The unconscious conclusion we draw is that our little corner of the world is safe. Our culture of plenty keeps us permanently in a vacation state of mind.
Illustration by Dan Page
Last summer I traveled to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The house I rented was on the dunes above the beach, and I could sit and write and listen to the surf thundering beneath my window as the constant wind blew the tops off the waves. Out on the deck I’d watch the pelicans, big and prehistoric-looking, wheel around their circuit from south to north and back again. In the angled light of afternoon, pods of dolphins leapt and dove, and children played in the waves while I fretted about rip currents carrying them out to sea.
When I wasn’t working, I took long walks on the beach or up and down the towering dunes just to the north, where hang gliders launched not far from the hill from which the Wright brothers first took flight. Jockey’s Ridge State Park has the tallest sand dunes in the eastern United States, some of them nearly a hundred feet high. But many were more modest hills, and in places they crowded together, creating networks of shadowed pathways that led into wooded areas or out onto great tumbling expanses of sea grass and live oak and even prickly pear cactus. Catbirds called from the loblolly pines, and lizards left twisted trails that looked like an ancient language scratched in the sand.
More than a few times as I hiked, I realized I had no idea where I was. I was, in fact, lost. But the entire park is only a mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide, wedged between U.S. Highway 158 and Roanoke Sound. I knew I could make my way out easily enough. Nevertheless, I had a hunch that this was a good place for people to find their own kind of trouble. So one day I stopped a park ranger and asked him if anyone ever had to be rescued there.
He laughed. “About 20 nights a year I’m out here looking for someone,” he said. Debo Cox was his name, and he was a broad man with a low center of gravity, all muscle. He would be hard to knock over. In his mid-40s, he had a great bald head and a naturally infectious smile behind wraparound sunglasses. On his belt, crowded in among all the other paraphernalia—collapsible baton, Mace, handcuffs—he wore a .45-caliber Glock pistol, the darker side of his profession. Trouble was his specialty, and he appeared to have taken every precaution to keep it from getting the better of him.
Cox went on to describe the astounding failures of mind he had witnessed on this tiny spit of land. He told me about a group he’d found on top of the tallest dune in the park. They had noticed that they could see the Atlantic Ocean to the east and asked Cox if the water to the west was the Pacific. He said he had rescued many people who’d become lost and were unable to think through their panic and recognize that they were only a short walk from a heavily traveled road (you can hear the cars from just about any spot in the park). He told me I’d be surprised by the number of people who ask him how far it is between the mile markers on Highway 158.
Cox seemed to take it all with good humor, but he also seemed a bit in despair of the human condition. Referring to the numerous injuries that occur when people fall while trying to run down the dunes, he said, “Yes, gravity still does apply here, even when you’re on vacation.” He told me that people come here suffering from what he called “a vacation state of mind, where all the old rules are suspended.” I’ve used this phrase since, and I owe the concept to Ranger Cox. When we find ourselves in a jam, we can often trace the cause to our vacation state of mind.
The culture we live in encourages us to adopt this sort of thinking—or perhaps more accurately, of not thinking. As human beings, we have big brains that are capable of complex rational thought. But we’re also saddled with a lot of hereditary neural equipment. One of those legacy systems tells us whether our behavior is good for our survival. For example, if we do something that rewards us with food or a pleasant feeling, we’re far more likely to do it again. We don’t have to think about it. It’s in our animal nature. In a modern technical culture we’re rewarded almost all the time, no matter what dumb things we do. We’re clothed, fed, and sheltered, and don’t even think about predators. If we need more rewards, we can just reach out and grab them from the refrigerator. The animal part of our brain takes this as clear evidence that our strategy is a good one. The unconscious conclusion we draw is that our little corner of the world is safe, and that we’ve got this thing wired. Our culture of plenty keeps us permanently in a vacation state of mind.
Marc D. Hauser, an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, performed an experiment that provides a dramatic example of what a vacation state of mind looks like in an animal. He trained a rat to navigate a maze in order to reach food. When he moved the food closer to the starting point, the rat ran right past it to get to the place where it now assumed the food would be. When he put a wall between the rat and the food, the rat ran smack into the wall without stopping. And when he cut off the end of the maze where the food was supposed to be and left a gaping hole, the rat ran straight off into empty space. This illustrates an important feature of its hereditary wiring. The rat was rewarded frequently for a certain kind of behavior and from then on assumed its strategy was correct, despite evidence to the contrary.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Another factor contributes to the unconscious assumptions we make. It’s natural for us to take comfort in the highest achievements of our species and to adopt those achievements as our own. We put a man on the moon, for example. We decoded the human genome. We eradicated smallpox. We’re collectively really smart, right? So how could someone get lost in Jockey’s Ridge State Park?
The reality of our situation is a bit different, however. I didn’t put anyone on the moon, and I don’t really understand what the human genome is either. Moreover, the reason I’m so safe and well rewarded most of the time is that the enormous effort of others over thousands of years has created the culture I live in. Here in the lap of American luxury, I’m in someone else’s protective custody. So maybe I’m not such a hotshot after all. Perhaps instead of taking all the rewards I’m handed every day as evidence that I’m always on the right track, I should be examining my strategies a bit more carefully. Maybe I’d better pay more attention, both in the wilderness and at home.
In fact, I’m probably in more danger when I’m not in the wilderness. The odds of dying in a car wreck are one in 87. The odds of dying in a fall are one in 193. I may be my own worst enemy: The odds of committing suicide are one in 121. These are really bad odds. The world we live in isn’t really any safer. It just feels that way, which breeds the unfortunate mental lapses that Ranger Cox described.
When we arrive here on Earth, we are naked, helpless, and ignorant. We are in a savage state, so to speak. As children we are brilliant generalists, curious about everything, voracious learning machines. But most of us gradually fall into a vacation state of mind and become specialists in our narrow little preserves, focused only on the minutiae of our own lives—the big project at work, the newest cell phone, that upcoming backpacking trip. We stop learning broadly and deeply, and then when something unexpected happens, we don’t know what to do. We don’t have the resources. We weren’t paying attention to new information from our environment. I think we can do better.