deep survival gonzales

Deep Survival Gonzales Laurence

In his book Deep Survival, Gonzales mentions that in unusual situations, such as accidents or disasters, some people live while others don’t. This book uses real stories and scientific ideas, like brain science and chaos theory, to explain why some people survive and others don’t in these situations.

By Laurence Gonzales, 2003, 295 pages.

Book chronicle and summary of “Deep Survival”:

The author starts by sharing the story of his father, who was a pilot during World War II. His father’s plane got shot while on a mission, and despite a severe injury, he miraculously survived a crash landing in enemy territory. This event sparked the author’s interest in understanding why some people survive tough situations while others don’t, using science to explore this mystery. He delves into various scenarios, from shipwrecks to Nazi camps, and even psychological challenges like divorce or illness, to uncover the principles of survival, which he explains in his book.

deep survival gonzales

Look out, here comes Ray Charles

Emotions can have a big impact on our actions, and they can sometimes lead to mistakes. For example, a pilot was trying to land on an aircraft carrier, but he was coming in too low. Many warnings were telling him not to land, but he kept going and crashed. Even though he survived, the author wondered why he ignored all the signs. This made the author curious about why some people make poor choices in dangerous situations.

One important rule for survival is facing reality. Good survivors feel fear like everyone else, but the key is what they do next. When pilots are in control of a plane, they can get caught up in the excitement of flying. Emotions take over, and they might not be fully aware of their surroundings.

Scientific studies show that emotions are quick reactions designed to help us survive. They’re faster than thinking. Fear is a powerful emotion that can trigger a survival response, bypassing rational thinking. For example, if you see something that looks like a snake on a path, your brain tells you to stop before you even realize what it is. Then, your thinking brain kicks in and tells you if it’s actually a snake or just a stick.

Pilots often feel fear when landing, and they associate safety with the ground. This emotional connection drives their actions. They have learned from experience that landing safely is essential. However, the fear they feel while landing can sometimes make them focus too much on the runway and ignore other important signals, like warnings from the landing officer and red lights on the carrier. Their brain filters out everything except what it thinks is most important, which can lead to mistakes.

In the case of the pilot on the Carl Vinson, his body was trying to keep him safe by prioritizing getting to the ground quickly, and this caused him to crash into the carrier.

A gorilla in our midst

Our brains are amazing, but the world is incredibly complex. It’s too much for our brains to handle all at once. Imagine trying to make sense of a massive library of books without a powerful search engine. So, our brains simplify reality to deal with it effectively; otherwise, we’d be overwhelmed.

One way our brains simplify things is by using emotional bookmarks. Emotions help guide our thinking and reasoning to focus on what’s important. Another strategy is creating mental models, which are like simplified versions of reality. These models tell us the rules of a situation or the appearance of familiar objects.

Think of magicians who use mental models to perform tricks. They create a temporary world in your mind and quickly switch to another, leaving you surprised. It’s the sudden shift between these models that baffles you, even though you think the magician is doing the trick when, in reality, you’re tricking yourself.

Working memory is like our mental notepad for what we’re doing right now. But it can only handle a few things at once, and new information pushes out older stuff. It relies on long-term memory and mental models to understand things. For example, when you read the word “camel,” your brain instantly brings up an image and associations related to camels, thanks to mental models and your previous experiences.

However, because working memory is limited, emotionally charged information can make other things fade quickly. This means we can’t focus on too many things simultaneously. If something doesn’t make it into our long-term memory, we forget it. This limited working memory, combined with the imperfections of mental models, can lead to surprising gaps in how we understand the world and make decisions, both consciously and unconsciously.

deep survival book

Chapter 5 : Anatomy of an Act of God

When we look at all the knowledge from fields like psychology and neuroscience in the past hundred years, we find that we are not always wise (Sapiens), but we are always emotional beings (Homo). Our emotions and physical responses often drive our actions, even if we’re not fully aware of why we do certain things. Our conscience helps make sense of our actions and gives us a sense of self.

Our survival instincts are powerful and can sometimes override our conscious thoughts. Once our emotions take control, we feel a strong urge to act, sometimes without thinking.

But there are ways to change our reactions and adapt to dangerous situations. Training is one of them. Top professionals in any field train rigorously, and if we want to excel, we should train too, even if we’re beginners. Mother Nature doesn’t adjust to our skill level.

Zen philosophy teaches us that, just like you can’t add more to a cup already filled with water, our minds can become closed if we think we already know everything. Zen encourages openness, which is what survival experts mean when they talk about “humility.” Highly skilled individuals, like professional rescuers, have a unique balance of bravery and humility.

Simply being aware of the challenges in nature can be helpful. It reminds us that we’re essentially primates with a relatively new part of our brain, the neocortex, which is still evolving. Our brain’s quirks are just part of nature’s ongoing experiments. Nature doesn’t take it personally when our brains play tricks on us, just like it’s not personal when we face mortality, as the philosopher emperor Marc-Aurèle noted.

Chapter 6 : The sand pile effect

Accidents don’t just happen randomly; they are the result of a series of actions and conditions coming together. Imagine accidents like the falling of dominoes. Each event in the sequence is connected to the next, and when one falls, it triggers the rest. This can lead to accidents, even in situations that seem safe.

In 2002, there was a tragic incident on Mount Hood in Oregon. Four climbers, including one experienced mountaineer, reached the summit and began their descent. They were all tied together with a cord, with the most experienced climber at the top. This cord was their safety line. If someone fell, the others would stop them from going too far.

However, if the person at the top fell, it could create a dangerous chain reaction. The distance between climbers could be quite long, so the force of the fall would affect the others, potentially causing a cascade of falls. Sadly, that’s what happened. The experienced climber slipped and pulled the others down with him, leading to a tragic accident where three people lost their lives.

Accidents like this are not isolated incidents but are, in a way, a part of the larger system of mountaineering. These systems can sometimes lead to big accidents, even though they are rare. Charles Perrow, in his book “Normal Accidents,” argues that certain systems are prone to these types of accidents because they are inherently complex and unpredictable.

In this case, the mechanical system of how the climbers were connected and the psychological and physiological factors played a role in the accident. The climbers had experienced slips and belaying in the past, but nothing serious had happened, leading them to believe that their system was safe.

Accidents in tightly connected systems can have far-reaching consequences, like falling dominoes. If the climbers were not tied together, the consequences of one person’s fall would have been much less severe. But the accident on Mount Hood was not anyone’s fault; it was a result of the system’s characteristics. Even though it could be predicted in a general sense, the specific details of who, where, when, and with what injuries were impossible to foresee. These accidents happen fast and can’t be stopped once they start.

deep survival book

Chapter 7 : The rules of life

Mount Hood has two sides: one that’s built for human comfort with chair lifts and a fancy restaurant, and the other, the wild and potentially dangerous mountain itself. We often forget the boundary between these two worlds. We might bring a sense of security from the comfortable side to the risky side, and that can be dangerous.

There’s a theory that says we accept a certain level of risk, and if we feel safer, we tend to take more risks. For example, when cars got ABS brakes, some drivers took more risks because they felt safer. Similarly, mountain climbers who’ve conquered tough peaks with caution sometimes become less careful when they climb supposedly easier mountains.

Mountains, like rivers, change every time you approach them. For the climbers on Mount Hood, three factors played a role in their accident: the descent, being roped together, and not using belay (a safety technique). These factors make accidents like this quite common in the climbing world.

The climbers made a few mistakes. First, they celebrated reaching the summit, even though they were only halfway through their journey. They let their guard down, a natural response after achieving a goal. They saw the restaurant below and imagined warmth and comfort, making them eager to get down quickly. Using belay for safety seemed slow and tiring, and they had no emotional bookmarks for falling or the risks of their rope system.

So, step by step, they created the conditions for their accident, without realizing that their perception of the mountain had changed. This kind of accident is preventable, but it serves as a reminder for all of us to be cautious and adapt to changing circumstances.

Chapter 9 : Bending the Map

In 1998, a seasoned firefighter named Ken Killip went hiking with his friend York in Rocky Mountain National Park. They had a planned route, but as they hiked, York, who was faster, left Killip behind. Killip trusted York to lead the way, and he didn’t consult his map. This turned out to be a mistake.

Killip had created a mental map of their journey since the start, but without checking his actual map, he was unknowingly creating a new mental map from an unfamiliar position. He thought he was climbing Mount Ida, but he wasn’t. When he reached the supposed summit, the landmarks York had mentioned weren’t there. It was getting dark, and the temperature was dropping.

Without a clear mental map, Killip’s brain pushed him to hurry and find a place that matched his mental map—a place of safety. This led him into a dense forest in the dark, believing he was somewhere he wasn’t.

Days went by, and Killip became more lost and injured. He didn’t build a fire or use the resources he had in his backpack because he respected park rules against fires. He ended up severely dehydrated, hurt, and hypothermic.

Getting lost is not just about your physical location; it’s a state of mind. Research shows that people who are lost go through five stages:

  1. Denial and urgency to reconcile your mental map with reality.
  2. Realization that you’re lost, leading to a frantic urge to survive.
  3. Developing a strategy based on your mental map, even though you don’t have one.
  4. Deterioration, both emotionally and rationally, as your strategy fails.
  5. Resignation to your situation and acceptance of it.

Eventually, Killip accepted his situation and made a new mental map based on where he was. He built shelter, lit a fire, and stayed put, adapting to his environment. He learned to be in the here and now, a crucial survival rule.

After days in the wilderness, a helicopter nearly passed him, and although it left, Killip didn’t lose hope. He knew that giving up hope of rescue is a crucial step in surviving such situations. Eventually, rescuers spotted his blue parka, and he was saved after a grueling ordeal.

This experience teaches us that mental models of our surroundings and the ability to adapt to reality are vital for survival, not just in the wilderness but in life’s challenges as well.

deep survival by laurence gonzales

Chapter 11 : We’re all going to fuckin’ die!

In January 1982, Steven Callahan embarked on a solo journey across the Atlantic in a small boat he built. Six days into his voyage, his boat struck something, began to sink, and Callahan had to jump into the sea. Even though he lost his survival pack, he remained incredibly calm in the midst of danger, which greatly increased his chances of survival.

On the other side of the Atlantic, three months earlier, a ketch called the Trashman was sinking with five people on board during a storm. The second-in-command panicked, inflated his life jacket without securing it to the boat, and it was carried away by the wind. Tragically, they lost their lives.

Callahan’s boat sank slowly due to its design, and he initially hesitated about what to do next. However, he realized the importance of staying focused and thinking rationally despite his fear. He understood that his chances of rescue were slim, and he faced a journey of about 3,000 kilometers. Callahan’s survival kit was in his life jacket, but he risked his life to retrieve a more extensive pack from the flooded boat, making a rational choice based on risk and reward.

Callahan’s story, shared in his book “Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea,” serves as an example of how to survive in dire situations: stay calm, make informed decisions, accept the circumstances, and do everything possible to survive.

In contrast, the situation on the Trashman was dire. After their life jacket was lost, they had only an inflatable dinghy without a survival kit. Among the five people on board, one was seriously injured. Two groups formed with opposing attitudes: one group panicked and refused to accept their predicament, while the other remained calm, accepted the situation, and prepared mentally to do whatever it took to survive. The panicked group and the wounded person did not survive, while the two who stayed calm and determined did.

This illustrates how staying calm and adopting a positive attitude can make a crucial difference in survival situations, even in less extreme circumstances than Callahan’s.

Chapter 14 : A certain nobility

When Solon, a wise man from Athens, visited King Croesus of Lydia, the wealthy ruler showed off his immense riches and asked Solon if he had ever met anyone happier than everyone else. Instead of naming the king himself, Solon mentioned a regular man named Tellus from Athens. He explained that Tellus was a brave soldier who died heroically in battle, receiving great honors from the Athenians.

Croesus was disappointed not to be mentioned, and Solon clarified his perspective. He told the king that he couldn’t judge someone’s happiness until their life had come to an end. Solon emphasized the importance of considering how everything ultimately turns out because sometimes the gods grant prosperity only to later bring destruction.

This story highlights the paradox of survival: one cannot be called a perfect survivor until they’ve reached the end of their life. Survival is an ongoing journey from birth to death, with each challenge preparing us for the next.

Appendix : The rules of adventure

At this point, you might wonder what to do in difficult situations. In his book Deep Survial, Gonzales points out that his book isn’t a manual for specific crises but rather a guide to understanding how to handle them when they arise, as they inevitably will.

Nonetheless, Laurence Gonzales offers some general advice that can help in various tough situations, not just during disasters or accidents. To avoid getting into tough spots:

  1. Notice, Believe, and Act: Intelligence involves making good guesses, and training helps make more accurate predictions. However, you should also remain open and adaptable to changes in your environment.
  2. Avoid Impulsive Behavior: Don’t let excitement or adrenaline lead to hasty decisions, especially in potentially risky situations.
  3. Know Your Business: Understand the details of what you’re dealing with; deep knowledge of your surroundings can be lifesaving.
  4. Get Information: Learn from the experiences of others, and seek advice from experts or authorities who can provide valuable insights.
  5. Be Humble: Don’t assume expertise in one area automatically translates to competence in another. Approach new situations with an open mind.
  6. If in Doubt, Don’t: Sometimes, it’s better to cancel plans or activities if they seem too risky or unpredictable.

To better manage challenging situations when they arise

  1. Notice and Believe: Pay attention to your surroundings, accept the situation, and its consequences.
  2. Stay Calm: Use humor to focus your fear. Maintaining a sense of humor helps you stay composed and think clearly.
  3. Think, Analyze, Plan: Stay organized, identify manageable tasks, establish routines, and maintain discipline.
  4. Take Decisive Actions: Act bravely and wisely when identifying tasks. Be willing to take calculated risks to ensure your safety and the safety of others.
  5. Celebrate Success: Find joy in accomplishing tasks, as it boosts motivation and helps prevent despair.
  6. Consider Yourself Lucky: Acknowledge that you are alive. Survivors always have hope and someone to help, even if not physically present.
  7. Play: Engage in activities like singing, playing mental games, or counting to keep your mind occupied.
  8. See the Beauty: Appreciate the beauty around you; it reduces stress and increases motivation.
  9. Believe in Your Success: Develop a deep conviction that you will make it through.
  10. Surrender: Let go of the fear of dying and accept it, resigning yourself to the situation without giving up.
  11. Do Everything Necessary: Be determined, and use your skills to their fullest extent. Understand your abilities without overestimating or underestimating them.
  12. Never Give Up: Maintain your spirit and don’t let anything break your will to survive.


This book presents a unique challenge as it holds a valuable core message within its extensive content. It requires readers to actively extract this message, almost like assembling an interactive version of an old paper book in a Web 2.0 style. While the book’s storytelling approach effectively presents concepts, its bulkiness and repetitive nature can make it less digestible. Additionally, the author, a journalist by profession, delves into complex scientific subjects, such as chaos theory and auto-organization, without complete mastery.

Despite these drawbacks, the book is written in an accessible manner, albeit in need of condensation to emphasize the author’s core ideas. Laurence Gonzales offers a survival philosophy and insightful analysis of how the brain and mind function in emergency situations, extending beyond catastrophes to various physical accidents. He highlights the mental state that distinguishes survivors from victims, emphasizes the significance of mental models and a positive attitude, discusses the effects of stress, and underscores the paradox of surrendering without giving up.

In essence, this book, though challenging in its presentation, offers valuable insights into the workings of the mind and the attitude required to navigate difficult situations. It explores a universal subject applicable to various delicate scenarios and provides informative content on brain function and hormone dynamics during crises. While it includes numerous illustrative stories, its length and repetitions might be overwhelming. Moreover, the author ventures into areas outside his expertise, like chaos theory.