Deep Survival: #2 Folk Wisdom

Survival3_2Illustration by Paul Blow

By Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the book Deep Survival

One of the most respected psychologists of our time is Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard and the author of numerous books on human behavior and evolutionary biology. Pinker says that our brains contain a “baloney-generator” that offers up explanations of our behavior. Often those explanations have nothing to do with reality. They’re simply the stories we tell ourselves that help us get around in the world. “The conscious mind,” he says, “is a spin doctor.”

Joseph LeDoux, an author and neuroscientist at New York University, demonstrated that “people normally do all sorts of things for reasons they are not consciously aware of . . .” and that “[o]ne of the main jobs of consciousness is to keep our life tied together into a coherent story.” LeDoux and Pinker confirm a long line of research going back to William James concerning how well we can know ourselves and how that knowledge—or lack of it—influences the decisions we make. The results aren’t encouraging. “If the human mind is a formal logic machine,” LeDoux adds, “it is a pretty poor one.”

Research in neuroscience confirms that we turn experience into stories—simple narratives about what we’re doing and why—and then use those stories to explain our past behavior and to shape what we do in the future. The most useful stories have emotional impact. And emotions, scientists have learned, are immensely important in helping us to act. Because we are human and have language, we not only generate our own stories, we also acquire them from others through legends, books, movies, and songs. Sometimes, if we are paying attention, we even acquire them from school. When our narratives reflect the world as it really is, we do well. When they don’t, we find ourselves in trouble.

The tsunami that occurred on December 26, 2004, offers a good illustration of how the stories people had “on file” influenced their chances of survival. In the days following the disaster, for example, Indian government officials were surprised to discover that all 250 or so members of the isolated Jarawa tribe on the Andaman Islands, had survived. The Jarawa, who’ve lived in the Andamans since their migration from Africa 60,000 years ago, have little contact with the outside world. But their folklore contains stories that tell them to head for high ground when the earth shakes and the sea retreats from the beach. They survived the tsunami by heeding the message in those traditional stories.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people from what we think of as advanced societies died. Not everyone had an opportunity to survive, of course. Chance always plays a part in catastrophe. But many who could have escaped did not, because nothing in their previous personal experience had taught them how to respond to an event that happens frequently in geologic time.

Videos taken on the beaches of Thailand show crowds of people watching the wave approach but doing nothing to escape. In one video the vacationers laugh as the water gathers around their ankles and begins to rise, which hints at the kind of story they were telling themselves: that they were on vacation on a pleasant beach on a sunny morning, where no harm could come to them. Only when they were swept off their feet did their laughter turn to screams as they comprehended the mistake they’d made.

I corresponded with one man who survived. Originally from California, Ernest Rodriguez was in Phuket, Thailand, with some friends. His friends had stayed up drinking Christmas night, while Ernest went to bed. The next morning he was up early, having breakfast, when he felt the earthquake: a faint rumbling, far off. At that moment, a section of ocean floor had collapsed about 500 miles away, and the waves it generated would take about an hour to reach Thailand. Like the people standing on the beach, Ernest must have been living a story about being happily on vacation: I’m eating breakfast, looking at this peaceful, beautiful ocean. But that was easily displaced by another, more powerful story involving earthquakes: He had felt them at home in San Francisco. As he looked out over the water, he was alert, casting about for new information. Consciously or unconsciously, he recognized that his “happy vacation” story might need to be revised.

Then he saw the sea retreat, leaving fish flopping around on the sand, and that was enough to forge a new interpretation of his world: What goes out must come back, he reasoned. And it would come back with a vengeance. He rushed inside, woke his hungover friends, and led them to the fourth floor of the hotel, where they remained on a balcony as the deluge killed thousands below.

The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, another part of the world that is vulnerable to tsunamis, have folklore about such events. Earthquakes happen when two slabs of the Earth’s crust collide. In January of 1700 two of those tectonic plates in the Northwest—the Juan de Fuca plate and the North American plate—produced one of the largest earthquakes ever to hit the contiguous United States. Researchers estimate that it measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, rupturing the boundary of the two plates from northern California to Vancouver Island. The resulting tsunami was large enough to cross the Pacific Ocean and hit Japan with waves measuring 16 feet. Though we think of tsunamis as rare, there have been seven of that magnitude in the past 3,500 years. It’s not surprising, then, that the folklore of native peoples contain stories about them. The Makah tribe in the area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca tells a story of a thunderbird that delivered a whale far inland to feed a starving tribe. Another tells of a time when the sea withdrew, leaving the beaches dry, then returned to inundate the land.

We have our stories too. A government warning from Natural Resources Canada describes the situation today: “[A] similar offshore event will happen sometime in the future and [is] a considerable hazard to those who live in southwest B.C.” Will happen, not may happen. I suspect one of the reasons that we may not heed our own stories is that they aren’t very good ones. They’re purely informational. They don’t come with the emotional impact that feeling an earthquake or hearing tribal folklore can have.

But it’s possible to incorporate our own emotional content into our stories. Sometimes all it takes is the attentiveness and vivid imagination of a ten-year-old schoolgirl. On the morning of the tsunami in Thailand, Tilly Smith, who had gone with her family from England to vacation on the beaches there, saved the lives of about a hundred people. Tilly had just learned about tsunamis in geography class, and the evidence suggests that it had the requisite emotional impact on her.

“I was on the beach and the water started to go funny,” she told reporters. “There were bubbles and the tide went out all of a sudden.

I recognized what was happening and had a feeling there was going to be a tsunami. I told Mummy.”

We might be tempted to say that Tilly simply learned certain information and applied it. But an overwhelming body of scientific research indicates that most people don’t behave that way. In most situations, we base our actions not on a line of logical reasoning but on our feelings and interpretations of emotional states. Those interpretations are expressed as the stories that shape our behavior.

Experience, with all the rich emotions and feelings that come with it, is the best teacher, but we can’t all have the right
set of experiences for every situation. A turning point in our evolution came with the ability to encapsulate personal experience into a moving story (or song, or some other dramatic form of communication) and pass it on. The emotional impact of such stories has the power to drive an individual’s actions.

Ernest had directly experienced earthquakes. The Jarawa had their folklore. And Tilly had somehow been moved by what she heard and saw in geography class, so that when the time came she “had a feeling.” We believe what we feel, and we act on what we believe. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and author of the best-selling book Descartes’ Error, has shown that we can’t really use pure logic. Logic and reason can inform us. But emotion makes us decide and act. Without the aid of the stories we create and the emotions they generate, we are all but paralyzed.

Our lavish material culture makes us feel safe most of the time. It encourages us to develop stories that may not protect us from the hazards and demands that sometimes confront us. We have lost much of our folklore, and we often lack the direct experience that can forge more useful narratives. But being mindful of how our behavior is shaped by the “baloney-generator,” we can adjust to the inherent shortcomings of our emotional system. We can regard the tales we create for ourselves the way Damasio regards the explanations given to us by science, as “provisional approximations, to be enjoyed for a while and discarded as soon as better accounts become available.”


  1. Nate Freund
    March 10, 2008, 8:51 am

    I can speak from experience after reading the article “Folk Wisdom” [April] following my own personal survival story in January 2008 after a solo backpacking trip went from beautiful to disastrous. I woke up my first morning above the cloud line that covered the earth to the oceans and beyond. As foul weather approached nothing in my previous experience told me I was in danger as I continued to climb toward my destination of Big Horn Peak, California. My descent down after the successful summit was blurred by a snow storm and dense fog that left me disoriented and lost. I sent a text message to my roommate, sister, activated my Personal Locator Beacon, made shelter, and waited for Search and Rescue forces to lead me off the mountain. My logical mind built from years of previous hiking adventures overruled my emotional feelings that would have avoided the situation all together. A hundred hikes out of a hundred hikes before told me I would always find the trail back. This gives me a logical zero percent probability of getting lost in the future. How untrue this turned out to be. Thank you “Deep Survival” and the multiple Search and Rescue teams that saved my life so I can continue following life’s pursuits.
    Sincerely and Thank you National Geographic Adventure, Nate Freund

  2. Matt
    April 3, 2008, 4:16 pm

    Hi Laurence,
    I’m fascinated with your subject matter. I discovered your books on a recent trip to the US (from the UK) around the same time I also discovered the work of Ayn Rand.
    Objectivism, Rand’s philosophy, isn’t taught in UK schools (I’m led to believe it is taught in the US curriculum), but it seems to me that in a world where we are too quick and too willing to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility, it should be taught in all schools, everywhere.
    You refer to how those from so called ‘advanced societies’ failed to react to the warning signs of an imminent tsunami. I would suggest that as well as lacking the mental models (and cultural history) to imagine what might be occurring and how to respond, these unfortunate people also relied on the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd (a collective response, in Rand’s parlance), rather than rely on their own, independent assessment of the situation.
    Highly organised and ‘advanced’ societies have a tendency to isolate individuals from the realities of life and death. Many people are happy to be isolated, such that we’ve become cosseted in ‘victim’ cultures. As we all know, manufacturers of everyday products have to print and publish warnings to prevent people hurting or killing themselves from stupidity.
    I was fortunate that I learnt to fly a plane solo when I was 22 years old: a wonderful experience. Throughout my life, my early training as a pilot has stayed with me. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve had near misses – in the air, on motorcycles, as a climber and as a lover of adventure – but when you are taught early in life that every decision you make could be your last (a notion that comes home for good on your first solo), you tend to approach situations with more sobriety and humility. You also learn to think for yourself and not to rely on the wisdom of others, which is what Rand’s Objectivism advocates.
    I now have an infant son who already shows the same fascination with flying machines, two wheeled vehicles and adventure as I did at his age. Whatever he decides to do with his life, I hope he’ll at least learn to fly solo as early as possible. That first time alone on a circuit is life changing, but can also, in the long run, be life preserving.
    I admire your work and look forward to seeing where it takes you.
    Kind regards
    Matt Bailey

  3. Ann Dixon
    April 28, 2008, 9:18 am

    Hmmm. The “baloney generator” may be at work in the stories being told to counteract scientists concerns about global warming. We may be like the frogs in the pot on the stove in water slowly coming to a boil, heedless of the fatal critical mass of heat to come…
    Pinker’s concept applies in so many situations. Our family has enjoyed “Deep Survival”–I just passed it on to a friend about to embark on a deep ocean cruising 2 year experience. The boat is a big catamaran, neither has sailing experience, but will not be deterred. God speed them. I look forward to your new book to be published in September ’08 about survival in everyday life. Somehow my daughter was born with less of a baloney generator, and a natural awareness of risk. She has learned to live with the constant awareness of potential harm, and has a good time. However, her cautionary habits include her asking us to obtain a fire escape ladder for her dorm room and carrying at all times one of those little hammers that can break a car window when it goes offroad into water. She wants it with her, as it could be handy to escape a modern building with windows that don’t open if there is a school shooter, fire, or other disaster at her college. One possible career for her is in work related to safety or disaster preparedness. She also likes to travel and write, envisioning a traveling journalism career. In any case, these ideas have value for her and all of us. I have followed your thinking and that of the contributors to the article written 11/26/06 in Time Magazine about misperception of risk: “How Americans are Living Dangerously”. We fly instead of driving, for example, and had increased highway deaths just after 911, due to the dramatic switch from the skies to the highways. Those who would never ride motorcycles or climb mountains, nonetheless eat burgers and fries daily, carrying dangerous levels of body fat. Millions of us live in harm’s way with no tornado shelters or near water’s edge, exposed to flooding and hurricane winds. This line of study seems very important. Perhaps a broad overview/practical use curriculum could be developed for schools.

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