The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why
Half of Americans have been affected by a disaster of some kind. In big disasters, regular people are the first and most important rescuers on the scene. But very few of us know what to expect until it is too late.
By combining the stories of survivors with research into how the brain works under extreme duress, THE UNTHINKABLE tries to bring light into civilization’s darkest moments. Why do we freeze in the middle of a fire? How can we override this instinct? Why do our senses of sight and hearing change during a terrorist attack? Why are most heroes men?
In this inspiring mix of narrative, science and participatory journalism, award-winning TIME Magazine senior writer Amanda Ripley reveals how human fear circuits and crowd dynamics work, why our instincts sometimes misfire in modern calamities, and how we can do much, much better.
Excerpt: When it comes to financial risk, [Nassim] Taleb, the mathematical trader, refuses to read the newspaper or watch TV news. He doesn’t want to tempt his brain with buy-sell sound bites….. Similarly, when it comes to disaster risk, there’s little to be gained by watching TV news segments: stories of shark attacks will distract your brain from focusing on far likelier risks.
“I tell people that if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. The very definition of ‘news’ is ‘something that hardly ever happens,'” writes security expert Bruce Schneier. “It’s when something isn’t in the news, when it’s so common that it’s no longer news, — car crashes, domestic violence — that you should start worrying.”
… time distortion primarily exists in our memory. “Time in general is not slowing down. It’s just that in a fearful situation, you recruit other parts of the brain, like the amygdala, to lay down memories. And because they are laid down more richly, it seems as though it must have taken longer.” In other words, trauma creates such a searing impression on our brains that it feels, in retrospect, like it happened in slow motion.
Today, [Rogers V.] Shaw trains pilots to proactively scan their instrument panels, over and over again, to counteract the tendency to fixate on one problem. He also teaches pilots to make sure one member of the flight crew remains focused on flying the plane at all times. And he hammers home the importance of open communication and dissent.
Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, have no obvious way to train for life-or-death situations that may never happen. Other than fire drills, which are usually not very realistic anyway, there aren’t many opportunities to get to know your disaster personality in a safe environment.
But for now, there are simpler ways to train the fear response. One of the most surprising tactics, taught in all seriousness to some of the scariest gun-wielding men in the world, is breathing. Over and over again, when I ask combat trainers how people can master their fear, this is what they talk about. Of course, they call it “combat breathing” or “tactical breathing” when they teach it to Green Berets and FBI agents. But it’s the same basic concept taught in yoga and Lamaze classes. One version taught to police works like this: breathe in for four counts; hold for four counts; breathe out for four counts; hold for four; start again. That’s it.