In a genuine disaster, most people’s brains fail them. Here is a list of ways in which the “crisis thinking” of most people leads them astray:
Though it looks passive from the outside, when we’re paralysed with fear the brain is actively putting on the brakes. As adrenaline surges through the body and our muscles tense, the primitive “little brain” at the base of our necks sends a signal to keep us rooted to the spot.
2. Inability to Think
In a disaster, the speed at which we think through our options goes from bad to worse. The brain’s first port of call is to flood with the “feel good” hormone dopamine. This may seem counter-intuitive, but though it’s usually associated with reward pathways, dopamine also plays a crucial role in preparing the body to face danger. It triggers the release of more hormones, including adrenaline and the stress chemical cortisol. And this is where it gets messy.
This cocktail of hormones shuts down the prefrontal cortex, which sits behind the forehead and is responsible for higher functions such as working memory. Just when we need our wits the most, we become forgetful and prone to making bad decisions.
3. Tunnel Vision
Intriguingly, this tunnel vision is also seen in those who have permanently damaged their prefrontal cortex, suggesting that the brain’s stress response switching off this region might be to blame for inflexible thinking in moments of crisis.
4. Staying Stuck in Routine
“The number of people who have been killed going back to get their wallet from their house, or checking if they’ve left the oven on…” says James Goff, a specialist in disaster and emergency management at the University of Hawaii.
“Invariably over 50% of the population do it, they go down to the sea to watch the tsunami,” says Goff. He has photographs of people watching the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004, taken by a person who was racing to get to high ground.
According to Robinson, denial usually happens for two reasons; either because they fail to interpret the situation as dangerous, or because they simply don’t want to. The latter is extremely common in the event of a wildfire, since often evacuating your home means consigning it to ruin.
Al Fin has been in a few life or death emergencies. He remembers the cocktail of “feel-good” chemicals having been delivered to his bloodstream almost every time. But the result of those chemicals was usually an intensification of the feeling of “presence,” and an enhanced ability to act calmly. Of course, the next emergency Al Fin stumbles into may be the one where he does everything wrong. That person who acts perfectly in an emergency may as well be someone else even if it is you, if Mr. Fin’s recollections are anything to judge by.
The best advice seems to be to make yourselves very Dangerous indeed. That is how life is, whether we are paying attention or not — dangerous. Best to be aware, and to make yourself prepared for whatever may be.
When people like Sully Sullenberger act in an exemplary manner during a crisis, it is because their training was impeccable and because their brains react well to the crisis experience. Their brain reaction times are fast, they home in on the salient facts and track the changing situation more quickly than most others would. They select among the best action options at lightning speed.
These are the people you want at the controls — not the people who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives, and who live in fear of taking responsibility or making a meaningful public decision. In other words, not college professors, not most journalists, not most politicians, not most bureaucrats, diplomats, or activists.
But you want these special people at the right controls — the places they were over-trained to occupy, at the peak of their training. Such are the pilots, surgeons, business decision-makers, rescue workers, combat point-men, construction workers, deep-rock miners, rescue workers, fire fighters, and other potential heroes who you want to be in the right place at the right time. And they are not necessarily all men.
What is the best training for kids to meet the crisis situations of tomorrow? Teach them to climb rocks, paddle rapids, sail boats in all conditions, find the calmness inside themselves, camp in snow caves they build themselves, ski and snow shoe cross country using map and compass, and to learn basic rescue, lifesaving, and first aid. If they learn to make these things second nature as kids, they are more likely to remember the basics if and when a crisis erupts.