What Are Survival Instincts? Ask a Soldier

July 30, 2009 11:43 AM
by Shannon Firth
Although the media often credits “survival instincts” for saving lives, making correct survival decisions is more than luck or preparedness—it’s science—and the Army wants to know more.

The Science of Survival

In Mosul Iraq, seeing two young boys seated in the back of a hot car with the windows up, one of Sergeant Edward Tierney’s soldiers asked permission to move forward and offer the boys water.

“I said no—no,” Sergeant Tierney told The New York Times in a phone interview. And then for no identifiable reason, he retreated. Within moments a bomb exploded and shrapnel was flying, scratching the face of the soldier who’d made the request.

Fortunately, Tierney said, none of his men were very badly injured; however he said the boys in the car were “almost certainly” killed.

Tierney recalled, “I just had that feeling you have when you walk out of the house and know you forgot something—you got your keys, it’s not that—and need a few moments to figure out what it is.”

Lawrence Gonzales learned as a child that his father, a World War II pilot, survived a blast from German anti-aircraft guns and a fall from the sky. He grew obsessed with survival and looked for ways to test his own daredevil feats. In 2003 he published “Deep Survival,” which was excerpted by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Gonzales researched hundreds of accident reports trying to understand why in a crisis some people live while others die. For example, why would a 4-year-old lost in the woods for several days live, while a skilled hunter dies in a single night? Gonzales concluded, “[I]t’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind … it’s what’s in your heart.”

His theory, one he concedes might sound “corny,” may have some validity after all, if one considers  the heart and instinctive emotions synonymous.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the brain’s “emotional centre,” the midbrain, comprises the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, thalamus and pineal gland.

The brain receives sensory input via the thalamus, which then transmits information through two pathways to the amygdala, described as the “alarm system,” and the neo-cortex. According to the Web site Actual Freedom, which cites scientist Joseph LeDoux’s studies on fear, input reaches the amygdala in half the time it takes to reach the neo-cortex, though the difference is seemingly minute: 12 and 25 milliseconds respectively.
What this means, according to the article, is that the brain reacts to a dangerous situation before having “cognitive awareness” of that danger, and our feeling of fear comes “a split-second later.” Think of driving a car; in a dangerous situation, a driver will brake automatically before processing the reason for the danger. The article explains the speed and power of the primitive brain’s response “is precisely why instinctual reactions and the resulting instinctual passions are ultimately so hard to keep in control.”

The U.S. army is conducting its own research to determine how some individuals are able to react quickly to danger while others aren’t. Times writer Benedict Carey explains that variations in “processing images,” “reading emotions” and responding to an influx of hormones may account for individual differences in the ability to feel danger.

Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, said, in contrast to the past, “We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it.”

For example, in a simulated test of I.E.D. detection, those who consider themselves predators rather than prey are better able to find bombs. Experts believe that this emotional “framing” diminishes anxiety, reported Carey. Studies of elite troops have also shown that cortisol levels taper off more quickly than with ordinary soldiers. And a third study from the University of California showed that Navy SEALs shown angry faces experience greater levels of activation in certain areas of the brain than other soldiers.

“The big question is whether these differences perceiving threat are natural, or due to training,” said Dr. Martin P. Paulus, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego.

Related Topic: Maternal instinct

In 1996, Cindy Parolin, a 36-year-old mother, threw herself between a cougar and her 6-year-old son, reported Outdoor Life. Parolin grappled with the animal for an hour while her son and other children fled to safety. When a hunter arrived to help, her first words to him were, “Are my children all right?” She died shortly afterwards.

Scientists believe such a powerful maternal instinct is caused by a drive to see our genetic line continued. According to the BBC, “[T]he more genes we share, the more likely we are to put ourselves out for someone.”

Wilderness Survival


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines