The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable

Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why

Book - 2008
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Nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality--anything we've ever learned, thought, or dreamed of--ultimately matter? Journalist Amanda Ripley set out to discover what lies beyond fear and speculation, retracing the human response to some of history's epic disasters. She comes back with wisdom about the surprising humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain's fear circuits, and the stunning inadequacy of many of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain's ability to do much, much better, with just a little help.--From publisher description.
Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, c2008
ISBN: 9780307352903 (pbk.)
0307352900 (pbk
Branch Call Number: 155.935 RIP
Characteristics: xiii, 266 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 22 cm


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CALS_Hotchkiss Apr 27, 2020

The Unthinkable is a thoroughly researched examination of how people react when faced with disaster. Through reports and interviews, the author reveals the stages humans go through: denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment. Each of these has its advantages in the right situation, but how and when different people engage in these strategies, and what decisions they make, can mean the difference between life and death.

The book holds the reader's interest, maintaining flow by interrupting the narrative with cinematic cuts, jumping from scene to scene. The result is a much quicker read than one might expect, given the subject matter and the thoroughness with which it is explored.

Oviously, a lot of time, effort, and research went into this book, and it shows. The author seemingly has left no stone unturned in investigating the events and experiences of the players in various disasters: the 1917 explosion in Halifax, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, 9/11, and several others.

She sums it up with some basic strategies for surviving disaster: don't hesitate too long, know where the exits are, read the advisory card on the airliner, and believe you can survive: your mind will get creative in finding ways to stay alive.

IndyPL_CarriG Nov 09, 2019

This was a really interesting read and less scary than I thought it might be. Ripley interviews people who survive disasters and tries to figure out what happened that made them able to survive and others not. Sometimes it is practice, knowledge, and foresight - often it's dumb luck along with someone's natural responses. Sometimes our evolutionary responses will help us in modern situations and sometimes they will kill us. One thing I took away with it is that the best way to prepare for disaster is to practice what you will do and have a plan.

Feb 09, 2019

Pretty fascinating stuff. Amanda Ripley is a formidable investigative journalist. The book is full of original ideas. It is a lot about neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology. Human beings are wired a certain way to behave under stress (and there is a great individual variation). Group behavior is another interesting dimension that is somewhat predictable (along typical scenarios).

Chapter 6 describing the physics and psychology of crowds is particularly interesting describing how stampedes occur. How tens of people can get killed. And, the phenomenon is both common and predictable. Individuals can get crushed to death in a crowd by being squeezed so hard they can’t breath while their feet are off the ground!

Chapter 8 on Heroism is also interesting. Now, when I read about a heroic act I get to wonder was that individual truly courageous or did that individual have a hormonal and neurological profile that renders such heroic behavior predictable. Low dopamine (dopamine is associated with the reward system) renders people clinically bored with mundane daily life. They need extraordinary stimulation that the rest of us would find unbearably stressful. That’s where you get your heroes, special op soldiers, wingsuit jumpers, rock climbers, big wave surfers, downhill racers, ski jumpers, sky divers, car racers, astronauts, and on the dark side sociopaths. They are all part of the low-dopamine social cluster. Also, neuropeptide Y plays a role in giving individuals the ability to focus and remain calm under stressful condition. Apparently, the latter (neuropeptide Y) is the major difference in blood test results between regular soldiers (that are already really tough) and the special op ones.

Interestingly enough, some of our most wired behaviors neurologically can be highly favorable in certain circumstances and highly unfavorable in others. For instance, when disaster strikes a common neurological reaction is to freeze, do nothing, become lethargic. Strangely enough this may improve the chance of survival when attacked by a formidable animal. A man survived being attacked by a lion that way. A limp prey is often interpreted by wild animals as a poisonous sick prey. So, they often let it go. A fighting prey is a sign of a healthier creature. In another circumstance, a young man survived a college shooting by remaining limp and playing dead. He was among the few survivors within his college class. However, on many other occasions the remaining lethargic thing is disastrous. In any natural disaster (of just about any kind), this will prove fatal. You have to control your mind and nervous system and act quickly to do the right thing in order to get away and escape whatever you should get away from (fire, explosion, flood, tsunami, etc.).

Also, next time I am on a plane I will pay a lot more attention to the air steward instructions. I will also read the written evacuation instructions a lot more carefully. Apparently, acquiring such basic instruction has a dramatic impact on survival outcome after a plane crashes. One of the keys to survival is the speed of evacuation. And, the basic information facilitates passengers knowing what to do, where to go, so as to evacuate the plane before it is engulfed in flame and toxic smoke.

Jul 28, 2016

Fairly short, to the point and entertaining. An excellent analysis of various catastrophic events, how we really react when these events occur and how we can improve our reactions.

Oct 20, 2015

Not exactly what I was looking for, however, it's very interesting about how we act in crisis mode or disasters. Lots of research/study results. Helpful info on crowd dynamics, certainly worth a read.


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