The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable

Who Survives When Disaster Strikes-- and Why

Paperback - 2009
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Discover how human beings react to danger-and what makes the difference between life and death

Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims?

In her quest to answer these questions, award-winning journalist Amanda Ripley traces human responses to some of recent history's epic disasters, from the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship in 1917-one of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb-to the journeys of the 15,000 people who found their way out of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. To understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts. She even has her own brain examined by military researchers and experiences, through realistic simulations, what it might be like to survive a plane crash into the ocean or to escape a raging fire.

Ripley comes back with precious wisdom about the surprising humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain's fear circuits, and the stunning inadequacy of many of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain's ability to do much, much better-with just a little help.
Publisher: New York : Three Rivers Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780307352903
Characteristics: xviii, 266 pages, [8] pages of plates :,color illustrations ;,21 cm.


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Feb 09, 2019

Pretty fascinating stuff. Amanda Ripley is a formidable investigative journalist. The book is full of original ideas. It is a lot about neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology. Human beings are wired a certain way to behave under stress (and there is a great individual variation). Group behavior is another interesting dimension that is somewhat predictable (along typical scenarios).

Chapter 6 describing the physics and psychology of crowds is particularly interesting describing how stampedes occur. How tens of people can get killed. And, the phenomenon is both common and predictable. Individuals can get crushed to death in a crowd by being squeezed so hard they can’t breath while their feet are off the ground!

Chapter 8 on Heroism is also interesting. Now, when I read about a heroic act I get to wonder was that individual truly courageous or did that individual have a hormonal and neurological profile that renders such heroic behavior predictable. Low dopamine (dopamine is associated with the reward system) renders people clinically bored with mundane daily life. They need extraordinary stimulation that the rest of us would find unbearably stressful. That’s where you get your heroes, special op soldiers, wingsuit jumpers, rock climbers, big wave surfers, downhill racers, ski jumpers, sky divers, car racers, astronauts, and on the dark side sociopaths. They are all part of the low-dopamine social cluster. Also, neuropeptide Y plays a role in giving individuals the ability to focus and remain calm under stressful condition. Apparently, the latter (neuropeptide Y) is the major difference in blood test results between regular soldiers (that are already really tough) and the special op ones.

Interestingly enough, some of our most wired behaviors neurologically can be highly favorable in certain circumstances and highly unfavorable in others. For instance, when disaster strikes a common neurological reaction is to freeze, do nothing, become lethargic. Strangely enough this may improve the chance of survival when attacked by a formidable animal. A man survived being attacked by a lion that way. A limp prey is often interpreted by wild animals as a poisonous sick prey. So, they often let it go. A fighting prey is a sign of a healthier creature. In another circumstance, a young man survived a college shooting by remaining limp and playing dead. He was among the few survivors within his college class. However, on many other occasions the remaining lethargic thing is disastrous. In any natural disaster (of just about any kind), this will prove fatal. You have to control your mind and nervous system and act quickly to do the right thing in order to get away and escape whatever you should get away from (fire, explosion, flood, tsunami, etc.).

Also, next time I am on a plane I will pay a lot more attention to the air steward instructions. I will also read the written evacuation instructions a lot more carefully. Apparently, acquiring such basic instruction has a dramatic impact on survival outcome after a plane crashes. One of the keys to survival is the speed of evacuation. And, the basic information facilitates passengers knowing what to do, where to go, so as to evacuate the plane before it is engulfed in flame and toxic smoke.

Jul 28, 2016

Fairly short, to the point and entertaining. An excellent analysis of various catastrophic events, how we really react when these events occur and how we can improve our reactions.

Oct 20, 2015

Not exactly what I was looking for, however, it's very interesting about how we act in crisis mode or disasters. Lots of research/study results. Helpful info on crowd dynamics, certainly worth a read.

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