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What makes a survivor? Author details qualities that help one withstand danger

Eric Winford

“Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales

During World War II on a bombing run into German-occupied territory, one particular bomber was hit and started to fall out of the sky. Out of the 10-man crew, only the pilot survived the 20,000-foot fall, and he was broken in many places. When he woke up, he was captured and taken to a Nazi prison camp. The pilot is author Laurence Gonzales’ father, and in this book of how some people live and others die in survival situations, the story about his father is a great way to explain his interest in survival. From a young age it made him wonder what special quality allowed his father to live when so many others died.

Gonzales has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He has worked for National Geographic Adventure, Harper’s, and Playboy among others, and he has published more than a dozen books. But, equally important to this book are the risks he takes. He is a pilot who has performed aerobatics in small-engine planes, he snowboards, he rock climbs and he rides motorcycles. Risk is nothing new to him.



Beginning with fighter pilots, Gonzales peers into the world of risk and describes how people get into dangerous situations and how they get out of them, or how they don’t. The key to understanding this world lies within the brain, in conscious and subconscious behavior, in emotional and logical decisions. Bringing in neuroscientists to explain the brain’s inner workings, Gonzales artfully splices together science with accident reports and interviews with survivors. Meticulously researched, his book combines information from a diverse number of sources, from stoic philosophers of ancient Greece to firefighters.

Throughout the book Gonzales keeps trying to define those qualities that make a survivor. We learn that a survivor uses emotion to act fast, but doesn’t allow emotion to overpower reason, leading to panic. Emotional responses can be life-saving because our emotional system reacts faster than the rational parts of our brain. Gonzales does an excellent job of describing the brain’s circuitry and how patterns are imprinted into our brain to make some reactions instinctive. He also uses other writers who can better illustrate his point. Several passages from Erich Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” describe how veteran soldiers threw themselves to the ground when the first faint noise of a incoming shell reached them, but green soldiers didn’t react fast enough and were killed.



Though Gonzales uses life-or-death situations to explain the survivor’s mind, he believes his book is applicable to anyone enduring an accident, whether it be a loved one’s death or a business close to bankruptcy. The broad lessons he gives can certainly be applied to a diverse number of situations. His description of the survivor’s mind is telling: accept the situation, take control, set goals and act. The brilliance of this book is the explanations of the subtle and complex behavior of our brains during survival situations.

That is why anyone going into risky situations should read it, because it will help you to understand your own brain and its reactions, which might just save you at the critical point. And at some point, whether it is driving onto the freeway or tying into a rope, we all get into risky situations.

-Eric Winford is a freelance writer who lives and works in the Sierra Nevada.


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