Laurence Gonzales’s “Surviving 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: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | 211 pages ex-notes (272 official)

Blurb/Description: Say you’re attacked by a shark – or nearly killed by an abusive spouse.  Thankfully, you survive. Your journey’s not over yet – survival is often the start of a longer, and more difficult journey.  How and why do some people achieve resilience – bouncing back stronger – while others never move past the trauma? Blending neuroscience and great storytelling, Laurence Gonzales investigates in a concise and impactful book.

Summary: If you’ve spent much time on Poor Ash’s Almanack, you’re likely aware that Laurence Gonzales’s previous outing, “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes), is one of my favorite and most-cited books on this site: it’s an engaging narrative, and a phenomenal exploration of cognition /intuition / habit / stress and a plethora of other mental models.

It’s rare for authors to be able to top, or even closely approximate, their best works a second time – I love Oshinky’s “ Polio: An American Story ( PaaS review + notes) but couldn’t get quite as excited about the still-worthwhile “ Bellevue ( BV review + notes).  Gonzales is a rare exception: as good asDeep Survival is, Surviving Survival might be better – a more concise explanation of the neuroscience that complements rather than repeats, a book that I’m sure I’ll read over and over again over the course of my life.  I can’t praise this book highly enough.

Highlights: Gonzales’s greatest strength as a writer is his terrific – and somewhat unique – ability to simplify complicated neuroscience into bite-size, memorable takeaways, cementing them with pithy one-liners, illustrative metaphors, and vivid long-form stories that are as engaging as they are educational.

Gonzales is also nothing if not multidisciplinary – he investigates how a surgeon with Tourette’s makes precise incisions, then ties that back to resilience in the face of trauma; he draws from examples ordinary and extraordinary.

Lowlights: None.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: cognition / intuition / habit / stresstrait adaptivityempathy,social connectionmindfulnesshyperbolic discountingagencynonlinearityfeedbackmemory,luckmultidisciplinary rationalityschemacontrast biasstorytellingmulticausalityprobabilistic thinkingoverconfidencesaliencesleepbase ratesproduct vs. packaging,

You should buy a copy of Surviving Survival if: you, or someone you care about, would benefit from understanding the neuroscience behind resilience in the face of adversity big or small.

Reading Tips: none

Pairs Well With:

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales ( DpSv review + notes).  For obvious reasons!

On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis (OGS review + notes).  As I discuss in my inaugural Mental Models Memo – Resilience from Xerxes to Taylor Swift: Why Hedgehogs Aren’t Adaptive – there are a lot of parallels between On Grand Strategy and Surviving Survival.

The former deals with some of the greatest historical victories – and losses – of all time, from Athens to the Spanish Armada, but resilience in the face of surprises and adversity (in a totally different context) is one of the key focuses of the book.

The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor ( THA review + notes).  In Surviving Survival, Gonzales cites much of the same research as Achor; Achor, similarly, comes to many of the same conclusions on resilience.  THA covers some similar ground, some different, in a more lighthearted and humorous manner.

Reread Value: 5/5 (Extreme)

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.

Pages 1 – 4: Gonzales starts off with a slightly different version of the Debbie Kiley adrift-at-sea story from Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes).  Here, he goes a little deeper into the powerful motivation of thirst, emerging from the hypothalamus: it can overwhelm the rational part of your brain that knows that drinking seawater won’t work…

… Gonzales also notes that the story doesn’t end with survival: in some ways, that’s just the beginning.  Gonzales starts getting into the neuroscience here:

“In the brain, the cardinal rule is: future equals past; what has happened before will happen again.  In response to trauma, the brain encodes protective memories that force you to behave in the future the way you behaved in the past.  The trouble was that in all likelihood, Debbie would never again face a similar hazard.”

Cognition / intuition / habit / stress.  In other words, trait adaptivity – most of the time, it makes sense to learn from good or bad experiences; ones that are especially rewarding or painful create stronger lessons.  But for very powerful and very unlikely traumas like a shipwreck, our (well-intentioned) brains hardwire in some maladaptive lessons.

Pages 4 – 5: Gonzales doesn’t (to my recollection) cite Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front in this book; he mentions it several times in Deep Survival, though, and I think it’s an appropriate parallel here.  Gonzales notes that Kiley – like Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl – didn’t feel at home in the world afterward.

Gonzales also makes explicit the trait adaptivity argument here:

“Adaptation means adjusting the self to a particular environment.  If the environment changes… you are lost and must adapt once more. The bigger the trauma, the more dramatic the requirement for change.  In many cases, the necessary adaptation is so extreme that an entirely new self emerges.”

Page 7: It’s always fun to encounter research in different context.  Here, Gonzales cites University of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker, who calls the fact that

“most people return to normal within two years after trauma”

a fact that is

“one of the best-kept secrets in the mental health world.”

But this is, of course, hard to realize in the moment thanks to hyperbolic discounting.

Pennebaker is also cited, on empathysocial connection, and mindfulness, in Brene Brown’s “ Daring Greatly ( DG review + notes).  Brown there cites Pennebaker as stating:

“The act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event.  

Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased, and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones.”

Pages 18 – 19: In Deep Survival, Gonzales frequently notes that displaying empathy – to fellow survivors, or a pet snail if that’s all you can find – is a way to restore your internal locus of control (i.e. agency) and escape the clutches of learned helplessness.

Here, Gonzales discusses that… and also discusses some of the science behind hugs: skin-to-skin contact reduces emotional pain.  (No surprise.)

Page 22: Gonzales here goes more in depth on the (mal)adaptation to trauma: a survivor of a crocodile attack, per Gonzales,

“had not escaped the crocodile.  It had taken up residence inside here.”

Great writing, and also an introduction to why resilience is necessary.

Page 23: The determination/certainty to live, discussed in Deep Survival, also appears to be critical in terms of getting over trauma.

Pages 26 – 27!: Gonzales really is (in my opinion) the best single source on cognition / intuition /habit / stress.  Here, he provides what’s actually (in my opinion) a cleaner and more concise exploration of conditioning and the emotional response system (shorthand: amygdala) than he does anywhere in Deep Survival.  He notes that while we like to think of ourselves as one unified self, in reality,

“The brain can seem at times like a confounding bureaucracy with different departments arguing with one another.  The amygdala is not in the Rational Department.

It doesn’t care that, at times, its responses might make no sense.  The emotional system can’t allow you to think about your reactions. That takes too much time. If you stop to think, you’ll be eaten.  So it’s tuned for instant reaction.”

Gonzales goes into trait adaptivity and stress here.

Pages 29 – 30: Gonzales here references Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2.”  He also discusses the physical effects of stress and cortisol, presenting much of the same idea from Deep Survival in a different way.   Cortisol is dose-dependent: some good, too much bad.  (It turns out not having any cortisol at all – Addison’s Disease – is bad.)  Gonzales also notes the feedback effects ofcortisol that I’ve referenced elsewhere.  Resilience requires escaping this vicious cycle.

Interestingly, Gonzales notes that cortisol has paradoxical effects on memory: it makes forming explicit memories harder, but it makes implicit memories a lot stronger.

Pages 31 – 32: Gonzales here doesn’t reference Pennebaker (pity), but he does note the dose-dependency and trait adaptivity of talking about trauma: he notes that it’s helpful, but only when you’re ready.  (Forcing people to talk about stuff they don’t want to talk about turns out to be actually bad for them – not just ineffective.)

He also notes – again, unsurprisingly, but importantly – that the psychological mechanisms underlying severe traumas of the types he talks about (domestic violence, animal attacks, etc) are not any different from those underlying more garden-variety conditions.  PTSD (post-traumaticstress disorder) is a spectrum, in other words.

This is one of the many links between Surviving Survival and John Lewis Gaddis’s On Grand Strategy (OGS review + notes) – Gaddis notes that you don’t have to be President for it to be useful for you to think about grand strategy; similarly, Gonzales would likely point out that you don’t have to have your legs shredded by an IED for it to beuseful to you to think about resilience.

Again in an example of research in a different context, Gonzales – like Shawn Achor in “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes) – cites George Vaillant of the famous Harvard Men study.  Gonzales notes, via Vaillant, that:

“One of the most effective responses to adversity is to fight back.”

Page 33: Yay agency – Gonzales notes that

“having an explicit goal gave Eileen’s thinking brain something to hold on to, that slight edge of the frontal lobes over the amygdala.  And significantly, being engaged in directed action, carrying out a deliberate plan, gave her a new sense of control that she had been forced to abandon when she was an invalid.  Her feelings became more predictable.”

I keep rediscovering how important agency is in various concepts.  Gonzales’s later discussion of the inability of the rage pathway and the planning part of the brain to function at the same time is like a more practically useful version of that old joke about men having a brain and something else and only enough blood to power one of the two at a time.

Anyway, Gonzales notes that our brains are wired to mistake correlation with causation: he notes that thanks to conditioning,

“If you [imitate] a smile (say, by biting on a pencil), you gradually start to feel better… feeling good is the retrieval cue for smiling and smiling is the retrieval cue for feeling good.”

See also Shawn Achor, in “ Before Happiness ( BH review + notes), discussing how people who’ve had Botox (and are thereby less able to smile naturally) have a harder time feeling happy.

Page 38: Safety tip: tell people where you’re going.

Pages 39 – 42: Here’s where Gonzales starts to discuss the “rage pathway” – it comes from the “pariaqueductal gray” (PAG).  It’s instinctive and leads to irrational behavior like attempting to push a giant boulder with your bare hands.  But it can be overruled by the cortex.

Gonzales reiterates that our “self” is comprised of multiple competing systems (a useful mental metaphor).  He also reiterates the survival journey discussed in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes) – which is more or less the Serenity Prayer – Gonzales, it’s worth noting, reiterates the importance of waiting or resting as an “active option.”  (Recall how he notes in DS that Rambo types are the first to die.) See action bias.

Similar to the “don’t look down” discussion in Deep Survival, Gonzales notes that planning is important, but planning too far ahead can create negative emotions that are hard to overcome.  The solution? Patterns, as he goes on to discuss – be organized and meticulous and fall into rhythm.

Page 43: Contrast bias and re framing here.  Also, agency.

Pages 47 – 48: Here’s the bit on patterns and process.

Pages 52 – 54: On the power of conditioning and stress:

“Under stress, you don’t invent new strategies.  You revert to automatic behaviors.”

A lady who was attacked by a shark, upon returning to her boat, dropped her fin in the water – and reached out to retrieve it.  Reasonably, in general, as they were probably expensive and she liked them a lot… but when you’ve been attacked by a shark and you’re literally dying, you have bigger priorities.

Gonzales notes that luck always plays a role in survival.

I thought the bit about this lady refusing pain meds because she didn’t want to lose the ability to fight to stay alive was interesting.  She made this her “mantra” (Pain is my friend) – Gonzales notes that:

“A mantra can focus the mind on the goal and engage the deliberate and logical part of the brain.  Since the response from the rage pathway is so exhausting, this is important in conserving energy, which the body needs for survival.”

Pages 56 – 59: Flashbacks can

“take control of your senses and your behavior and can wipe yourmemory as clean as electroshock therapy.”

Gonzales here goes into mental models, as he does in Deep Survival – he borrows the term from neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, although this usage is closer to what another neuroscientist calls schema (again, a little different from my definition).

Gonzales notes that we build

“representations of objects that allow [us] to identify things quickly and know the rules by which they behave… this system would never allow you to think that the bunny will fly [or] that the bunny is a cat.”

Gonzales notes that our visual cortex actually predicts what’s being seen (based on information from the retina); the thalamus ignores what’s correct and returns information on what’s incorrect.  This is why having the right schema (in my sense of the term, rather than Gonzales’s) is so important: Gonzales quotes neuroscientist David Eagleman:

“When the world is successfully predicted away, awareness is not needed because the brain is doing its job well.”

Contrast biasin a sense – we notice what changes.  Of course, Gonzales points out that such a system can create lots of mistakes.

He also cites neuroscientist Gyorgy Buzsaki of Rutgers making the analogy of the hippocampus as a librarian of the neocortex – specifically, an “autoassociator” that returns the whole when you give it part of the content.

So, part of the path back from trauma is exposure therapy – see Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy ( CBT review + notes), where she discusses this in some detail.  Behavioral experiments are a core part of cognitive behavioral therapy; here, Gonzales explores the underlying conditioning mechanism: one of his case studies was attacked by a shark and now associates all things associated with sharks with extreme danger; setting her screensaver as a shark helped – slowly – to train her brain to break that association.

Page 61: Interesting bit here about stress and resilience… learning to cope with stress is a generalized skill.  Do keep in mind, however, some of the permanent path-dependency effects here of stress early in life:.

See Ian Leslie’s “Curious” ( C review + notes) or Jennifer Ackerman’s “ The Genius of Birds” ( Bird review + notes) on how too much stress, early in life, can’t really be recovered from.

Pages 62 – 64: This is really interesting… it’s a more novel take on storytelling and the “narrator” than the old chicken-claw story.  Here, a lady whose brain was electrically stimulated to cry and assume a position of grief started explaining reasons why her life was hopeless.  In another experiment, a woman whose funny bones were stimulated came up with nonsensical explanations for why she was laughing… and for good measure, the surgeons started laughing too ( social proof).  Gonzales is going to get into mirror neurons in a while.

Pages 68 – 71: Gonzales here notes multicausality – specifically the Swiss Cheese model of causality.  For an accident to happen, the “holes” in the cheese have to line up.

Gonzales also presents an interesting addendum to his discussion of cognition and intuition indeep survival: he brings up the idea of the “triune brain” – layer one is reptilian; layer two is mammalian; layer three is uniquely human (the neocortex).  But we don’t lose the other parts – we can use them, but can’t always explain what they are. Gonzales calls it a “Sixth sense” –

“the frog and the rat are always watching out for us.”

This system learns through trial-and-error feedback, i.e. conditioning.  An interesting result is that many experts can do things well without being able to provide a conscious understanding of why; Gonzales cites Richard Feynman being able to figure out of equations were right or wrong – without doing calculations.

Gonzales recommends not doubting your sixth sense.

Pages 74 – 75: Gonzales discusses the “freezing” response here… also, he basically provides a different (much more gruesome) take on the “Tetris Effect” that Shawn Achor discusses in “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes).  Gonzales notes, unsurprisingly, that trauma rewires our schema:

“we begin to see the entire world through the lens of trauma.”

Page 81: Gonzales here notes that people with cognitive reserve are more resilient to PTSD and Alzheimer’s… also some interesting discussion of flexibility that cross-references with Gaddis talking about foxes and hedgehogs in On Grand Strategy (OGS review + notes).

Page 82: Why does cognitive reserve help?  The aforementioned neuroscientist, Eagleman, talks about

“blanketing a problem with overlapping solutions.”

I really like that – multicausality again, among other things.

Page 83: A great quote from a veteran on dealing with adversity that would be Munger-approved:

“I like to overcome things.  I don’t like backing down from challenges.  Here’s a straw. Suck it up.”

Also, Gonzales’s concept of a “Personal Scum Line” is kind of interesting and useful.

Pages 84 – 85: The rage pathway can’t run forever; it (and you) become fatigued, and you fall into depression.  Gonzales here highlights another example of agency and, more specifically, goal-oriented behavior, helping someone deal with trauma.

Page 86: Gonzales here discusses social connection and gratitude; see of course Shawn Achor’s “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes) on both of these.

Pages 87 – 89!: Here’s the flip side of cortisol and adrenaline: combined with oxytocin, these sorts of reactions are involved in your response to people you feel affection for.  Gonzales notes that the “emotional shape” of pleasures is often the same as negative events; it’s the context that determines how we feel.

I also really liked this bit – remember, in Groopman’s “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes), where he discusses (via one doctor) how patients cling to certainty when faced with uncertainty?  Or, in Philip Tetlock’s “ Superforecasting ( SF review + notes), how probabilistic presentations don’t play well on TV – people want confidence, even if it’s false overconfidence?

Well, Gonzales notes, summarily:

“We like things that are predictable.  Predictability is one of the most important factors in lowering stress.”

Gonzales goes into primary (instinctual) vs. secondary (learned) emotional responses / bookmarks; he discusses here, as he did in Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes), the difference between feelings and emotions; he also talks about emotional bookmarks again here, the underpinning of conditioning.

And!  He talks about mirror neurons, which Shawn Achor touches on, but not extensively, in The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes) and Before Happiness ( BH review + notes).

Gonzales notes that babies utilize mirror neurons to mimic facial expressions; he believes that they are the “biological substrate of empathy” and that they underlie culture.

Pages 90! – 91!: Gonzales goes a bit deeper into how babies (like dogs – my analogy), look to see how you respond to it to decide how they’re going to respond to it.  See also Ian Leslie in “Curious” ( C review + notes) on babies and young children and curiosity.

Gonzales also here discusses schema, talking about how we

“build and rebuild our emotional systems… we make cognitive maps that embody people and objects.”

There’s also some great writing here, below:

“Now let’s say that something terrible happens.  Something so horrible and shocking that it is literally unthinkable, as in: you never think about it and perhaps have never even considered it as a possibility.  This means that it is completely unpredictable. This also means that there is no way to prepare yourself for it. It comes like the crocodile out of the deep and takes your head in its jaws.  It bites like the shark. It is the most stressful event possible.”

I accused Gonzales of getting a little too purple with his prose at points in Deep Survival, but it’s still a great piece of writing overall… Surviving Survival may be even better.

Page 93: Going back to the rat and the frog always being around to help us, Gonzales notes that mothers’ “extrasensory perceptions” about their children aren’t really extrasensory – they’re just coming through neural pathways that we don’t necessarily have direct access to; i.e.,

“the information she was receiving wasn’t on that literal, stepwise channel of the frontal lobes.”

Page 96: I understand what Gonzales is trying to say here, but (after having praised his writing a few pages ago), this is really a terrible metaphor.

He notes that you can’t lose a child any more than you can lose an arm because they still take up space in your brain.  I get what he’s trying to say. But he says

“You can lose your keys because they have no emotional claim on you.  You cannot lose your child.”

That’s not really true… it may be true existentially, in the sense that you can’t ever forget about your child permanently, but you can very much forget about (or, mentally, “lose” – lose track of) your child in the short term.

My friend Matt Keyser (a talented journalist and writer) has done a great job of documenting this and reminding parents, every summer, to be mindful of how easy it is to forget your child in a hot car.

Pages 97 – 98: I don’t have enough of an associative framework to remember the neuroscience here, but basically the parietal lobe forms a physical map and sends signals to amputated arms that aren’t there anymore…

There’s a really interesting bit at the bottom here about the useful illusion of feedback suggesting the arm is still there.  The bit about the galvanic response (upcoming) is interesting.

Pages 99 – 100: Gonzales here talks about “triggers” (not in a nonsense social justice-y way, of course).  Part of this is salience – the lady he discusses here, Ann, who lost her five year old daughter to a freak bloodborne strep infection, notes that

“there are only five-year-old girls holding their mothers’ hands wherever I go.”

Pasta (her daughter Grace’s favorite food), a Beatles song, and pretty much anything else become triggers.

And honestly, maybe it’s cruel, but I find the bit about the seagull with the red egg hilarious.

Page 101: Gonzales here notes a feedback loop regarding memorystress and sleep similar to the one I discuss about alcohol elsewhere:

“ Memory was the major source of stress for Ann, and that stress was dumping more steroids into her system.  Steroids interrupt sleep. The result: lighter sleep with less real rest and more nightmares, trapping her in another feedback loop.  The combined effects of stress and sleepdeprivation meant that her frontal lobes and hippocampus were both impaired: she couldn’t think straight or remember new things clearly.”

See, of course, Dr. Matthew Walker’s phenomenal “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) for more on this.

Also, how can knitting save your life?  Gonzales is a skeptic (he gets converted.)

Page 102: Gonzales is nothing if not multidisciplinary: he wants to tie knitting together with Tourette’s.

And, of course, because I’m me, I have to reference South Park’s Le Petit Tourette… aww, shit.

Page 103: The title of this chapter – “See One, Do One, Teach One” – calls to mind Dr. Jerome Groopman’s “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes).  It’s a good teaching technique – both because “doing” creates conditioning that merely learning does not, and also because explaining things to people forces you to consolidate information in memory and understand it on a more cognitive level.

Pages 104 – 107: Gonzales here discusses a curious case relayed by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, about a surgeon named Carl Bennett, who suffered from Tourette’s, which would seem to preclude him from safely performing surgery.  (Some of Sacks’ books seem interesting; I bought one called “An Anthropologist on Mars,” about how people with various neurological conditions adapt.  Per the references, this is the one Gonzales cites.)

Gonzales draws a parallel between trauma survivors’ unwanted, involuntary actions, and the tics of those suffering from Tourette’s.  Gonzales notes – amazingly – that surgeon Carl Bennett –

“Picked up a scalpel and began to cut.  Suddenly, he was a different man altogether.  The complex and challenging operation lasted two and a half hours and required that Bennett perform such intricate procedures as tying off blood vessels and locating fine nerve fibers that must not be cut.  

It went off with no sign at all of his Tourette’s syndrome. Bennett’s performance was astonishing because medical science had been looking for a treatment for Tourette’s for more than a century and a half… the only available drugs had catastrophic side effects.  

Yet here was something Bennett could do that turned off his symptoms like flipping a light switch.”

Gonzales goes deeper into the neuroscience here – those with Tourette’s, unlike those with, say, Parkinson’s, don’t feel like Tourette’s is not part of themself.  Gonzales goes deeper into the multifaceted self, and notes how disturbing it can be when we feel like our “self” has gone away.

Interestingly, Bennett’s ability to “turn off” his Tourette’s in the OR is attributed to memory by Gonzales (and presumably Sacks) – he’s quoted as stating that during surgeries, 

It never even crosses my mind that I have Tourette’s.”

He has different selves in different circumstances, which Gonzales points out is not so unusual – we are different people around our kids than at work.

Gonzales notes that the lesson is that

“the trick [Bennett] pulls off involves doing something physical to reset the contents of memory… it may well involve activating a pathway in the brain that effectively silences [the rage] pathway.”

This is something I need to think more about, in the vein of having “multiple overlapping solutions blanketing a problem” – what could my physical memory reset be?  I need to find one.

Another great quote that is important in terms of thinking about trait adaptivity:

“Nature does not tend to invent new things from whole cloth.  Rather, she likes to tinker with what is already there.”

The rage pathway is one of these – screaming, clawing, biting – even swearing (the brain treats these differently from ordinary words; they’re sort of a conditioned form of screaming, it seems.)

I really liked this bit about the balancing effects of “push-pull systems” like the sympathetic nervous system (stimulating), and the parasympathetic nervous system (calming).

Page 108: Gonzales notes that trauma survivors have a near-permanently activated rage pathway and need to find a way to calm it.  He cites a neuroscientist, Jack Panksepp of Washington State University, who

“has proposed another circuit or pathway that might embody the pull that counterbalances the push represented by the rage pathway.  He calls it the seeking pathway or the seeking system.”

Pages 108 – 113: This system is the one that enables stalking in animals; more generally, it enables “assertive goal-directedness” – agency, but in a more hardcore “flow” sort of state of deep concentration.

Gonzales notes:

“This may offer a key in understanding why knitting worked so well to calm Ann’s rage and blunt her grief.  We want to gain a meal and we also want to avoid becoming one. But we can’t do both at the same time.”

Knitting is pattern-oriented.  Having to learn a new pattern requires this “seeking” pathway, which may better align the frontal lobes with the basal ganglia… helping control both Tourette’s and the rage pathway.  It’s agency in another context.

Gonzales also references a book called “Cognitive Neuroscience” by Michael Gazzaniga, which is a textbook that might be interesting.  (It’s expensive, so I haven’t bought one yet.)

Gonzales notes that:

“one of the worst effects of bereavement is that the rage or outrage that we feel at the loss cannot be answered… [you cannot] right the wrong… so ultimately we tend to exhaust the rage pathway and fall into a helpless lethargy that looks a lot like depression.  

Anxiety and rage represent efforts to cope. Depression is the absence of effort… depression is aboutcortisol. You’re under tremendous stress with the brakes on so that you can’t do anything at all.

Stress and cortisol also prevent chemicals such as dopamine from making you feel good… people with high cortisol can become chemically locked into a state of giving up.  And one of the keys to survival is: never give up.”

Gonzales goes deeper here into the feedback effects, which are self-perpetuating.  Again, the path out is agency: it’s not possible to be focused / goal-oriented and enraged at the same time.

Gonzales concludes by discussing, of course, conditioning: in the process of learning a new skill, you’re also learning “habits of thought and emotion” – thereby “train[ing] yourself to feel safe.”

Pages 114 – 115: Gonzales here references oxytocin… do note that complex systems like bodies aren’t reducible to on-off switches and everything’s multicausal.  Oxytocin isn’t a miracle drug for empathy (sadly).  See pages 122 – 124 of Jennifer Ackerman’s “ The Genius of Birds” ( Bird review + notes) for more on this.

Gonzales also notes, on extrinsic motivation, that unpredictable rewards are most effective (one of the reasons gambling is addictive.  See, of course, Charles Duhigg’s “ The Power of Habit – PoH review + notes – for an interesting story on gambling addiction.)

Nice quote from a neuroscientist here about how much of our behavior is automatic or habituated – again, see Duhigg – and more on how the rage pathway and goal-oriented behavior are mutually exclusive.

Gonzales also notes that multicausality plays a role here – picking up a new skill often involves forming new social connections; see any number of sources – Brene Brown’s referenced Daring Greatly ( DG review + notes), Achor, or Olds/Schwartz’s “ The Lonely American ( TLA review + notes) for some of the research on the positive effects of social connection on stress.

Page 116: Gonzales goes back to SODOTO here, bringing up mirror neurons, and he also quips:

“In ancient days, maybe everyone had some form of anxiety disorder – after all, life was short and every day you really did face the possibility of being eaten alive.”

Gonzales goes on to briefly explore rituals as a possible antidote – but what I find more interesting personally is the analogy to Shawn Achor’s implicit discussion of trait adaptivity in Before Happiness ( BH review + notes) and The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes) – in several places, he mentions that anxiety is good for prehistoric rabbits, because it helps them avoid sabre-toothed tigers.  But, as Achor notes, there aren’t sabre-toothed tigers in our office parks… even our bad bosses on their worst days aren’t actually going to eat us.  (Probably.)

But the rat and the frog haven’t left us behind.

Page 117!!!: On agency and mindfulness, here’s the Laurence Gonzales approved bumper sticker on resilience:

“You create the world by your belief in it, so it’s important to believe this: there really is a path.  It takes you not back to your old life but onward to the new one.”

Page 124: Gonzales, citing neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, cites seven attributes that combine to create the “self” –





Social embedding

Free will


Pages 128 – 129: Gonzales here discusses memory and why time seems to slow down in critical situations: the

“supercharged emotional system tries to take in huge amounts of information”

but in a very focused way: one police officer notes:

“my vision changed as soon as I started to shoot.  It went from seeing the whole picture to just the suspect’s head.  Everything else just disappeared.”

 Gonzales explains:

“Absorbing that much information usually takes longer, so the passing of time seems slower in comparison when we recall those events.”

Pages 132 – 135: Gonzales here discusses something all writers are aware of: the ability of writing to produce a very strong flow state.  Gonzales notes that since writing creates meaning,

“writing lets us redraw the map of our memories and redefine the self… from about the age of ten, our [left hemisphere] create[s] that narrative [of our identity]… trauma breaks that coherence… that’s why we have to invent a new narrative.  

One of the reasons that writing is therapeutic for many people may be that [it] combines storytelling with a patterned, directed physical activity that engages the seeking pathway and with it the system of dopamine and reward.”

Gonzales here cites Tetris dreams – I haven’t checked, but I am pretty sure this is the same research Shawn Achor cites for his “Tetris Effect” in The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes).

Gonzales here also references the interaction between sleep and memory, noting how sleepimproves performance on tasks; see, of course, Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) for a fascinating exploration of the underlying science.

Gonzales notes some of the same phenomena as Walker on dreams, including how dreams can show us answers we can’t see during daytime.

Page 136: One example: Kekule saw benzene’s ouroboric pattern in a dream.

Page 137: Kind of interesting here – Gonzales cites research by a few scientists about learning in people without the ability to form new memory.  He notes that sleep (specifically, REM sleep – dreaming) helped them learn.  See also Charles Duhigg’s fascinating discussion of Eugene Pauly in “ The Power of Habit ( PoH review + notes).

Pages 139 – 141: Here, Gonzales references (sort of) the same Zen paradox stuff that sounded like complete bullshit in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes).  Here, it’s explained a little better and is reasonable… Gonzales relates it to flow and focus on process.

Also, disabling the parietal lobe (which tells you “where things are in space, including your own body”) is related to mystical experiences.

Page 143: Here again, Gonzales provides some wonderful advice to achieve “emotional reserve” –

“blanket a problem with overlapping solutions.”   

Multicausality as well as margin of safety and lollapalooza effects.

Pages 151 – 152: On why travel can help: it forces us to recreate our maps, and therefore ourselves.

Gonzales talks a bit about place cells, as he does in Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes) – see also, of course, Jennifer Ackerman’s wonderful discussion of map-making in birds, see pages 196 – 228 of  The Genius of Birds ( Bird review + notes).  (She also discusses hippocampi and the human brain.)

Pages 153 – 154: Some more nice bits on place cells, habits, and so on.  Gonzales notes that experts use less energy because they’re efficient – I cite a lot of research in the cognition / intuitionhabit / stress model on the energy-saving nature of habits; see also Duhigg and Ackerman.

Anyway, Gonzales notes that babies’ movements are a bit (not quite like) those of octopi, as explored by Peter Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds ( OthM review + notes).  Gonzales doesn’t make this connection – but if you’ve read that book, you’ll remember how there’s a bit of push-pull between the octopus central nervous system and its sort-of-independent arms.

Here, Gonzales discusses how babies have essentially uncontrollable spasms (he classifies these as emergent) – and babies eventually reinforce pathways, learning to move in a controlled fashion.

Page 162: this is why, as I discuss in my base rates mental model, I don’t hike in grizzly bear territory.  I just don’t. It’s a rule.

Pages 164 – 165: Gonzales compares and contrasts the viewpoints of a couple who were permanently disfigured by a grizzly bear attack.  One deems himself lucky; the other deems herself unlucky.

Obviously, in any objective sense, their luck was bad – very few hikers are ever attacked by a grizzly bear.  But that base rate isn’t the adaptive perspective, or schema – it’s like the analogy Shawn Achor presents in “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes).  If you’re shot in the arm during a bank robbery, you can either choose to be grateful that the bullet missed an artery, or angry that you of all people got shot.

Achor posits – hypothetically, of course – that the way you look at it has a big impact on your outcome.  Here is the real-world corollary: the guy (Trevor) goes on to survive and even thrive; Patricia eventually kills herself.

Page 168: Gonzales goes back to Vaillant’s Study of Adult Development (the Harvard Men study) – and concludes that “getting over it” is the adaptive strategy to trauma.  (Of course, there’s no reason this can’t be applied more broadly to things like anxiety – see Dr. Judith Beck’s “ Cognitive Behavior Therapy – CBT review + notes – for more.)

Gonzales also briefly references the major histocompatibility complex – MHC – see Sam Kean’s “ The Violinist’s Thumb ( TVT review + notes) for some interesting discussion of this.

Page 169: Gonzales here outlines the schema discussion I made earlier.  He also notes the same research on botox, smiles, and happiness as Achor does, I think.

Page 173: Gonzales explicitly (here and throughout the chapter) makes an intriguing trait adaptivity argument – the wife’s behavior would have been adaptive before the bear attack; the husband’s behavior was adaptive after it.  Same behavior, different circumstances…

Page 174: Dunbar’s number sighting!  See Geoffrey West’s “ Scale ( Scale review + notes) for a bit more on this, and power laws more generally.

Page 178: On freezing as an adaptive strategy: sharks go for flailing.  If you don’t want sharks to bother you, float motionless. (Gonzales doesn’t make this cross-reference explicit, but I noticed it immediately… kind of an extreme example of contrast bias.)

Page 180: On the power of empathy – as well as moving on.

Page 184: On the calming power of walking, as well as its role in problem solving.  Gonzales references atomic scientists – see “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes ( TMAB review + notes) for great examples of this.

See also “ Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang ( rest review + notes), which is a good book except for its woefully unscientific recommendations on chronotypes.

Page 190: The first reasonable defense of neatness I’ve seen (I’m messy) – neatness is predictable; predictability lowers stress.

Page 191: Reference to Viktor Frankl here; Man’s Search For Meaning is on my reading list.

Page 194: Holocaust stories never fail to be just terrible and horrifyingly gruesome.

Page 199: Gonzales cites a book here, Against All Odds, about Holocaust survivors… it sounded interesting.  Haven’t bought a copy yet, but I might.

Pages 201 – 203: Some nice background on the Harvard Study of Adult Development – perhaps one of the first modern pieces of positive psychology research.  As Gonzales puts it, the two physicians who started it – Arlie Bock and Clark Heath – believed that

“research in medicine was too preoccupied with illness.  Efforts should be made to understand what makes for healthy, happy people.”

Gonzales references Barry Schwartz – note that his Paradox of Choice ( PoC review) isn’t great, although it does present some interesting stuff.  Anyway, Gonzales here advocates actively countering hyperbolic discounting, in different terms: i.e.,

 “when you’re in the midst of a crisis, it can sometimes seem as if your distress will go on forever… for most people in most situations, the pain does not go on forever.”

I’ve personally found this to be true – and helpful.

Gonzales notes that

“most people simply continue on an unconscious course throughout life without ever stopping to consider whether a different approach might be more effective.  When something really bad happens, it presents an opportunity to wake up from our life on autopilot, our state of mental models and behavioral scripts, and deliberately choose a new strategy.”

Agency.  See also Stephen Covey, in “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes) on people leading lives that are reactive, conditioned scripts,

You can find this elsewhere: Megan McArdle in “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes) discusses how – paradoxically – horrible, traumatic events are often later cited by those who experienced them as major positive catalysts in their lives.

Pages 204 – 205: A great overview / compare-contrast of effective and ineffective strategies here.  They are somewhat predictable if you have read widely, but still lots of value to returning here every few years.  Humor is good, as is preparation and avoidance of triggers, and empathy. Bad: blaming other people, being angry, being in denial, acting out, fantasizing, or being a hypochondriac.

Page 208: Gonzales here explicitly overviews the internal locus of control – i.e. agency.  See pretty much every other book on this site.  Gonzales here provides a nice overview of the growth mindset.

Page 212: “Be here now” and “be patient” are both great advice.

Page 214: Gonzales here basically describes taking a habit cue – i.e. a trigger for negative emotions – and finding a way to make it positive.  Very similar to the habit-revision format discussed by Charles Duhigg in “ The Power of Habit ( PoH review + notes).

Page 215: Great advice at the top of the page here on agency and feedback (as well as, implicitly, probabilistic thinking).  Also, use negative emotions as a positive motivator.

Pages 216 – 217: On social connection and specifically physical touching… as well as gratitude.


First Read: summer 2018

Last Read: summer 2018

Number of Times Read: 1

Planning to Read Again?: absolutely


Review Date: summer 2018

Notes Date: summer 2018