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Laurence Gonzales: The Incredible Neuroscience of Survival

Daniel ScrivnerLast Updated: October 14, 2020

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“All accidents are the same. You kind of have to put them together from pieces. They don’t just happen. You have to assemble them.” — Laurence Gonzales

In this episode of Outliers, I’m talking with Laurence Gonzales (@deepsurvivalsm0), an award-winning author of numerous books about the psychology and neuroscience of survival . We discuss why smart people make stupid decisions, what causes accidents and why some people survive and others don’t, how habitual behaviors under extreme stress are behind police shootings, and the neuroscience of unconscious processing.

Laurence Gonzales is an award-winning author of several books, including Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and WhySurviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, and Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival. He received the Miller Distinguished Scholarship from the Santa Fe Institute in 2016, as well as two National Magazine Awards and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Topics Discussed

  • 00:01:49 – How Laurence’s father’s survival of a World War II plane crash inspired his interest in survival themes
  • 00:06:18 – How habituation and the brain-body complex work together, and Laurence’s brush with disaster on a solo flight 
  • 00:12:00 – Humans will stick to habit in times of emergency
  • 00:14:32 – Practicing for disaster, and how that caused problems in the police force
  • 00:20:57 – Laurence’s views on arming police with military gear
  • 00:24:26 – The concept of hot cognition in times of stress
  • 00:25:53 – The USS Indianapolis and the rage vs. seeking pathways
  • 00:31:28 – PTSD minus the D
  • 00:37:23 – Mitigating the effects of post-traumatic stress
  • 00:44:17 – On avoiding DC-10 aircrafts
  • 00:51:35 – Safety in the airline industry
  • 01:01:48 – The human brain on the “night shift”
  • 01:06:07 – The Santa Fe Institute and Laurence’s work there
  • 01:12:36 – The people who most inspire Laurence
  • 01:15:24 – Laurence’s goal of going deep into subjects

For more, explore the full transcript of this episode. Transcripts for all episodes can be found here.

Links from the Episode

Laurence Gonzales’ Books:

Key Insight

As humans, we stick to our habits, even in times of stress or disaster. It’s important, day to day, to pause and reflect on your actions and habits to make sure they will serve you well in the future.

Actionable Ideas

  • “If you’re feeling anxious, if you’re feeling enraged, there’s nothing better than to find that activity that dampens the rage circuit and engages the seeking circuit.”
  • “It’s a matter of habit. And it’s a matter of day-to-day habit. It’s not like you have to go to survival school. It’s not like at the moment of emergency, you’re going to invent new behavior. In the moment of emergency, you’re going to do what you’ve done before. And the important thing about that is to develop a habit of editing yourself, looking at what you’re doing and asking, ‘What am I really doing here?’”
  • “I always say, ‘We are always practicing something.’ The question is, ‘What is it and is it the thing we want to emerge as our behavior under high stress?’ A lot of this takes what they call mindfulness. You have to be aware of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what’s going to happen under stressful circumstances.
  • “When I talk about the rules that I have in ‘Deep Survival,’ the first one is perceive and believe, and the second one is to stay calm. Reason and emotion, or stress, work like a seesaw. If you’re in high stress or high emotion, you can’t think straight. If you can manage to get yourself thinking straight, your emotional level or stress level will go down, and you’ll be in better shape. This is one of the struggles of controlling your behavior rather than letting your behavior automatically control you.”
  • “By understanding how the system works, we can take apart some of these places in our lives where we feel anxiety or anger or sadness or any of these negative emotions that may stand in the way of our functioning, and we can put something in their place. We can decide, when I’m feeling this way, I’m going to play tennis or whatever it is that does it for you, it’s different for everybody. It just makes for a better quality of life. You can actually control these things.”

On Outliers, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they’ve mastered and what they’ve learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

Explore all episodes of Outliers, be the first to hear about new episodes, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.

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