Laurence Gonzales’s “Deep Survival”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/7) (life-changing)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Low) | ~290 pages ex-notes (336 official)

Blurb/Description: Journalist/author Laurence Gonzales, who’s studied accidents and dangerous situations for decades, provides a concise, insightful view into how the interplay of emotion andcognition can save us – or kill us – in life-or-death situations.

Summary: Deep Survival is a book a mentor had me read years ago; I didn’t fully appreciate it until I recently reread it after seeing it mentioned in Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down (review + notes).

What Deep Survival does really well is extract the lessons from a category and contextualize them with the latest and greatest in neuroscience.  It does what individual survival stories couldn’t do for me: I’ve read several, ranging from Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition to Nando Parrado’s plane crash in the Andes, and I honestly don’t get much out of them.  Why? They’re fascinating and engaging stories, but from a learning perspective, I never know what to take away from them because of the luck vs. skill and process vs. outcome angles: other than “don’t give up,” how am I to have a big enough sample size to draw any useful conclusions?

Gonzales, who has followed dangerous situations for a living, solves all of those issues in a neat and thought-provoking way, providing clear insights into how our automatic/emotional and deliberative/rational cognitive systems can lead and mislead us in life-or-death situations.

Highlights: This book incorporates a lot of important scientific background behind cognition, Gonzales does a phenomenal job of storytelling to drive each concept home through a vignette from a real-life survival situation.  It drives home a variety of mental models, discusses a lot of concepts that aren’t covered in such thoughtful depth in many other places, and provides a new/fresh angle on concepts like habit and trait adaptivity.  I really, really enjoyed this book and am planning to read it again every few years.

For anyone who engages in outdoor pursuits, there’s also a lot of useful practical advice here.

Lowlights: There are two flaws in this book that are annoying but not fatal; they distractingly clutter some pages and waste some time.  First, Gonzales has a tendency to use some overwritten purple/poetic prose at times, such as in the introductory section on aircraft carriers and the discussion of the Baja bike trip, that obscure rather than clarify the material.  They are David Foster Wallace style overwritten metaphorical descriptions for the sake of overwritten metaphorical descriptions rather than for the purpose of effective communication.  Some of the references to complexity and chaos theory fall in this realm; some are applicable but some seem put there for the sake of being put there.  Thankfully, they’re not too frequent.

Second, as the book goes on, the focus inexplicably and unjustifiably shifts from the fascinating neuroscience and thoughtful analysis to pointless metaphysical speculation, including my least favorite thing: Zen paradox nonsense and spiritual hand-waving.  (Dan Harris would not approve.) I’m open-minded enough to be willing to try to understand this sort of thing if it’s well-explained, but as is usually the case when it comes to Eastern philosophy, it’s not explained in any way a rational reader can decipher: it’s a bunch of wink-wink nudge-nudge that you’ll get if you’re already initiated (or intoxicated), but is completely inscrutable to Western lay readers (sometimes to the point of being moronic, ex. the bit on page 258 about bows, arrows, and “The Way” – oh please, spare me…)

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: nonlinearity (including dose-dependencycritical thresholds),hot-cold empathy gap, sunk costs, humor, schemaconfirmation bias, authority bias, social proof,empathyincentivesoveroptimismtrait adaptivityagencymulticausalityselective perception,luck vs. skillprocess vs. outcomemargin of safetysleep/rest, n-order impactsfeedbackhabit /conditioningstresscognition vs. intuition

You should buy a copy of Deep Survival if: you want a thoughtful, engaging, scientifically-underpinned exploration of human cognition/emotion and how they work (or don’t) in critical situations.

Reading Tips: Skim/skip any sections where Gonzales wanders off the scientific/analytical path into philosophy or metaphysics or overwrought metaphor; “Zen” should be treated as a codeword for “skim until Gonzales returns to reality.”  But that’s a small price to pay, because this book is really, really good other than that.

Pairs Well With:

Surviving Survival by Laurence Gonzales (SvSv review + notes).  Gonzales’s next book may be even better than this one.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg ( PoH review + notes).  While Gonzales and Duhigg approach the idea of habit / operant conditioningwith vastly different terminology, methodology, and scenarios, there are many core ideas in common here,

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor ( THA review + notes).  Achor also discusses the idea of  schema selective perception, and how stress can cause amygdala hijacks.  Totally different context, but worth reading.

Misbehaving by Richard Thaler ( M review + notes).  The definitive book on cognitive biases and other topics like the  hot-cold empathy gap.  See also “ Nudge” by Sunstein/Thaler ( Ndge review + notes), which hits  social proof culture, and a few other topics Gonzales discusses.

Reread Value: 4/5 (High)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Page xvi: Gonzales discusses his father’s plane crash fairly extensively through the book.  He notes that the plane’s left wing was cut in half after a flak hit. The plane was a goner at that point.  

Reminds me a bit of the “missing bullets” bit that starts off Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not To Be Wrong (HNW review + notes).

Page xxi: The fundamental question driving Gonzales’s work is the subtitle: Who Lives, Who DIes, and Why.  I think this book is a far better / more useful read than individual survival stories, because it distills the important takeaways for those of us who don’t have time/interest in reading dozens or hundreds of them to build up a sufficient sample size from which to make inferences.

Page 24: Gonzales doesn’t explicitly discuss hot vs cold emotional states and the hot-coldempathy gap, but he does refer to emotion as “hot cognitions” and remaining calm as “being cool.”  He notes that in survival emergencies, only 10 – 20% of untrained people remain calm.

Page 26: One premise of survivors: since there are always factors you can’t control luck), you have to be prepared to react to them in an adaptive way.

Page 28: Gonzales here notes two things: first, the idea that fear/ stress exhibit  dose-dependency: a little is good (sharpens your focus), but too much is bad (as we’ll get into).  One way to defuse negative emotions, as we’ll see throughout the book, is humor.

Page 29: Although I dislike Gonzales’s tendency to get a little theatrical with his prose, some of his analogies are really quite good, such as “the reins of reason on the horse of emotion.”  (Cognition vsintuition / stress.)

Here, he begins to point out that we can’t only rely on reason, however: it’s too slow in many instances, so we have to train our automatic/emotional systems to respond properly.

Pages 30 – 31: Gonzales references Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front a lot; one of the people I respect most called it “the most important book that any man can read when he turns 18, and then again at 25.”  It was good; I’m not sure it lived up to that lavish praise, but it’s definitely worth reading.

Anyway, Gonzales highlights a passage from Remarque to introduce the idea that emotion can work more quickly and powerfully to motivate behavior than reason.

Pages 33 – 35: Citing sources including The Synaptic Self by

neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, Gonzales continues with the jockey-horse metaphor for reason /cognition and emotion.  He distinguishes between “primary” emotions – primal ones like seeking food or a mate – and “secondary,” learned ones, that we acquire unconsciously because they’ve proven to be adaptive in the past.  (Yet another blow to Kahneman’s bizarre and illogical conclusion to TFS).

Gonzales provides some background on the neuroscience of our faulty memories – i.e. that they’re reconstructed every time.

Also, some good advice on what to do if you’re thrown into a river: float on your back.

Gonzales also notes the emotional power of attraction; reminds me a bit of Helen Fisher.

Pages 36 – 37: The amygdala causes epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine to be released; it’s actually the latter that causes the feeling of being startled.

Cortisol (the  stress hormone) “amps up fear and speeds our heart rate, puts more sugar into metabolism, and distributes oxygen so we can respond.  Gonzales describes this chain of reactions as being “on afterburner.”  

The amygdala, according to the previously referenced LeDoux, can stage a “hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion” which leads to powerful behavioral responses… not always in a good way.  For example, pilots often have a positive emotional “bookmark” of ground = good/safe… impelling them that way even if they can/should do something else, intellectually.

Pages 38 – 39: Self-control ( agency) is a key ingredient to survival success.  Gonzales goes deeper into the effects of stress, which can be biochemically equated to cortisol: long-term stress can “kill hippocampal cells (eek) and it generally impacts our ability to be rational.  Gonzales:

Most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. - Laurence Gonzales Click To Tweet

And then:

“stress (or any strong emotion) erodes the ability to perceive.  Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex… where… decisions are made […] you see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes […] stress causes most people to focus narrowly on the thing they consider the most important, and it may be the wrong thing.”

Gonzales goes on to note, A, that our brains become very efficient at screening out what we view as “irrelevant noise.”  That’s because, B, emotions are an adaptive trait on the whole… just not in specific circumstances.

See also Achor’s “ The Happiness Advantage on the literal perspective-broadening benefits of positivity and gratitude.  Gonzales later starts using the term “Positive Mental Attitude” (capitalized) and I think of Achor every time I read that, because it’s a perfect parallel.

Page 41: In contrast to stress, laughter/humor dampens fear by inhibiting the firing of nerves in the amygdala… which is why it’s useful in everyday life as well as in survival situations.  Gonzales also discusses the dose-dependency of fear here, noting that elite performers are “not overwhelmed” by fear.  Instead, “they manage fear.”

Page 45: Gonzales here references sensation seeking (a topic I want to explore in more depth) as well as the idea of a critical threshold: apparently avalanches happen at ~35 degrees.

Steeper slopes don’t allow snow to consolidate; shallower ones are more stable.  (Various online sources, by the way, cite a broader range of angles for various kinds of avalanches, but it’s a usefulmental shortcut to think about nonlinearity.)

Page 47: Gonzales cites the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta as an example of the “freezing” response; I wasn’t able to find a great video, but here’s one.

Pages 49 – 51: Gonzales differentiates between “emotion” and “feeling.”  “Feeling” (sad, angry, etc) is what we typically think of as emotion, but he calls that a feeling; what he calls emotion is the “bodily response.”

He goes on to note the heuristic nature of our decisionmaking; he attributes this to “emotional bookmarks.”  He cites the somewhat counterintuitive example of brain-damaged chimpanzees (without emotional systems) basically trying to eat everything.  Gonzales notes, according to research on patients with brain damage:

 “to have reason cut off from the high-speed, jump-cut assistance of emotion is virtually incapacitating”

Cognition vs. intuition.  Essentially, emotional bookmarks (which, by the way, are his funny phrasing of what I view as habit  / conditioning   become incentives for future behavior: if we had a good experience doing something, we do it again; if we had a bad experience, we don’t.

See Charles Duhigg’s “ The Power of Habit (PoH review + notes) here – it’s incredible how much we can actually learn/do without higher cognitive faculties, as Duhigg explores through the vein of one brain-damaged patient who had the inverse problem as Gonzales describes.

Pages 52 – 55: Gonzales goes a bit deeper here on the two-track system that, counterintuitively, allows stroke victims to smile normally if it’s automatic (via the emotional system), but not if they try (via the thinking system).  He also cites the example of people being able to “learn” despite not having any memory; see also E.P in Duhigg’s Habit here.

Gonzales notes that in survival situations, people often respond to emotional bookmarks that are irrational, such as scuba divers pulling off their masks because they feel like they’re suffocating and the instinctive reaction is to “get stuff off my face.”  

When we later ask, about clearly illogical decisions like that, what they were thinking – Gonzales posits that the answer is, they weren’t. They were overrun by emotions: Those who can control that impulse […] live.  Those who can’t, die.”  

Cognition vs. intuition and  stress.  Again, this is usually adaptive, but it can often be non- adaptive, especially when we’re placed in dramatically new/unfamiliar circumstances.

Pages 60 – 61: Gonzales talks about adaptation here and references T-cells and cellular signaling/identification – see Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds (OthM review + notes) for some great discussion thereof – efference copies, etc.  Lots of cool stuff.

In terms of habit formation and learning, he uses his newborn son as an example: despite the lack of rational faculties, babies learn to cry to get what they want, because of positive reinforcement feedback) every time they cry…  incentives.

Gonzales notes again that stress is dose-dependent: “moderate” stress(not clear exactly what that means) apparently enhances learning.  Achor has made some similar points and even, in “ Before Happiness ( BH review + notes), cites research suggesting that simply focusing on the positive, rather than negative, aspects of stress  can allow us to capture the benefits while reducing the disadvantages.

Page 62: Gonzales makes the trait adaptivity argument explicit here: secondary emotions can be thought of as learned traits that are learned because they’re adaptive in the given environment… but when the environment changes, they’re no longer adaptive.

Why are they still used?  There’s no alternative to emotion cognition vs. intuition Gonzales notes that logic “simply takes too long, often impossibly long” and points out that it’s insufficiently developed in most small children.

Page 63: An example of a secondary emotion, i.e. a learned trait, i.e. a conditioned  habit, being adaptive when created but maladaptive in another environment: Gonzales notes that a tough-guy Army Ranger learned that needing to be rescued is bad… so when he got tossed off a raft into a river, he didn’t want the guide’s help.

And died.  

Gonzales notes, wryly, “the training worked.”  

Pages 65 – 66: Here’s another useful metaphor: Gonzales compares the amygdala to his overzealous chocolate Lab, who barks at anything that comes to the door.  

Gonzales notes that information hits the amygdala, which screens for danger, before it hits the neocortex.  He quips that “Like Lucy, the amygdala isn’t very bright,” but it is powerful and responds in an emergency.  

Here’s a real-life example (including a dog!) of the phenomena which Gonzales discusses.  One day, I was pulling out of my driveway when I saw two (ownerless) dogs trot by. They were medium-sized, probably around 40 – 50 pounds.  I got out of my car to see if I could corral them and check their collars and call their owners.

This was something for which, in Gonzales’s terminology, I had a positive emotional bookmark – random dogs I’ve encountered in the suburbs have usually tended to be friendly, and their owners are infinitely grateful to have their wayward family members returned.

Some of those dogs are often more interested in exploring than in hanging out around a human, so I thought nothing of trotting after them and calling them.

Well, one of them did not like that, at all.  It turned, snarled at me, and charged at me. Before I knew what was happening, I was running away from it, yelling “no!  Bad dog!” as it nipped at my ankles (never actually making contact). I ran across the street without even thinking to check for vehicles… an example of the tunnel vision and narrowed focus / filtering out of irrelevant information that Gonzales discusses.  My heart was going way faster than it does at any point during my workouts.

In retrospect, of course, I realized that I wasn’t in any real danger from the dog – if it had actually wanted to catch/bite me, it would have done so, and it almost certainly didn’t have rabies.  The dog didn’t actually want to bite me (it easily could’ve if it had wanted to); it just wanted me to back off.  So, I might have gotten a moderately painful bite on the leg, but I could wrangled the dog into submission had it come to it.  (Note that I am a big dog lover and am not advocating mistreatment of dogs in any way; I’m simply saying that it seems highly unlikely that a dog of that size would cause me death or severe injury.)

On the other hand, I could easily have been killed or severely injured by, you know, running in front of a car that was driving down the street.

Did any of that rational analysis occur to me?  Nope – it would have taken “too long, impossibly long,” as Gonzales put it earlier.  (And that definitely formed a negative emotional bookmark; I was anxious the rest of the day, and my heart is beating faster just thinking about it.)

Gonzales goes on to discuss how we can be startled by friends/family/loved ones even though we’re in no real danger.  However, he notes that there is some ability for the neocortex to recognize the emotional response, analyze the situation, and to override the emotional response if necessary.  I’ll cite Dr. Matthew West on this same topic later…

Page 67: He brings up the idea of “implicit” vs. “explicit” learning here: implicit skills are automatic (like drivers who know what they’re doing); explicit skills are stepwise (like novice drivers).  He cites Malcolm Gladwell: “Choking is about thinking too much.  Panic is about thinking too little.”

Page 69: This chapter is titled “A Gorilla In Our Midst.”  Let me guess… let me guess… you’re going to cite the gorilla experiment.

Page 71: Gonzales notes that:

“As complex as the brain is, the world is more so.  The brain cannot process and organize all the data that arrive.  It cannot come up with a reasonable course of action if everything is given equal weight and perceived at equal intensity.”  

He will use this as the foundation, shortly, for  selective perception.

Page 72: How do we cope?  By forming “ mental models” – which, in Gonzales’s use of the world, is a “stripped-down schematic of the world.”  He cites the common example of attempting to identify things by their color or shape; that focus means that we may overlook the item in question entirely if it doesn’t fit our description, even if our eyes pass over it multiple times.  (His example of looking for a book that turns out to be a different color strikes really close to home for me, because I do that a lot…)

Nice bit about a magic trick that involves looking at the person to identify the card… their reaction when they see the card (dilated eyes) is automatic and predictable.

Pages 73 – 74: Gonzales briefly touches on working memory here, though he doesn’t provide a lot of depth beyond the highlights – our working memory doesn’t have much capacity, whereas our long-term memory does.  New information (especially meaningful, i.e. emotionally charged information) replaces what’s already in our working memory.

Gonzales discusses the difficulty, for example, in memorizing something that “has no emotional content” like an address. 

Don Norman does a much better / more extensive job with this idea in The Design of Everyday Things (DOET review + notes), and Daniel Schacter provides a great overview ofmemory in The Seven Sins of Memory (review + notes), both of which are worth reading.)

Gonzales cites this as a reason that multitasking fails – see Cal Newport’s Deep Work (DpWk review + notes) for more on this, as well as the aforementioned “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes) by Achor.

Gonzales notes that this can prove fatal in survival situations: a climber, for example, forgot to finish tying a knot because she was talking with a woman nearby.  

(A nice structural problem solving antidote here, that Gonzales doesn’t mention, is a checklist – I use one to ensure that I’ve packed everything in my car when going on backpacking trips, and then have hike-by-hike checklists to ensure I have all the necessary equipment for that environment.)

Page 75: Gonzales cites Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents, which I plan to read soon.  He uses it as an example of confirmation bias.

Pages 79 – 81: IT’S THE GORILLA EXPERIMENT YOU GUYS.  I am going to posit Samir’s First Law of Psychology Books, which states that any popular psychology book will reference one or more of the marshmallow test, the Milgram experiment, or the gorilla experiment.  I’m mostly joking, but really if you read psychology books you’ll come to the conclusion that only seven experiments have ever been done in the past century that anyone cares about. 😛

Okay, seriously though, Gonzales does provide a good discussion/explanation of the gorilla experiment, noting that:

The implicit assumption is that you know what you’re doing and know what sort of perceptual input you want... such a closed attitude can prevent new perceptions from being incorporated into the model. - Laurence Gonzales Click To Tweet

This is related to overconfidence as well as  selective perception.  Gonzales goes on to note:

“Gorillas are not helpful in completing the task [of counting the number of passes.  ]… Gorillas are irrelevant and would displace the task in working memory. So the brain, efficient system that it is, filters out the gorilla so that you can keep counting.  Seeing the gorilla would be a mistake. You’d lose count.”

In a survival context, he notes that this inattentional blindness / selective perception can prove fatal.  He further notes that we don’t notice that we make these mistakes all the time because we live in low-risk environments.

Again, using the backpacking example: forgetting your rainjacket at home when it’s raining outside in the city doesn’t really matter… you can run into the building and you’ll get a little wet along the way, but you’ll be fine.  Forgetting your rainjacket on a hiking trip could spell death by hypothermia.

Gonzales also does a good job of trying to dispel any lake wobegon syndrome readers may have here: this is not an “other people” problem.  It’s a “people problem.” Even highly trained pilots, he points out, can completely miss an airplane showing up in front of them on the tarmac in a simulated landing.

Pages 84 – 85: Gonzales cites Waldrop’s Complexity here – it sounds interesting but it also seems somewhat dated and I’m not sure if I should read it.

Now he gets to another really important concept: agency.  Gonzales drills home that “belief that behavior matters” is critical in survival situations… whether in medical or emergency context is irrelevant.

Pages 86 – 90: Here, Gonzales provides a nice story of how plans can lead us awry if we stick to them doggedly: some climbers were delayed by various things to the point where going up a mountain was potentially dangerous given that mid-afternoon is a peak time for lightning strikes on mountain peaks.

Confirmation bias and overoptimism played a role, as did status quo bias (though Gonzales doesn’t call it this) – sticking with the plan even though conditions had changed.  It’s a good example of multicausality, particularly the “ swiss cheese” model that Don Norman discusses – it wasn’t onething, but a lot of things, that led to the tragic incident.

Gonzales notes that Yosemite search and rescue teams call cotton “death cloth.”

Page 91: Gonzales notes that nature “doesn’t adjust to our level of skill” and also notes that humility is an important component of being a survivor.

Pages 99 – 100: Nice quote:

The word experienced often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have. - Laurence Gonzales Click To Tweet

 Interesting example of process vs outcome or luck vs. skill – especially for very infrequent events (say, lightning strikes), it’s hard to determine if your process is good just because it works out.

See also Michael Mauboussin’s two-jar model in “ The Success Equation ( TSE review + notes), or Howard Marks’ discussion of risk – extensively – in “The Most Important Thing” (MIT review + notes).

Pages 106 – 109: Gonzales goes deeper into the idea I mention above, again citing Perrow’s Normal Accidents – he notes that nothing may happen for a long time,” lulling us into a false sense of security… he also makes themulticausality argument in other words.   He discusses the idea of complexity and boundaries (not in a lot of depth) and cites the famous Challenger disaster.

He cites Perrow’s idea about systems that are “tightly coupled” – i.e. producing unintended complex interactions – for example, in one climbing incident, climbers actually would have been safer without ropes (the one who fell would have fallen, but he wouldn’t have taken everyone else with him).  Falling dominoes are an analogy.

Pages 111 – 118: Per Bak, a Danish Physicist, set up a pile of sand and notes the idea of emergent behavior (though not discussed in those terms) – the idea that there is:

“nothing in the physics of silicon dioxide that could predict the behavior of the sand pile.”  

He goes into power laws here – see West’s Scale for more on those (Scale review + notes).

There is, as a Lockheed engineer put it, the fact that you can have too big a margin of safety – there’s  opportunity cost to it. if you only do things with no risk, you’ll never do anything interesting.

Gonzales also discusses “risk homeostasis,” a well-known example of n-order impacts: safety innovations like antilock brakes sometimes don’t actually improve driver safety on net, because people drive more aggressively to compensate.

How can we overcome this?  Well, for starter, we could broaden our perspective by understanding the appropriate base rates / outside view.  Gonzales doesn’t use these terms explicitly, but that’s what he’s doing when recommending that climbers read an annual summary of mountaineering accidents.  Check out the  base rates mental model where, for example, I discuss how to avoid being eaten by a bear.

Pages 120 – 122: Analyzing one climbing accident from the perspective of emotional bookmarks, Gonzales notes that descents are harder than ascents for a variety of reasons ranging from tiredness to stress to technical difficulty… but of course, when you’re tired, what you want to do is get down and being safe can prolong that.

Gonzales cites psychologist Al Siebert writing in The Survivor Personality – those who do the best have the most realistic understanding of the situation.

Page 126: Gonzales here notes authority bias and social proof as contributing factors to bad decisions in groups; see also Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (TCM review + notes) and Tetlock’s Superforecasting (SF review + notes) for more on this in other contexts.  Tetlock uses a great example: the Bay of Pigs fiasco.s

Page 127: Gonzales discusses her the importance of being present / aware of surroundings (“be here now”), and also the planning fallacy – i.e., everything takes way longer than you expect, so build in margin of safety.

Pages 131 – 133: Through a very vivid anecdote from a beach in Hawai, Gonzales demonstrates that we (literally) don’t always perceive what’s below the surface and can dramatically underestimate dangers when we’re out of our comfort zones.  Importantly, he notes that “even if we understand it at an intellectual level,” there’s a gap between that cognitive understanding and our behavior.  How can a placid, blue ocean be violent and dangerous? Our brain listens to the lifeguard… our emotions are from positive bookmarks of other nice experiences in the water. 

 Cognition vs. intuition.

Gonzales again notes that our usual environments are very sanitized… when we’re outside of those natural environments, up mountains or out in oceans, the rules aren’t quite so friendly.

Page 136 – 7: Mountains look solid, but they’re not (the boulders at the bottom are evidence of that).  I’ve definitely free climbed some very short walls that I shouldn’t have… and the worst part is that after I told myself I wouldn’t do it again (in Maine, 3 years ago), I did it again in Utah far more recently…

Gonzales notes that we make 400 observations, 40 decisions, and 1 mistake for every two miles we drive.  Again, the fact that most of the time those mistakes don’t cost us doesn’t mean that they won’t – in fact, probabilistically, they will given enough iterations…

Page 139!: Two things that can kill you on mountaintops: lightning and 200 mph + gusts of wind.  I basically never want to be on a mountaintop now.

Page 140: Time pressure or desire to get somewhere can lead you to make bad decisions – like taking shortcuts that get you lost…

Page 152: Gonzales gets into mental maps here, and how/why we get lost.

Pages 154 – 157: Just like the First Rule of Holes is Stop Digging, the First Rule of Being Lost is STOP GETTING FURTHER LOST.  Gonzales notes that few people who are lost ever backtrack; emotion and stress override logic, and people assume their destination must be close and keep going toward it.  The hippocampus literally creates a map – there’s a really interesting neuroscience page here about our proprioceptive system, among other things.

(See also Jennifer Ackerman’s “ The Genius of Birds – Bird review + notes – which includes a lovely section on bird navigation ability that’s a fantastic complement to this section.)

Gonzales notes that it’s the amygdala that drives us to get somewhere… again, trait adaptivitycomes into play: in our natural environment, landmarks (stores, intersections, etc) look nothing like landmarks in the actual natural environment.

(Trees and mountains look reasonably homogenous; even though I’ve been up into the Chisos Mountains at Big Bend three times at this point, I still wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how far along the trail we are during portions of it that look very similar.)

Pages 158 – 159: Gonzales here notes that people have a tendency to seek “good places” and avoid “dangerous places.”

When we are no place, or an unknown place, that creates an urge to get to a good place (somewhere to rest, somewhere with water, etc.)

We panic when we’re lost, especially if we’re running low on (or out of) food, water, etc.

When I was reading this part, I scribbled a note on the margins: there is a structural problem solving approach here, which is to build in an emotional (as well as practical) margin of safety by carrying necessary equipment.  A lot of my friends who go hiking with me either laugh or roll their eyes at the amount and variety of safety equipment I carry, and there’s certainly a tradeoff – i.e. being weighed down and less nimble – but the upside is that if anything ever were to happen, not only would I be more prepared, but I’d be less likely to succumb to emotions because I wouldn’t be low on water or unable to keep warm, etc.

Anyway, Gonzales here notes that – strangely – even though this firefighter was woefully lost, he didn’t build a fire despite the fact that it would keep him warm and maybe help him be found.

Children, unlike adults, don’t ever think they’re lost: Gonzales notes that kids know they’re not lost because they’re here!  It’s their adults who are lost. My mom could tell you stories about all the times this happened when I was a kid – walking up to the library counter and telling them “my mommy’s lost,” etc…

Pages 163 – 164: Gonzales here quotes Edward Cornell (Megan McArdle uses this quote too in The Up Side of Down – UpD review + notes) – when we’re lost, we start “bending the map” in a fairly flagrant example of confirmation bias – we make our surroundings look like the map to confirm that we’re not lost…

Page 166: Gonzales again advocates for floating rather than thrashing if you’re in a body of water.  He also makes an analogy between Kubler-Ross stages of grief and the stages of getting lost: disorientation/urgency, emergency, exhaustion…

Page 169: Gonzales notes that it’s critical for survivors to not hope for rescue… paradoxically, given that he later notes a Positive Mental Attitude (capitalized!) is critical for success.

Page 173 – 174: a well-considered plan can be the difference between success and failure.  It is, at least, motivation.

Pages 177 – 182!: Okay, so here as some highlights of what’s important: humility (which we’ve already talked about), but also, critically, that Positive Mental Attitude.  Gonzales notes that “apathy is a typical reaction to any sort of disaster but it can lead to “complete psychological deterioration […] and ultimately, death.”

In some senses, this is overconfidence  dose dependency  feedback.   Later, Gonzales notes that deciding you’re going to live seems to be a common trait.  This would seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing: if you don’t believe you’re going to live, you end up in learned helplessnessterritory…

As Megan McArdle quips in “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes):

“There’s a scientific name for people with an especially accurate perception of how talented, attractive, and popular they are – we call them ‘clinically depressed.”

So, a little overoptimism is good; too much is deadly.

How deadly?  Gonzales goes on to provide a fascinating discussion of the poorly-understood concept of fatigue, which appears to be spiritual in nature and can’t be solved by rest alone. 

People in emergency situations often dramatically underestimate the need for rest: Gonzales (twice on one page) advocates taking it slow (“60 percent” of normal activity level), and frequent rest/hydration.  Sweating isn’t allowed.

Here is a good place to tie in the  sleep /rest mental model and, specifically, Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes), which is possibly one of the most important books of the century (I don’t say that lightly.)

Walker overviews a ton of important science, but the bit that’s relevant to what we’re talking about here is the commentary on pages 146 – 147 of Sleep about what sleep deprivation does to prefrontal cortex control.  Subjects who were sleep deprived:

Sleep deprived subjects:

“showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity […] without sleep […] the strong coupling between [the prefrontal cortex and amygdala] is lost.  

We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological – and hence emotional – even keel.”

Obviously, sleeping is probably pretty difficult in survival situations, but there’s a twofer to pushing yourself too hard: not only will you be tired, but you’ll be less able to keep control and stay open to new information coming into the model, etc.

Moving on: if you’re with someone else, becoming a leader/caretaker can actually boost your own chances of survival and motivate the group… empathy. You also need to keep your eyes open for opportunities rather than blindly sticking to a plan.  It’s about both having a plan and executing it well. Gonzales clearly isn’t a Calvinist; he’s rational: “grace without good works is not salvation.”  

Gonzales also pulls a Don Norman here: in a paragraph very reminiscent of Norman’s we’re-better-with-our-technology-than-without-it screed, Gonzales notes that we don’t have fur, fangs, or speed, but we do have our minds, and our culture.  He notes here (implicitly referencing an earlier mention of a hiker lifting a 500-pound-boulder) that cognition inhibits strength, which is why we’re always amazed what we can do without it.  (The linked article discusses a man lifting a car to save a biker; he didn’t realize he clenched his jaw so hard that he shattered eight teeth.  See also this.)

Page 192: Great piece of advice from Gonzales for hikers: when you come to forks, look back at it and find a cue…

Page 195: Gonzales gets to the structural problem solving / margin of safety point I came up with earlier, citing the example of the Napoleon Solo expedition, in which Steven Callahan was adrift at sea for a really long time, and wouldn’t have survived without some of his planning/foresight to include safety equipment.

Page 198: Gonzales cites Siebert again, who says that “Rambo types” die quickly.   Agency is important but so is inversion – part of staying alive is not doing stupid stuff.  The best way to avoid being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm is to not be outside during a thunderstorm.

Pages 204 – 205: A good example of open-mindedness: adrift at sea, Debbie Kiley came up with the idea of using seaweed as “clothing” for warmth.  On the other hand, rather than controlling what they could control and having equanimity toward the rest, some of the others were getting angry (and they eventually went crazy, started swimming, and were promptly eaten by sharks).

Gonzales here reinforces that the best way to survive a disaster is to be prepared for it.

Page 207: Empathy matters too, somewhat surprisingly.

Pages 213 – 214: The bit about deciding to live I mentioned earlier.

Page 215: Positive Mental Attitude!

Page 218: Interesting example here of basically the Serenity Prayer approach…

Pages 220 – 221: Eat anything, say survivors.  Also, talking to snails – or inanimate objects – may help you feel less alone.  Maybe Marie Kondo isn’t so cuckoo after all…

Also, here, have a mantra.  I was listening to “The Mountain” by Three Days Grace while reading this book at the gym, and the chorus serves as an oddly appropriate mantra:

“Every day I’m just surviving / keep climbing / the mountain.

Even when I feel like dying / keep climbing / the mountain.

Every time I think I’m over it, I wake up at the bottom of it all again.

I’m still alive and – keep climbing – keep climbing – the mountain.”

Page 229: Gonzales here notes that it takes effort to shift control from the amygdala to the neocortex… but it can be done.  (I would intuit that practice/training makes you better at it. A good example of cross-domain applications.)

Pages 232 – 233: Similar to the bit about humor, an interesting discussion here of perfecting patterns, chanting, etc… it seems like a way to return the locus of control to internal.

Pages 234 – 235: Another hot tip (literally) – avoid hypothermia, which causes rapid cognitive deterioration.  (Water, of course, is also critically important.)

Page 241: There’s literal scientific justification for “don’t look down” – keeping control over the amygdala is hard, and you don’t need to make it harder on yourself.

Page 251: A la Stephen Covey’s proactive mindset in “ The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (7H reivew + notes), Gonzales here cites LeDoux on cognition being uniquely useful  for allowing “this shift from reaction to action.”  

Gonzales notes, however, that cognition can’t be relied on in emergency situations for the reasons discussed earlier… so you have to train your emotional system (using, of course, your cognition).

Page 261: This bit would be Munger-approved for sure: Gonzales’s father taught him “we were all, always, students, and that to stop being a student was to stop living.”  

Pages 280 – 284: Gonzales notes survival instructors use the acronym “STOP.”  Stop, think, observe, plan. Gonzales thinks it should be SOTP but notes that isn’t as catchy… hey, investors will find it plenty catchy.

If you’re in an emergency, SOTP.  Stop, observe, think, plan. And the sum of the parts will have synergies.  🙂

Gonzales also notes that impulsiveness is bad, information is good/critical (with a focus on base rates / the outside view), humility is important, and – importantly – avoid sunk cost thinking.  Just because you’ve come a long way, been looking forward to this, paid a lot of money, etc, doesn’t justify putting yourself at risk.

Pages 287 – 290: The summary here is great and I’ll read it before going on backpacking trips…


First Read: fall 2013

Last Read: spring 2018

Number of Times Read: 3

Planning to Read Again?: hell yeah


Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018