Deep Survival: Emotional Connections


Text by Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the book Deep Survival

Editor’s Note: We are interested in learning about your survival experiences, whether they deal with the wilderness, cancer, or your daily commute. Post your stories to this blog—and include details about the factors influenced your decisions. Laurence Gonzales will provide his analysis to selected stories.

I once worked on an assignment for this magazine with a photographer named Mark Gamba. Mark was an avid steep creek boater. He and I were knocking around on an Army base in Oregon, watching helicopters take off and land, when he told me a story about getting caught in a strainer. A strainer is a tree that’s fallen across a river, creating a network of branches that can trap paddlers. Once someone is sucked into the branches, it’s a pretty dodgy business to get out. Mark was pinned, and each time he managed to pull himself up, he caught a breath and was sucked under again. The endgame was obvious: The exertion would eventually exhaust him. Then he’d drown.
I asked what he did next.

“I thought of my son,” he said. “I wanted to see him again.” And with one last surge of adrenaline, he vaulted up and over the log.

The reason Mark’s story has stuck with me is that it represents an important and recurring theme in survival stories. It also reflects a major evolutionary adaptation in our strategies for survival.
I interviewed a man who went on a solo backcountry ski trip in Grand Teton National Park in midwinter. Vito Seskunas, 53, was five miles in when he broke his leg. It was a bad break, and he knew that no one would come to find him. He knew, too, that he needed medical attention. So he decided to scoot out in a seated position. It took three days. I asked him how he made it, and he told me how much he loved his wife and family and friends, how much he enjoyed life—dancing, his pets, playing music, the wilderness. He said that, as he worked for as much as 14 hours each day to move forward in the snow, he did sets of a hundred scoots, dedicating each set to someone or something in his life that he loved. This kept him motivated. Being connected to other people, in love with your life, can help you survive—in the wilderness or anywhere else.

This theme runs through almost all the survival stories I’ve encountered over the years. On the night of July 30, 1945, at 12:05 a.m., the Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis was plunging through 15-foot swells when it was hit by two Japanese torpedoes. It took 12 minutes to sink, dumping some 900 men into a shark-infested Pacific Ocean. The ship’s doctor, Lewis Haynes, was blown out of his bunk and across his cabin by one of the explosions and received third-degree burns. Next door, the ship’s dentist, Lt. Cmdr. Earl Henry, took the direct hit and burned to death. With Henry’s screams in his ears, Haynes abandoned ship. For the next four days, he drifted with a group of 400 sailors, mostly teenage boys.

Like many survivors, Haynes was motivated by thoughts of home and family, imagining his house in Michigan, envisioning the life he loved. More than once he wanted to give up as he watched the boys dying around him (three-fourths would perish from wounds, exhaustion, drowning, or shark attack). But he kept listening to an inner voice telling him that he had patients to care for. He tried to concentrate on his wife and children. When the sailors began drinking seawater, Haynes swam among them, punching them and screaming at them to stop. As Doug Stanton describes in his riveting book In Harm’s Way, Haynes “began keeping a close eye on those he knew weren’t married or who were without close ties on shore. Those with families, he discovered, were fighting the temptation to drink from the sea.”
The ship’s radio technician, Jack Miner, recalled that while in the water he “fantasized about meeting [his] parents at a dim roadside bar in the north woods of Wisconsin to share the story over a few very cold beers.”

You would think that survival would be a very selfish process, but it’s not. It’s much more about how embedded in a family or a community we are. People who are more socially connected have a better chance of surviving. We live when we have something to live for.

Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, was imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz, on a starvation diet, facing almost certain death. Frankl dedicated himself to the task of helping others find something to live for. He wrote that in order to survive, it’s necessary to act on behalf of something bigger than self-interest. After a forced march through ice and snow one night, he wrote, “My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look.” These conversations with his wife sustained him for years. (Although he didn’t know it, she had died earlier in a different camp.) At the moment of truth, if we are thinking only about ourselves, we are at a disadvantage.

There’s a reason for this, and it lies in our nature as mammals. Mammals represent a marvelous step in evolution. Reptiles lay eggs. Their brains are not much more than dim bulbs on top of the spinal cord for handling basic bodily functions and a few extras like fighting, mating, and predatory behavior. When mammals came along, they came equipped with a complex new layer of brain matter. As they evolved, this layer proved so useful that it grew larger and larger—as the seat of the emotions, it is sometimes called the limbic system. It provided a vast canvas on which to paint a picture of the world and of the animal’s behavior in it. It could record the consequences of that behavior—good or bad, reward or punishment—and use that to shape future behavior. Emotions directed behavior through feelings of pain or pleasure.

Mammals gave birth to live young and took care of them. They nursed their kids. More to the point, they loved them and defended them far beyond instinct. This profound evolutionary step was managed through emotions, and with the new strategy came an amazing ability that mammals have: Not only can they read each other’s emotions, they can change them. One mammal can actually reach inside another with nothing more than body language, facial expression, and perhaps scent and sound, and alter the character of another’s emotions.
We all know this at an unconscious level. If you like someone, you say you have “chemistry.” That person has physically changed you—changed your blood chemistry, muscle tone, and even brain synapses. The changes can be even more powerful when you don’t like someone—and don’t know why. Because of our deep need for emotional connection, we are constantly signaling one another. For example, rolling your eyes with an upward tilt of the head is a powerful signal of contempt. Exposing your neck is a sign of attraction (because a bite to the neck can kill). We have an entire unspoken language based on this neurological system. Scientists have found that these deep emotional connections are essential for our life as mammals. If an infant is not held and touched, it will not thrive and may even die. Emotional connection is essential for survival. Mammals thrive on g
roup connections. There are exceptions, of course, but most people need each other after childhood too, and that’s why we form families, social groups, cultures, and nations. We have evolved to function not alone but together.

In hazardous situations, where everything is confused, those bonds—whether to people immediately around us or to those waiting at home—become extremely important to our chances of survival. Over the long course of evolution, we have developed survival patterns that protect us not only from immediate harm but from the harm of losing our family, our tribe, our loved ones. The more we strengthen those bonds, the better we’ll be at facing adversity when it comes. And it always comes.

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More Deep Survival Columns:
Deep Survival: #2 Folk Wisdom

Deep Surviva1: #1 Gut Instincts

Illustration by Dan Page

See Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival column in the May 2008 issue of National Geographic ADVENTURE.

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