Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Surviving Deep Survival

I just finished reading Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival, which I guess is about the psychology of surviving. I disliked it a great deal and would absolutely not recommend it, except for the appendix which makes up the last 20 pages. The book is a very unorganized collection of ideas from Zen, Tao Te Ching, Heroditus, philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology. It's also an attempted memoir, a tribute to Gonzales' pilot father, and a collection of very short re-tellings of survival tales. I know, sounds great, right? But in trying to do all these things, and jumping around between them, it ends up doing none of the above well. Also, you may already know some of the survival accounts from Alive, Adrift, and Touching the Void, and the original accounts are far more interesting. The stories you've likely never heard of are re-told with aggravatingly little detail. I was also irked by Gonzales' repeated mentions of spirituality and following hunches, but it's not my preference for hard statistics that made me dislike this book--I consider even the most reason-based of Gonzales' writing, in both this book and his National Geographic Adventure columns, to be totally uninspired.

The subtitle is Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. In retrospect this makes sense--it's Why, not How, which I guess is what I expected. Virtually none of the information is useful in any practical sense. That's not necessarily a fatal flaw, as even though it might not be useful information the next time I'm lost that my amygdala (or whatever) is responsible for spatial mapping, if it were written well, it might at least be interesting. This book is, however, not written well. If you want a brain book, read Oliver Sacks. If you want a random collection of scientific findings loosely connected by an unconvincing central thesis, read Malcolm Gladwell.

I did find the appendix, which attempts to synthesize the book into something practical, to be worthwhile. Gonzales offers two lists:
1. Perceive, believe, then act.
2. Avoid impulsive behavior; don't hurry.
3. Know your stuff.
4. Get the information.
5. Commune with the dead. [Read accident reports.]
6. Be humble.
7. When it doubt, bail out.


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 tasks)
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 head).
8. See the beauty (remember: it's a vision quest)
9. Believe that you will succeed (develop a conviction that you'll 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)
12. Never give up (let nothing break your spirit)

Those lists are actually pretty interesting. If you want a useful and interesting reading experience, I'd suggest reading the appendix, writing down these lists, then keep them handy while reading the books and accident reports that were Gonzales' source material yourself.

I'll end with a rare good turn of phrase I liked, written from Gonzales' stunt-pilot perspective:
Survivors know, whether they are conscious of it or not, that to live at all is to fly upside down (640 people died in 1999 while choking on food; 320 drowned in the bath tub). You're already flying upside down. You might as well turn on the smoke and have some fun.


  1. btw, the amygdala has nothing to do with spatial mapping. It is involved in emotional processing, emotional modulation of memory, and emotional learning. parietal cortex for spatial mapping.

  2. I was hoping this comment was coming.