I got this book from Dr. Mookles on my recent trip to South Carolina and I stormed through it in a day and a half. It’s a great read, a combination of thrilling stories and pop neuroscience.
The ambitious subject of the book is in the subtitle, “Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why”. It begins with some discussions of how your brain makes decisions before your mind gets involved and why training that prepares you for one situation (a battle-hardened Special Forces soldier) in another situation (falls out of a boat while rafting) may lead to disaster (laughingly refuses help to get back into the boat, then drowns in an undertow). A discussion of a pack of snowmobilers shows how well trained people with all the info they need to survive ( they are rescuing other folks trapped in a blizzard ) can do stupid things that kill them ( because they are excited they do what’s been fun for them before and it triggers an avalanche ).
Laurence Gonzales’s writing is crisp, clear and authoritative. Me, I could do with some more footnoting on some of the science, but it all rings true with what I’ve read in other books like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”. He goes through the survival mentality and why so much of our lives are spent being trained not to survive wilderness scenarios. Modern life has told us for so long that we shouldn’t break rules and we should wait for properly trained authorities to take care of situations for us. Gonzales points out that this social training is often made unconditional and that we have difficulty abandoning it when we are in extraordinary situations. People who are used to the safety blanket of 911 coverage go out into the wilderness with little training and poor supplies. Airline crash survivors in hostile environments insist that they should wait by the crash site for rescue to come. Folks on hijacked airplanes wait for hostage negotiations to begin as they hurtle towards a building. The folks who survive situations are often the sort of misfits who break the social rules and take a sense of purpose for themselves in saving their own lives.
Luck plays a huge part as well. Many of the stories come with that lesson. The author goes on a morning hike that, because of a bad decision, gets him and a companion lost on a cold day with poor protection as a storm comes up. Some subsequent choices are good, but it all comes down to the luck of finding a boat nearby that rescues them. No boat, and I would have been out of a great read this past weekend. If you spend anytime outdoors doing adrenalin sports, you are the target audience for this book. It will hit home and you’ll be glad you read it. If you’re never in a situation where you need these lessons, it’s still a great read.