Monday, August 23, 2010

The Psychology of Survival

I read this BBC story recently about the Chilean miners trapped for 17 days, who now face months of waiting underground while a rescue tunnel is dug. Although they are all physically well and expected to survive, they face the psychological challenge of waiting for rescue from the cave.

This story resonated with me because lately I've been hearing a lot about a new book, No Way Down, which was featured on NPR along with some other mountain disaster books. No Way Down covered the story of several teams of mountain climbers who were stranded on K2 when an icefall cut their ropes. Most of the climbers died although a few managed to pick their way back to base camp.

Survival stories have always been popular. Entire television series now feature teams of people pitted against one another to overcome some test or challenge. Disaster movies were popular back in the '70s, when the Towering Inferno, Airport and the Poseidon Adventure let us watch people get picked off one by one.

Why do we love this stuff?

I think it's because these stories reflect humanity's greatest strength, the power of adaptation. Whether we're talking about natural disasters, accidents, the exploration of Colonial American wilderness or longterm science expeditions to Antarctica, the psychology of survival is fascinating because we like the idea that one's mental attitude can make the difference between life or death.

A search of Amazon reveals a surprising number of books about survivor psychology. Most focus on outdoor adventurers, but others were based on interviews with survivors of accidents like plane crashes or fires.

The survivors in these books lived because they were trained and experienced in outdoor living. They weren't "survivalists" per se, people who stockpiled food and weapons for the future fall of civilization. These survivors were people who were able to stay calm and reason in the face of fear, people who retained their optimism and determination in spite of great odds. Survivors focussed on others rather than themselves, either thinking about their families or their fellow survivors.

Sitting in a prison cell for several years seems like nothing compared to surviving a high altitude mountain disaster, but I think there are some principles that apply in both cases. The prisoners who do well are the ones who are future-oriented and determined to "work the time" for self-improvement. They have external family they care about and plan to return to. And yes, previous prison experience helps too.