while someone else, who would seem to be even more qualified to survive, dies? Looking at climbing accidents, hikers lost in the mountains, those adrift in life-rafts on the sea, and airplane crashes, Gonzales finds that the one who survives is often not the one who was most prepared. In his book, he integrates personal stories of survival with current research on how the brain works and processes information, especially looking at the relationship within the brain between cognitive functions and emotions. Both play a role in survival and need to be held in balance, for the extreme of either position (too emotional or too logical) often proves fatal.

This book is sprinkled with tad-bits of wisdom. “Fear is good; too much fear is not.” The survivor must know and understand his condition. He or she often fights fear with dark humor, laughing at the hopeless situation they’re in. Humor then becomes the balance between the cognitive and the emotional. One trainer taught his clients: “Fear is like fire. It can cook for you. It can heat your house. Or it can burn you down.” (41) Yet fear can also be addictive, “it can be fun and make you feel more alive.” (49) Prayer plays an important role. Quoting Peter Leschak, ‘Whether a deity is actually listening or not, there is value in formally announcing your needs, desires, worries, sins, and goals in a focused, prayerful action. Only when you are aware can you take action.” (180) Gonzales reminds his readers that the human being can endure much more than we think we’re capable of enduring. He quotes from Dostoevsky’s Memories from the House of the Dead, ”Man is a creature who can get used to anything, and I believe that is the best way of defining him.” (215) Gonzales gives this definition of survival: “Survival is nothing more than an ordinary life well lived in extreme circumstances.” (240)

Gonzales spends a chapter talking about the role memory plays in survival situations. We all have brain bookmarks (somatic markers) that help us quickly recognize both fear and pleasure. These bookmarks can both help us survive (by realizing the gravity of the situation) or cause us to stumble (by causing us to make bad decisions in the hopes of quickly getting back to where we are comfortable). Gonzales gives several examples of people whose bookmarks for the pleasure over road their rational senses and caused them to make bad decisions. One example involved climbers coming down from a mountain in bad weather. The desire to be in the lodge was so great that they moved too quickly and got into trouble. Another example is a scuba diver who has a feeling of suffocation and pulls the regulator out of their mouth when under water. A third example is the naval pilot who losses his focus and his only thought is to be back safe on the ship, which causes him to ignore warnings and to abort a landing. Survival of a life-threatening situation can actually become addictive, which can create its own problems. The true survivor enjoys the challenge, but also knows the danger.

Gonzales devotes a great deal of space showing how we all map our world. For the most part, this is a good trait, one that helps us make sense of our surroundings. The problem arises when our map is faulty and we tend to make our surroundings jive with our mental map instead of taking in new information (I know the camp is right over the next hill). When our maps are wrong, we need to realize it and not just react. We have to shift from emotional to cognitive action. Other common traits of who survive is that survivors are rule breakers (whose those who cannot break the rules have the most trouble) and they are also those concerned about others (helping others caught in the situation or wanting to live to see loved ones left behind).

In his last chapter, Gonzales outlines twelve things he seen survivors do:

1. Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
2. Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
3. Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
4. Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out task)
5. Celebrate your successes (take joy in completing tasks)
6. Count your blessings (be grateful—you’re alive)
7. Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your heard.
8. See the beauty (remember: it’s a vision quest)
9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you will live)
10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying: ‘put away the pain’)
11. Do whatever is necessary (be determined, have the will and the skill). Know your abilities, but do not under or overestimate them.
12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit).

I enjoyed this book and think it has a lot to offer. Gonzales has a talent for weaving good stories with scientific knowledge and theory. This book isn’t a how-to manual for survival, but in a way it is a manual on how to fully live life. As the author states on the last page: “We can live a life of bored caution and die of cancer. Better to take the adventure, minimize the risks, get the information, and then go forward in the knowledge that we’ve done everything we can.”

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. I'm a wuss. I'd die quickly but I'm o.k. with that. I've seen the movie 'Open Water' and read a book that involved cannabalism. I don't want to be that person that last for days in the ocean or eats her shipmate to survive but has to live the rest of her life knowing that she ate Bob.

  2. By the way, I can't believe I finally got to be the first comment leaver. I've waited for this day for quite awhile.

  3. Over Thanksgiving, this book was being read by various family members. I read a few excerpts and heard quite a few more being read. Later while hiking on a trail, we came to a point where it crossed the road. Seeing that we were on a mountain with only one road, we assumed it was the same road we had parked on at the trailhead buy none of us had more than just a wild guess as to which way the car was, left or right. I thought of that book as we decided to continue taking the trail the long way back to the car.

  4. This book sounds like a must-read. I will probably pick it up to read on the plane on the way to the White Mountains. Fitting, eh? ;)

    I like all the interesting points you bring up about logic vs. emotion...and balancing fear. Wow! Good stuff!

  5. That sould like a very interesting book, and I would like to read it.

    I finally got around to starting the book with "mobile home living" in the name and I am hooked already - at 15 pages!

  6. Murf, congratulations on being first!

    Ed, maybe the book is a survival manual, sure looked like it helped you all out

    Scarlet, It's a great read--I highly recommend it

    Kenju, You'll enjoy Martin Clark's book

  7. This books sounds like it has some super detail. Michele sent me here.

  8. I like the list of 12, but I'm sure the definintion of survival would include "well-lived" - that phrase better belongs in a definition of thriving . . .

  9. This is simply an amazing post and I find it to be spot-on!!!!

  10. This is right away added to my TBR pile! Already very long!

    You got a new template. This is what comes from being slack on visiting you.

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