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Deep Survival: #2 Folk Wisdom

Illustration by Paul Blow

By Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the book Deep Survival

One of the most respected psychologists of our time is Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard and the author of numerous books on human behavior and evolutionary biology. Pinker says that our brains contain a “baloney-generator” that offers up explanations of our behavior. Often those explanations have nothing to do with reality. They’re simply the stories we tell ourselves that help us get around in the world. “The conscious mind,” he says, “is a spin doctor.”

Joseph LeDoux, an author and neuroscientist at New York University, demonstrated that “people normally do all sorts of things for reasons they are not consciously aware of . . .” and that “[o]ne of the main jobs of consciousness is to keep our life tied together into a coherent story.” LeDoux and Pinker confirm a long line of research going back to William James concerning how well we can know ourselves and how that knowledge—or lack of it—influences the decisions we make. The results aren’t encouraging. “If the human mind is a formal logic machine,” LeDoux adds, “it is a pretty poor one.”

Research in neuroscience confirms that we turn experience into stories—simple narratives about what we’re doing and why—and then use those stories to explain our past behavior and to shape what we do in the future. The most useful stories have emotional impact. And emotions, scientists have learned, are immensely important in helping us to act. Because we are human and have language, we not only generate our own stories, we also acquire them from others through legends, books, movies, and songs. Sometimes, if we are paying attention, we even acquire them from school. When our narratives reflect the world as it really is, we do well. When they don’t, we find ourselves in trouble.

The tsunami that occurred on December 26, 2004, offers a good illustration of how the stories people had “on file” influenced their chances of survival. In the days following the disaster, for example, Indian government officials were surprised to discover that all 250 or so members of the isolated Jarawa tribe on the Andaman Islands, had survived. The Jarawa, who’ve lived in the Andamans since their migration from Africa 60,000 years ago, have little contact with the outside world. But their folklore contains stories that tell them to head for high ground when the earth shakes and the sea retreats from the beach. They survived the tsunami by heeding the message in those traditional stories.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people from what we think of as advanced societies died. Not everyone had an opportunity to survive, of course. Chance always plays a part in catastrophe. But many who could have escaped did not, because nothing in their previous personal experience had taught them how to respond to an event that happens frequently in geologic time.

Videos taken on the beaches of Thailand show crowds of people watching the wave approach but doing nothing to escape. In one video the vacationers laugh as the water gathers around their ankles and begins to rise, which hints at the kind of story they were telling themselves: that they were on vacation on a pleasant beach on a sunny morning, where no harm could come to them. Only when they were swept off their feet did their laughter turn to screams as they comprehended the mistake they’d made.

I corresponded with one man who survived. Originally from California, Ernest Rodriguez was in Phuket, Thailand, with some friends. His friends had stayed up drinking Christmas night, while Ernest went to bed. The next morning he was up early, having breakfast, when he felt the earthquake: a faint rumbling, far off. At that moment, a section of ocean floor had collapsed about 500 miles away, and the waves it generated would take about an hour to reach Thailand. Like the people standing on the beach, Ernest must have been living a story about being happily on vacation: I’m eating breakfast, looking at this peaceful, beautiful ocean. But that was easily displaced by another, more powerful story involving earthquakes: He had felt them at home in San Francisco. As he looked out over the water, he was alert, casting about for new information. Consciously or unconsciously, he recognized that his “happy vacation” story might need to be revised.

Then he saw the sea retreat, leaving fish flopping around on the sand, and that was enough to forge a new interpretation of his world: What goes out must come back, he reasoned. And it would come back with a vengeance. He rushed inside, woke his hungover friends, and led them to the fourth floor of the hotel, where they remained on a balcony as the deluge killed thousands below.

The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, another part of the world that is vulnerable to tsunamis, have folklore about such events. Earthquakes happen when two slabs of the Earth’s crust collide. In January of 1700 two of those tectonic plates in the Northwest—the Juan de Fuca plate and the North American plate—produced one of the largest earthquakes ever to hit the contiguous United States. Researchers estimate that it measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, rupturing the boundary of the two plates from northern California to Vancouver Island. The resulting tsunami was large enough to cross the Pacific Ocean and hit Japan with waves measuring 16 feet. Though we think of tsunamis as rare, there have been seven of that magnitude in the past 3,500 years. It’s not surprising, then, that the folklore of native peoples contain stories about them. The Makah tribe in the area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca tells a story of a thunderbird that delivered a whale far inland to feed a starving tribe. Another tells of a time when the sea withdrew, leaving the beaches dry, then returned to inundate the land.

We have our stories too. A government warning from Natural Resources Canada describes the situation today: “[A] similar offshore event will happen sometime in the future and [is] a considerable hazard to those who live in southwest B.C.” Will happen, not may happen. I suspect one of the reasons that we may not heed our own stories is that they aren’t very good ones. They’re purely informational. They don’t come with the emotional impact that feeling an earthquake or hearing tribal folklore can have.

But it’s possible to incorporate our own emotional content into our stories. Sometimes all it takes is the attentiveness and vivid imagination of a ten-year-old schoolgirl. On the morning of the tsunami in Thailand, Tilly Smith, who had gone with her family from England to vacation on the beaches there, saved the lives of about a hundred people. Tilly had just learned about tsunamis in geography class, and the evidence suggests that it had the requisite emotional impact on her.

“I was on the beach and the water started to go funny,” she told reporters. “There were bubbles and the tide went out all of a sudden.

I recognized what was happening and had a feeling there was going to be a tsunami. I told Mummy.”

We might be tempted to say that Tilly simply learned certain information and applied it. But an overwhelming body of scientific research indicates that most people don’t behave that way. In most situations, we base our actions not on a line of logical reasoning but on our feelings and interpretations of emotional states. Those interpretations are expressed as the stories that shape our behavior.

Experience, with all the rich emotions and feelings that come with it, is the best teacher, but we can’t all have the right
set of experiences for every situation. A turning point in our evolution came with the ability to encapsulate personal experience into a moving story (or song, or some other dramatic form of communication) and pass it on. The emotional impact of such stories has the power to drive an individual’s actions.

Ernest had directly experienced earthquakes. The Jarawa had their folklore. And Tilly had somehow been moved by what she heard and saw in geography class, so that when the time came she “had a feeling.” We believe what we feel, and we act on what we believe. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and author of the best-selling book Descartes’ Error, has shown that we can’t really use pure logic. Logic and reason can inform us. But emotion makes us decide and act. Without the aid of the stories we create and the emotions they generate, we are all but paralyzed.

Our lavish material culture makes us feel safe most of the time. It encourages us to develop stories that may not protect us from the hazards and demands that sometimes confront us. We have lost much of our folklore, and we often lack the direct experience that can forge more useful narratives. But being mindful of how our behavior is shaped by the “baloney-generator,” we can adjust to the inherent shortcomings of our emotional system. We can regard the tales we create for ourselves the way Damasio regards the explanations given to us by science, as “provisional approximations, to be enjoyed for a while and discarded as soon as better accounts become available.”