Deep Survival #1: Gut Instincts - National Geographic ADVENTURE

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February 07, 2008


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Really liked your article, very exciting, and gives a lot of thinking, I hope you can see more of your article, thank you

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Risk is everywhere, we can't tell what happens next

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There little thoughts are the rustle of leaves; they have their whisper of joy in my mind,iLooking forward to hearing more from you!

Army Truck Lover

I've just stumbled upon this story and have been reading the posts with great interest. It seems easy to say in hindsight that we had a "gut feeling" that we should take a certain path but didn't, and paid the consequences. I know in my own life I have been conditioned to not listen to my gut feeling or maybe more accurately, I can't really differentiate between a "gut feeling" and normal anxiety or nervousness. Getting in touch with my true "intuition" is a process that is both confusing and very time intensive. It is something I am trying to instill in my 15 year old daughter.

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Have to say that I wouldn't trust my gut out there.

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I so loved the Fatally False Positive article. It brought us back three years ago when, on our annual ski vacation, we not only lost our son but I became a paraplegic.

Douglas Long

In your article “Fatally False Postives” you wrote that the “unconscious rule of decision-making is that the past equals the future, impairing our ability to analyze risk when it’s staring us in the face.”

Last year I was caught up in a “survival” situation in Myanmar that might perhaps serve as an illustration of this idea.

On September 27, 2007, I was in downtown Yangon when soldiers opened fire on a crowd of protestors, killing Japanese video-journalist Kenji Nagai.

Just moments before the shooting started, I had been standing in the same vicinity as Mr Nagai, a no-man’s land between praying protestors and a troop of soldiers who were clearly getting ready for action.

I had never before been in a situation where hostile soldiers were preparing to point guns in my direction. To me the dangers were obvious. Given the Myanmar government’s proven willingness to shoot unarmed people (soldiers killed thousands of protestors during an uprising in 1988), there was no question in my mind that the proper course of action was to move away from the area, which I did.

But Mr Nagai – a journalist who, since 1997, had survived assignments in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, taking photographs of war and strife – chose to remain on the front lines, only yards away from where the soldiers stood holding their guns and awaiting orders to disperse the crowd.

Mr Nagai had been in Myanmar since September 25. As journalist he was surely aware that soldiers had opened fire on a crowd the day before his death, reportedly killing several monks and injuring dozens of protestors. But I wonder if the fact that he had survived a decade of dangerous assignments in the Middle East might have clouded his ability to recognize the danger of the situation.

Perhaps you could comment on whether you think this series of events fits into the “fatally false positive” model, or whether other psychological factors might have been in play. (For example, how heavily influenced might Mr Nagai have been by the fact that the protestors remained steadfast in the face of deadly hostility? Perhaps he thought, “If unarmed protestors weren’t running away, why should I?”)

Below is a more detailed account of the events of the day.


Around 12:30pm on Thursday, September 27, I walked to Sule Pagoda, the focal point of protests in downtown Yangon and where shots had been fired the day before, to take some photographs while the situation was still relatively cool.

A crowd had already gathered, and when I arrived police had just started redirecting traffic away from the pagoda. I climbed up on a pedestrian bridge to take some photographs of the soldiers putting up barricades and stringing barbed wire across the road. I only spent about 10 minutes up there because it was evident that the military would soon “take action” as they like to say, and the bridge, crowded with onlookers, seemed like it would be a death trap in such a situation.

I climbed down and made my way to the front of the crowd, taking photographs of people sitting and praying towards the soldiers. When a group of six monks appeared, a loud cheer went up and they were led to the front of the crowd, where they also sat and started leading the prayers.

There was a space of about 75 yards between the monks and the soldiers, a no-man’s land into which I stepped for about five minutes to take more photos. It was at this exact spot only minutes later that Japanese video-journalist Kenji Nagai would be shot dead by a bullet through his liver.

I, on the other hand, was unnerved by the fact that I was hemmed in on three sides by a dense and growing crowd, and on the fourth side by heavily armed soldiers who had already proved their willingness to kill people. So I pushed slowly through the crowd, taking more photos (locals were shaking my hand and thanking me for being there with a camera) as I made my way about half a block north, from where I thought I would be able to get photos of people running towards me if the soldiers charged forward.

I was standing there for less than five minutes when three army trucks loaded with soldiers drove in from the north. They were followed by a speaker truck, and then a fifth truck loaded with riot police armed with shields, rifles and even a few machine guns. I took a photo of each vehicle as it passed.

The trucks drove straight through the crowd and up to the barricades, where a message was broadcast in Burmese language from the speakers, the gist of which was to clear out immediately or face “extreme action.”

But no one cleared out. The monks and other protestors nearest the soldiers stayed seated and continued praying. This praying apparently constituted the “threat” that the soldiers met with gunfire.

There was some confusion when the shots were fired. I snapped a few photos of the panicked crowd bearing down on me, but others were yelling, “Don’t run! It’s only teargas!” It turns out they were wrong. The first volley was in fact bullets and the teargas came about three minutes later. By that time I was well back from the action, taking photos of people running with a cloud of gas slowly obscuring Sule Pagoda in the background.

I thought it was a good time to leave before more troops arrived and cut off my escape route. But just as a turned to leave, a Burmese man in his early 20s grabbed my sleeve and pulled me back into the crowd, shouting “Take photos! Take photos!” and pointing towards a small, close-knit group of people rushing in our direction. As they came closer I could see they were carrying the body of a man.

I moved forward and raised my camera to take the photos that it seemed everyone wanted me to take, but then another man screamed “No pictures!” and tried to grab my camera. I pulled my camera back and gave the man a sharp kick in the shins. He must have been a government infiltrator because he was immediately swarmed by three or four protestors who pushed him out of my way while others continued insisting that I take the pictures. I was running backwards snapping the shutter release from off to the side because I didn’t want to impede the progress of the man’s rescuers (if, in fact, he was being rescued – I couldn’t tell whether he was alive or dead, and never found out).

By this time we had reached Bogyoke Aung San Road, the last point of escape before crossing a bridge over a set of railroad tracks. The day before, Burmese soldiers had made a practice of catching groups of protestors on bridges by sealing off both ends and then moving in, something I wanted no part of. By this time I had had enough action. It was time to get out of there and email my photos to someone outside the country before my camera, or my head, was smashed by a bamboo stick or worse.

Christine Speed

Have now just read Deep Survival twice. Anyone who has ever known a cool, elite performer and appreciated such a person will understand L. Gonzales' unceasing motivation to understand the mystery of this personality-- even though it is fundamentally unknowable.

I'm the same way. Actually wrote my own book about a cool, elite performer back in 2004. The similarity of my observations to those in Deep Survival are uncanny. And I have other observations that L. Gonzales might be interested in. Before Deep Survival, I thought this person was utterly unique. Had no notion that "cool, elite performer" was actually a class of people. Like Gonzales, the impact of such a person on me has been profound. Like Gonzales, I never really cease pondering these traits and their meaning either.

So Deep Survival was a tremendous gift. Another person out there who knows what I am processing, who is doing it himself. It was like being mirrored. Before the book, I assumed I was alone. Now I realize I'm not. Previously, I had to distill my own conceptions of the cool, elite performer personality out of thin air and the memory of my fascinated observation, in order to make these traits concrete, written down for people to appreciate for all time--because they had such intrinsic, noble, merit. Just imagine my reaction when I read that such traits belong to a class of persons for which Gonzales has created a name! I was thunderstruck.

Other insight taken from Deep Survival is that survival skills are like "a daily practice" in the wilderness and out. That this practice is very similar to the Stoic operating philosophy. And that this is the operating philosophy of cool, elite performers. ---This was more concretization of something I had observed, described but whose meaning had remained ephemeral. I became still while reading these passages.

The result of my own contemplation of the cool elite performer has been an ever more ascetic degree of self containment which results in a preference for going into the wilderness alone. Perhaps because women are already a prey species (like those inner city kids in the book) you better believe that I will use anything that will help me out there--including the practical insight of Deep Survival. (The guys with hubris and poor impulse control can continue to glissade down the ice fields.) Because it is true that Mother Nature is a major chess master, because it is an honor to engage Her, because I have spent getting to know my limits, do not intend to get lost and because I do not intend to have to be rescued by anyone but myself.

The fellow who mentioned that we could not succeed in taking L. Gonzales's advice because we have to have our own experiences baffles me. It is precisely because of my "experiences" out there that I appreciate how relevant the Gonzales advice is. That Eastern bit about not anticipating too much because you might get surprised and then confused? That squeezed another ephemeral reality into a synthesis and then into a truth.

I would like to express my gratitude for this book. Another highlight is the research into modern psychology. The insight presented here is positively enlightening.

Christine Speed

P.S. Have now bookmarked and am reading the search and rescue logs of the Eastern Sierra. Every time I think of the reality that we are already flying upside down and we might as well add some smoke and have some fun, I have to laugh. Yet another piece of ephemeral reality that Gonzales has concretized.

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My recent letter to your editor:

I read Laurence Gonzales’s recent article “Fatally False Positives” with great interest. The human drama of Todd Frankiewicz’s life and death was gripping. I didn’t even mind Gonzales’ human psychological opinion’s despite the fact that Adventure Magazine failed to provide any proof in the article or endnotes that Gonzales has any expertise to offer such opinions.

I didn’t mind that is, until I read this passage: “Because we are a species of ape, we behave according to what rewards us. Moreover, we have a strong motivation to recover from failure in order to regain status”. Considering that Gonzales cited no authority for these bold assertions, I must conclude they are his opinions.

Adventure Magazine should not be providing opinions from unqualified individuals on a topic as important as “Deep Survival……Living Smart”. What is even worse, is that Gonzales’s opinions are wrong.

Human beings are not a “species of ape”. In the context of life and death survival decisions for our “out door adventurer class“, I would hazard to guess that more humans have died because of this ill conceived notion than any other single cause. If one believes that they are nothing more than a descendant of apes, why not risk death? What is there to live for other than thrills?

Anatoly Flew, once considered the world’s leading intellectual atheist, recently disavowed atheism and the attendant “Darwinian evolutionary model”. Flew correctly concluded that the complexity of life, revealed in the new understanding of DNA, was to great to have occurred by happenstance as Darwinists must conclude. If Gonzales is so far behind the learning curve that he doesn’t know this, he should immediately desist from offering life and death advice to the gullible.

As well, as anyone who has ever parented for more than a decade can attest, humans learn more from their failures than from rewards. The very fact that Gonzales uses Frankiewicz’s death to try and shape another human’s behavior, belies the logical fallacy in his own argument.

Finally, our strong motivation to recover from failure isn’t to regain status, it is to survive. At least, that is my opinion. Which by the way, is apparently just as scientifically valid as Gonzales’s.

I enjoy reading your magazine. I hope that you would stick to providing stories of grand adventures. Leave the psycho babble to the magazines that employ experts in the field. Life is to precious to presume to offer advice that is based merely on someone’s educated, (or in this case), uneducated guess on the workings of the mind and human behavior.

If you do have expertise in psychology, please enlighten your readers.

Brian Goettl

Georgia & Mark S.

I so loved the Fatally False Positive article. It brought us back three years ago when, on our annual ski vacation, we not only lost our son but I became a paraplegic. Our customary snow tubing on a small hill outside our condo turned deadly when someone made a suggestion to all hook up together and go down the hill. My husband had "the feeling" and voiced his reservation but, as your article pointed out, the usual and familiar and the proding of friends can hide dangers that lie outside our hearts' and minds' good sense. Everything came together, on what had been years' of perfectly safe fun, and tragedy happened. If only we had listened to that fatally false positive....

Mary Anne Potts

Hi Lori, thanks for your comment. Can you tell us more about the gut feeling you had? Where were and how could you have responded to it differently?

Lori Rafferty

Having a bad feeling— that gut premonition— is definitely something worth paying attention to. I once had that experience, and ignored it, and almost paid for it dearly in a slow & painful starvation/lack of H20 situation on a de-masted sailboat adrift in the south pacific (long story...). I vowed afterwards that if I ever experienced a similar "feeling", I would immediately bail on whatever adventure/task was at hand. So far, no had to do but I trust my gut.

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