The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable

Who Survives When Disaster Strikes-- and Why

Book - 2008
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It lurks in the corner of our imagination, almost beyond our ability to see it: the possibility that a tear in the fabric of life could open up without warning, upending a house, a skyscraper, or a civilization.

Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality--anything we've ever learned, thought, or dreamed of--ultimately matter?
Amanda Ripley, an award-winning journalist for Time magazine who has covered some of the most devastating disasters of our age, set out to discover what lies beyond fear and speculation. In this magnificent work of investigative journalism, Ripley retraces the human response to some of history's epic disasters, from the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship in 1917--one of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb--to a plane crash in England in 1985 that mystified investigators for years, to the journeys of the 15,000 people who found their way out of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Then, to understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts, formal and informal, from a Holocaust survivor who studies heroism to a master gunfighter who learned to overcome the effects of extreme fear.

Finally, Ripley steps into the dark corners of her own imagination, having her brain examined by military researchers and experiencing through realistic simulations what it might be like to survive a plane crash into the ocean or to escape a raging fire.
Ripley comes back with precious wisdom about the surprising humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain's fear circuits, and the stunning inadequacy of many of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain's ability to do much, much better, with just a little help.

The Unthinkable escorts us into the bleakest regions of our nightmares, flicks on a flashlight, and takes a steady look around. Then it leads us home, smarter and stronger than we were before.
Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, c2008
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780307352897
Branch Call Number: 155.935 RIP NVD
Alternative Title: Unthinkable


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Feb 09, 2019

Pretty fascinating stuff. Amanda Ripley is a formidable investigative journalist. The book is full of original ideas. It is a lot about neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology. Human beings are wired a certain way to behave under stress (and there is a great individual variation). Group behavior is another interesting dimension that is somewhat predictable (along typical scenarios).

Chapter 6 describing the physics and psychology of crowds is particularly interesting describing how stampedes occur. How tens of people can get killed. And, the phenomenon is both common and predictable. Individuals can get crushed to death in a crowd by being squeezed so hard they can’t breath while their feet are off the ground!

Chapter 8 on Heroism is also interesting. Now, when I read about a heroic act I get to wonder was that individual truly courageous or did that individual have a hormonal and neurological profile that renders such heroic behavior predictable. Low dopamine (dopamine is associated with the reward system) renders people clinically bored with mundane daily life. They need extraordinary stimulation that the rest of us would find unbearably stressful. That’s where you get your heroes, special op soldiers, wingsuit jumpers, rock climbers, big wave surfers, downhill racers, ski jumpers, sky divers, car racers, astronauts, and on the dark side sociopaths. They are all part of the low-dopamine social cluster. Also, neuropeptide Y plays a role in giving individuals the ability to focus and remain calm under stressful condition. Apparently, the latter (neuropeptide Y) is the major difference in blood test results between regular soldiers (that are already really tough) and the special op ones.

Interestingly enough, some of our most wired behaviors neurologically can be highly favorable in certain circumstances and highly unfavorable in others. For instance, when disaster strikes a common neurological reaction is to freeze, do nothing, become lethargic. Strangely enough this may improve the chance of survival when attacked by a formidable animal. A man survived being attacked by a lion that way. A limp prey is often interpreted by wild animals as a poisonous sick prey. So, they often let it go. A fighting prey is a sign of a healthier creature. In another circumstance, a young man survived a college shooting by remaining limp and playing dead. He was among the few survivors within his college class. However, on many other occasions the remaining lethargic thing is disastrous. In any natural disaster (of just about any kind), this will prove fatal. You have to control your mind and nervous system and act quickly to do the right thing in order to get away and escape whatever you should get away from (fire, explosion, flood, tsunami, etc.).

Also, next time I am on a plane I will pay a lot more attention to the air steward instructions. I will also read the written evacuation instructions a lot more carefully. Apparently, acquiring such basic instruction has a dramatic impact on survival outcome after a plane crashes. One of the keys to survival is the speed of evacuation. And, the basic information facilitates passengers knowing what to do, where to go, so as to evacuate the plane before it is engulfed in flame and toxic smoke.

Jul 28, 2016

Fairly short, to the point and entertaining. An excellent analysis of various catastrophic events, how we really react when these events occur and how we can improve our reactions.

Oct 20, 2015

Not exactly what I was looking for, however, it's very interesting about how we act in crisis mode or disasters. Lots of research/study results. Helpful info on crowd dynamics, certainly worth a read.

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