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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Deep Survival Chapter IX - Bending the map

Following the publishing of the first chapter summary of Deep Survival a few days ago, here is another one. It's all about what "being lost" actually means to your brain, and what should your correct answer to that be.

"Bending the Map" by Victoria Férauge

The word "lost" provokes powerful feelings in each and every one of us. We associate it with a sense of disorientation, of loneliness, and of despair. Since childhood we have all heard cautionary tales of what can happen to those who stray into unknown territory and can no longer make their way out.

In "Bending the Map" Laurence Gonzales examines the physical and psychological effects of losing one's way. Anyone can get lost, he says, but most of us are not prepared for the experience since we have spent a goodly portion of our lives doing everything we can to avoid it.

It starts in the depths of our brain, in the hippocampus, with cells that enable us to create a mental image of where we are and where we are going. "Place cells" fire faster in a place we are familiar with. When we go somewhere new and strange, these cells go to work to try and recreate our "mental map".

In another completely separate part of the brain, is the amygdala which governs our response to all that information. When you are in an unknown and threatening place, it is the amygdala that screams "Danger!" Between the work of "remapping" and the screaming emotions bubbling up from our heads, our ability to formulate a rational strategy is compromised. We are then driven by emotions we cannot even identify (except that they are so urgent and painful) that push us to "walk another 10 miles over that ridge and surely the lake will be there..."

We then enter an altered state of consciousness where we refuse to update our mental map and admit that we are in a world of trouble. This is why so few people turn back and retrace their steps or stay put and start doing what is necessary to survive. Instead, driven by emotion, we panic, become delusional, and finally exhaust ourselves in a frenzy of futile activity. If we are so unlucky as to find ourselves in the wilderness where the human being is a rare and unwelcome tourist, the end point of this downward spiral can be death.

"Being lost," says Gonzales, "is not a location; it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind." A man sets off for a hike in the woods and physically and psychologically deteriorates to a shadow of his former self after a mere three days lost in the woods. In the end, when the choice is between resignation at one's impending doom or action, what is the correct action?

Gonzales believes that in order to save ourselves, we must pragmatically accept that where we are is most definitely not where we intended to be when we set out on our journey.  The first step in surviving is also the "First Rule of Life:  Be here now." This is when we start over and map the real world that we find ourselves in.

In the end if we do most of it right, we will probably find our own salvation. As Gonzales says, "To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won't matter where you are." And you will never
ever truly be lost again.

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