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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".


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 26th, 2008 05:53 pm (UTC)
Just finished a book about the son of Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa who summited Everest the first time with Hillary back in the 50s. The son's name is Jamling and the book is TOUCHING MY FATHER'S SOUL. It is a multifaceted presentation on families, Buddhist philosophy, and a comparison of how Westerners do things (such as climbing), as compared to how Jamling approached his opportunity to be a part of the 1996 IMAX climb on Everest (same time that multiple deaths occurred that year due to poor decision making and then chronicled in Krakauer's book INTO THIN AIR).

Dec. 26th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a good book. I'm adding it to my reading list.

I learned a lot about myself when I got into a kayak. I learned that I can persevere through tough situations, but also that I do not thrive in danger. I love the river but the confinement of the hard shell and my lack of skill make me uncomfortable there. My comfort level increased tenfold when I was in the duckie.

Your true talents shined the day I thought I broke my back on the Salt river. You were confident and reassuring. I felt well taken care of.

There are other things that I like to do that don't intimidate me like the river does.
Dec. 26th, 2008 10:00 pm (UTC)
I'm still reading this book. I find that I disagree with the way the author categorizes various conditioned responses as primary and secondary emotions. They are not emotions.

I also am not thrilled about the way that he explains certain accidents, and individual's actions. He guesses a lot at what people were thinking and doing, and extrapolates to make their stories fit into his framework. But he is not necessarily correct. He is simply offering a plausible framework.

Thanks for the comment about the Salt river day. I am glad you felt well taken care of. I was going to do whatever it took to be sure that you were OK. Boy am I glad that your back was not broken! It would have been a MUCH longer day (week/month/year) if it had been.

Hey sometime soon I'm going to write about that day that we ran the San Juan at too high water. My memory of that day is waning, though.....Would you be willing to write up a reminiscence of that day from your point of view?
Dec. 26th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)
Sure, I'll write what I can recall. I'll send it in an email.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )



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