Come Out Alive: Practicing Survival Skills

Nov 25, 2009
Outside Magazine

Like free throws or music scales, survival skills can be practiced. If you repeat the exercises needed for a life or death situation you can increase your chances of survival—whether you're a father perfecting a friction fire in the backyard or a soldier simulating an underwater escape from a helicopter crash in a pool.

While reporting a graphic inspired by Ben Sherwood's book The Survivor's Club, I had the chance to interview survival psychologist Dr. John Leach. He studies what happens in the brain when people are put in extreme environments. His scientific papers include such verbose titles as Restrictions in working memory capacity during parachuting: a possible cause of no pull fatalities and Why people 'freeze' in an emergency: temporal and cognitive constraints on survival responses. He wrote the book Survival Psychology. His goal is to find out why so many people die when they are put in survival situations.

"I spent my early days in this looking at shipwreck survivors andconcentration camp survivors and I was looking for the survivorpersonality," said Leach. "What is the personality that allows thesepeople to survive when all around them die?"

"I got absolutelynowhere and couldn't identify any survival type. It also dawned on methat I was asking the wrong question: Why is it that these people survive such horrendouscircumstances and everybody else dies around them? When the question Ishould have been asking is: Why do so many people die when there's noreason for them to die?"

For example, Pygmies raise their babies in jungle environments. Inuit go through their day-to-day lives in sub-zero temperatures. But if you put the average person from New York City in either one of theseenvironments they likely won't do well. Why?

Fundamentally the brain is an engineering system. It processes information, but at a limited capacity. In new situations it takes in information from the environment in a front section, builds up a model, and then stores that model in a back section. When something happens that requires a quick response, we often respond to the model in the back of the brain. Dr. Leach uses the example of driving a car to explain.

Remember when you first learned to drive a car. You've got the clutch, the accelerator, the gear stick, the windshield wipers and all the other little bits and pieces. And you've not only got to learn to use each component, but you have to put them in the correct sequence. Otherwise, you crash the gears, you stall the car, you accelerate away fast. So all these thing are being learned, and it's difficult. But after a while it's embedded in a different part of the brain, other than the part of the brain that you use to learn. So that when you drive to work and home, you don't know how many times you've gone through the gear, you don't know how many times you've stopped, or started, or slowed down. You carry on, you listen to the radio, you talk to your friend. You're not concentrating on the driving apart from monitoring what you're doing because the front part of the brain that's learned the drills and put them together has now put it into another part of the brain.

In a new survival situation a lot of cues come in with high information loads, because they are both novel and threatening. If you haven't experienced, or thought about experiencing, a specific survival situation, the likelihood is that your brain won't be able to process the new information fast enough. Some people may be able to, but many won't as factors like fear and panic enter the equation. While the brain can take in some cues, it will shed much of the information. As a result, the brain tells the body to react in an illogical way. The brain may call up a model that most closely resembles the limited information it takes in, resulting in a stereotypical behavior that does not match the severity of the situation. For example, when a plane crashes or catches fire on a runway some passengers initial reaction may be to open up the overhead bin and reach for their luggage instead of looking for the nearest exit. If a person has been trained to deal with a specific survival situation, and it may be as simple as listening to the safety drill from the flight instructor and then imagining how to react in a crash, the brain may revert to the correct action.

We've tried to help prevent catastrophic responses with the stories and advice in our current Survival Issue. We hope you can use the articles, survival IQ test, and video skills to prepare. There are some situations you can't control, but many others you can, like learning how to build a fire or securing shelter after you've gotten lost in the woods. But don't take our word for it.

"The basic thing I say to people is you don't have to die if you don't want to," said Leach. "It's not compulsory. It's your call."

--Joe Spring

Filed To: Adventure, Science

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!