Numbing the Survival Instinct

Recently I have been reading Deep Survival Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales, which examines the psychology of survival and how it relates to certain survival tragedies. Gonzales  continually writes about stories where people underestimated different environments all while seemingly “knowing better”. Why does an experienced Navy Seal who as triumphed many dangerous environmental situations, drown in a tame east coast river? How does a skier who started his day in-bounds, on a sunny day, end up being emergency rescued two days later nowhere near a ski mountain? Gonzales explains it this way,” If you distill all of the psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience of the last hundred years or so, what you find is that we’re always Homo but sometimes not so sapiens” (Gonzales 90). In other words, we have always been human, but we often make stupid decisions, especially in survival situations. What becomes clear is the lack of knowledge of the true power of nature in society today.

As we grow up in giant cities that have seemed to tame the environment around them, populations have become soft in comparison to our evolutionary ancestors. Hundreds of years ago there was no properly working thermostat that allowed civilizations to live in sub-zero temperature environments with ease. However, as we have grown up, we consistently have memories of humans, with their technology, taming nature, thus as we go out into the wild, these emotions and sensations of power travel with us. “The amygdala stands as a sort of watch dog for the organism” (Gonzales 64) and warns the body of any sort of danger. It causes the immediate fear response that lacks cognitive thought, a true survival instinct. However, could it be possible that as we evolve in our closed off society we have consciously dulled the threat of nature? Less and less society exposes itself to the true power of nature, and because of this, we make mistakes in survival situations. A survivalist may have survived many different survival situations, which is why he might call himself a survivalist. But his next environmental challenge will always be totally new, with different variables and new challenges. It seems that in our attempt to evolve in to better more evolutionarily fit individuals, we have forgotten where the natural balance of power lies. Mother nature has shaped life on earth for billions of years, and it will continue to do so. As you enter the wild, that is who you go up against, and if that doesn’t evoke a fear response like no other, then all I have to say is good luck.



Gonzales, L. (2003). Deep survival: Who lives, who dies, and why : True stories of miraculous endurance and sudden death. New York: W.W. Norton &.


2 thoughts on “Numbing the Survival Instinct

  1. It’s interesting how we become dependant on things. Our technology now lets us feel a sense of security and so there are skills that we don’t really need any more, or at least not until it’s too late. You talk here about survival in a somewhat hostile environment, but the example that came to mind for me was fighting disease. Raising me, my parents had the philosophy that minor colds and headaches and such were no big deal and that I could just get over it without medicine, which I did. My mother is a family physician, so she saw plenty of concerned parents who came to her whenever their child coughed. There are plenty of pharmaceuticals that treat things that we can’t really just “get over,” but I have to imagine that we lose a little bit of our resistance when we use these tools. It must work pretty similarly for survival.

    Another thing here as that to a certain extent we all feel confidant that we can survive in the wild. Sure, we admit that we probably won’t, but we’ve all read a thing or two about what to do if you’re out in the woods or some other piece of nature. All of us, even those who don’t claim to be survivalists, feel like we know better, but there’s a big difference between reading an article about it and actually doing it. There are probably things that evolutionarily we were supposed to fear, but we’ve overridden that response with a “don’t worry about it” so often that part of our survival instinct really is numbed.

    Even still, even if we weren’t faced with challenges that we wouldn’t even consider because it’s usually taken care of for us, we aren’t perfect; we can always make stupid mistakes and end up drowning in a puddle.


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