liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,

Books: on Risk Taking and Survival

Just started reading Deep Survival, and already it has grabbed me. The author Laurence Gonzales knows about the brain, about memory and emotion and the ways that we humans operate. I don't entirely agree with his presentation of brain function--it is a little simplistic--but overall it is a useful framework. I'm on page 67 at the moment, and there are a couple of quotes I'd like to record here:

Elite performers, as they're sometimes called, seek out the extreme situations that make them perform well and feel more alive. At the other end of the scale are people who don't want any excitement at all. It takes all kinds. But it's easy to demonstrate that many people (estimates run as high as 90 percent), when put under stress, are unable to think clearly or solve simple problems. They get rattled. They panic. They freeze. Muddled thinking is common in outdoor recreation when people get lost or injured or are otherwise threatened with harm.

When you learn something complex, such as flying, snowboarding, or playing tennis or golf, as first you must think through each move. That is called explicit learning, and it's stored in explicit memory, the kind you can talk about, the kind that allows you to remember a recipe for lasagna. But as you gain more experience, you begin to do the task less consciously. You develop flow, touch, timing--a feel for it. It becomes second nature, a thing of beauty. That's known as implicit learning. The two neurological systems of explicit and implicit learning are quite separate. Implicit memories are unconscious. Implicit learning is like a natural smile: It comes by way of a different neural pathway from the one that carries explicit memory. LeDoux reports that his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, cannot remember ordinary events but can still play the accordion, because although her hippocampus is likely damaged by the disease, the memory of how to play accordion comes form an as yet undamaged part of the brain. Implicit memories are not stored in or necessarily even available to the analytical, reasoning part of the brain.

Thoughts provoked by these two paragraphs:

I am one of those who seeks out challenging situations because that is where I shine. When I worked on the river, or in the snow, I sought the challenging locations and the dicey situations. I enjoyed my work the most when people made mistakes, and got into trouble. I'm not really a sadist, but when people get hurt and the situation is urgent, I get to do what I do best. When things go wrong, I like to problem solve, to treat and evacuate injured people, protect and reassure the uninjured, recover and repair equipment, and continue the adventure with the minimum of delay. This is my idea of fun. This is part of the reason that I decided to study to become a doctor.

Tonight we watched the movie Young Guns I, about Billy the Kid. After reading some of this book I saw Billy as one of these sorts of people as well. Certainly not all who shine under stress are cold blooded killers, but in Billy I saw the playfulness in the face of desperation, and the fearlessness when all seemed lost, which is characteristic of this sort of person when under duress. As Victor Frankel tells us, the one thing that we can control, no matter how dire the situation, is our own attitude.

As for the second paragraph, it reminds me when I have taught kayaking. When I was first certified to teach kayaking and canoing, I was but 21 years old. I had been kayaking since I was 12, so I had what Gonzales calls implicit learning of whitewater kayaking. I was good, comfortable, fluid in a boat. I also had taken ACA certification courses in both Kayak and Open Canoe, so I had some explicit learning as well. But all that I knew implicitly was not available to me in words. I could not explain to my students what it is that I was doing in a kayak, except by parroting the words given me by other instructors. I felt like a fraud as a kayak teacher. I was teaching for the "Oxford of Whitewater Schools" and I knew I was a rookie. I remember getting feedback from my students--that they enjoyed my teaching, but that they learned more from watching me than they did from listening to me. It was some 15 years later that I discovered I had acquired the conscious and explicit knowledge to be able to convey in words and sketches what I had learned from experience and "feel".
Tags: alzheimers, brain, kayak, memory, risk, river, stress

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