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December 29, 2008

'The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why' by Amanda Ripley

Absolutely fascinating book by someone who knows whereof she speaks.

Above, footage from the December 26, 2004 tsunami as it hit Thailand's Ko Phi Phi island.


    So what can regular people do to improve their own risk perception? When I asked risk experts this question, they told me their own tricks.

    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.

    Keith Nelson Borders was shot ten times in six shoot-outs as a police officer in Oklahoma and then Nevada from 1994 to 2005. Every time he got shot, he breathed deeply and methodically, and he swears by the strategy. "It keeps you very calm. You don't start to hyperventilate or panic. Everything just kind of goes in slow motion for you," says Nelson.... "You say, OK, here's what's going on, I can handle this. I got shot in the head, and I'm still alive, things are working, so it's not so bad."

    How could something so simple be so powerful? The breath is one of the few actions that reside in both our somatic nervous system (which we can consciously control) and our autonomic nervous system (which controls our heartbeat and other actions we cannot easily access). So the breath is a bridge between the two.... By consciously slowing down the breath, we can de-escalate the primal fear response that otherwise takes over.

    There are people whom psychologists call "extreme dreaders" — people who have a tendency to live in a state of heightened anxiety. Then there are people like [General Nisso] Shacham. What makes him able to negotiate extreme fear so well? How does he navigate through the fog of deliberation without a map? When I ask him this question, he says it's not that he doesn'
    t feel fear; he does, every time. But a calmness resides just adjacent to the fear. "You have to be very cold-blooded," he says. But what makes someone "cold-blooded?" Is it genetics? A chemical imbalance? What makes the difference?

    Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life's turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result.

    Resilient people aren't necessarily yoga-practicing Buddhists. One thing they have in abundance is confidence.... Confidence soothes the more disruptive effects of extreme fear. A few recent studies have shown that people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call these people "self-enhancers," but you and I would probably call them arrogant. These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them. They tend to come off as annoying and self-absorbed. In a way, they might be better adapted to crises than they are to real life.

    One thing most people don't understand about fires is that the smoke is the main event. It is what makes it nearly impossible to find your way out. Your eyes literally close to protect you from the smoke, and you can't get them open again.... Smoke is also by far the thing most likely to kill you. Firefighters rarely see a burned body. Toxic smoke from a smoldering fire can kill you in your your sleep before any flames are even visible. That's why it's so important to have a smoke detector with a working battery.


FunFact: The three people in the world who know me best all say that I am — by far, no one else is even in the frame — the most annoying person they've ever met.

But I digress.

There are worse things you could do with $16.47 than buy a copy of Ripley's book and read it, then pass it on to those you love.

December 29, 2008 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Cotton candy machine!

Posted by: Tomasso | Dec 30, 2008 4:44:26 AM

"Resilient people aren't necessarily yogo-practicing Buddhists." Hmmm...is that yoga practiced on a pogp stick? Or maybe in a Yugo? Or maybe just anywhere: 'Yoga to Go = Yogo'!

Posted by: Pamela Daley | Dec 29, 2008 10:48:31 PM

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