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Family, children & grandchildren, friends, mentors
Grandparent - Keeping in contact - #110 - 20170620 - lesson: disaster behavior - run for your life #NNI.6518 Exp 07-27
“I’ll never forget the sound...metal crunching,” says George Larson. A passenger on Indian Airlines Flight 440 from Chennai (Madras) to New Delhi in 1973. At 22:30, pitch black outside, the storm raged, and the plane was flying low.

The tail slammed into the ground first. Larson gets thrown from his seat as the plane kept moving.

Electric cables sparked. Fellow passengers screamed as the fuselage began to split up.

The next thing Larson knew, he was awake, lying on his back on top of wreckage. He tried to move his legs. He was stuck.

The heat ignited fuel tanks by the wings.

As debris rained down all around him, Larson realized he’d have to save himself. With one last breath – “it seared my lungs, the air was so hot” – he pushed off the wreckage and rolled to ground.

Then he clawed his way to safety.
Of 65 passengers and crew on board, Larson and just 16 others survived.

Larson was extraordinarily lucky. A few minutes earlier, he had done something ill-advised. He sat on the back row, chatting to the flight attendant next to him. Though seat belt signs were on, he undid his.

“No rhyme, no reason, I just did,” he says. Most people who unbuckle before a plane crash don’t survive.

After the crash, Larson had quick thinking and grit to claw himself to safety before the fire spread.

Those not wearing a seat belt are nearly four times more likely to die if their plane crashes.

Surprisingly, anyone in deadly scenarios doesn’t act fast enough to save any lives, even their own.

To argue about small change while your ship sinks into stormy water, or stand idly on the beach as a tsunami approaches, you have better alternatives. Psychologists knew for years people make self-destructive decisions under pressure.

Though news reports tend to focus on miraculous survival, if people escape with their lives, it’s often despite their actions – not because of them.

“Survival instruction isn’t so much about training people what to do – it mostly trains them not to do certain things they would normally think to do,” says John Leach, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. He survived the King’s Cross fire disaster in 1987. He estimates when in a crisis, 80-90% involved respond inappropriately.

The 2011 Japanese earthquake video showed people risk their lives in a supermarket, rush to save bottles of alcohol from smashing.

And when a plane caught fire at an airport in Denver earlier this year, evacuated passengers lingered by the plane to watch flames and take selfies.

Intelligence isn’t a factor. Brain fog descends in emergency situations for us all. Back in 2001, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge kayaked in the rough seas off the Isle of Wight. He capsized.

Though he had a mobile phone on board, he clung helplessly to the upside-down boat for more than 20 minutes before he remembered. When he finally retrieved it, he called his sister in Cambridge first, then his father who was more than 3,436 miles away in Dubai.

He was later rescued when his clear-headed relatives alerted the Coast Guard.

If you’re faced with a life-threatening scenario, avoid...

When a plane crash-landed in Dubai last year, passengers stopped to collect their bags though the plane was ablaze.

Picturing a disaster, we tend to think of mass hysteria. In most movies, people run away flailing their arms. But reality in most natural human response facing danger: simply, do nothing.

During the recent stabbing at London Bridge, an off-duty police officer who tackled attackers reportedly described those nearby as standing “like a deer in the headlights.”

The reaction is so universal, psychologists now talk of the fight-flight-freeze response.

Though it looks passive, when we’re paralyzed with fear our brain is actively putting on the brakes. As adrenaline surges through our body and our muscles tense, the primitive “little brain” at the base of our necks sends a signal to keep us anchored to the spot.

It’s the same mechanism across the animal kingdom. Rats to rabbits, where it’s a last-ditch attempt to stop a predator from spotting us, remain motionless.

But in a disaster, fighting to avoid this hangover from our days out on the savannah is vital for us to survive.
• In 2015, Michael Bond wrote an in-depth article for BBC Future on why people freeze. You can read about the great fire at King’s Cross Underground station in 1987 which killed 31 people.

The first clues our brains tend to go into meltdown under stress came from an alarming discovery.

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Israel braced for an attack from Iraq. Following extensive use of poison gas by the Iraqi army in the 80s, the Israeli government prepared. Gas masks and auto-injectors carrying the antidote to nerve gas were distributed to their entire population. Israeli families instructions included select a sealed “safe” room in their homes. When the alarm sounded, the public should retreat there, and, then put on their gas mask.

Between 19 and 21 January, there were 23 attacks. In all, more than 13 ton of high explosives dropped on the densely-populated city, Tel Aviv.

Though no chemical weapons landed, more than a thousand people suffered injuries. But not how you might think. Hospital admissions revealed explosions harmed only 234 (22%) of casualties.

More than 800 people’s injuries had occurred in the absence of any danger.

They happened during one of several false alarms.

It included 11 deaths, seven of which resulted after putting on a gas mask and then forgetting to open the filter.

Hundreds of people had injected the antidote to the nerve gas though they hadn’t been exposed.

Another 40 (mostly sprains and fractures) had occurred while the victim was rushing to the sealed room.

Even at the best of times, our brains are disconcertingly slow – while disasters are rapid, or instant.

In the certification process, airplane manufacturers must show the entire plane can be evacuated in just 90 seconds. Studies show the risk of the cabin being consumed by fire sharply increases after a minute and a half.

Most of us are still fumbling with our seat belts.

After the World Trade Center attacks, those on upper floors waited five minutes on average before they evacuated.

It all comes down to the way we make decisions. Take chess. A typical chess master’s vocabulary includes more than 50,000 moves – if the knight is on square x, do y – so the first few moves of a game can be over in mere seconds.

But as the game progresses, there are more possible positions for the pieces on the board.

After four moves apiece, there are more than 288 billion combinations.

After a few moves, players can no longer rely on pre-programmed strategies and need to think up their own. Then their games slow down a lot.

While the first few moves may take seconds, a typical game of pro chess (around 40 moves) takes more than an hour and a half.

Actively inventing a new strategy relies on working memory, which is responsible to temporarily hold information while we make decisions.

“The brain has a very limited capacity to process new information,” says Sarita Robinson, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire.

In a disaster, how fast we think through our options goes from bad to worse. Our brain’s first port of call is to flood with “feel good” hormone dopamine. It seems counter-intuitive, but though it’s usually associated with reward pathways, dopamine also plays a crucial role to prepare our body to face danger.

It triggers release of more hormones, including adrenaline and the stress chemical, cortisol. And this is more messy.

This hormone cocktail shuts down the prefrontal cortex, which sits behind our forehead. It has higher functions including working memory.

Just when we need our wits the most, we become forgetful and prone to make bad decisions.

Like in chess, the speed of decision making in a crisis limits working memory.

In a crisis, it’s reassuring to believe we’d respond by creatively thinking our way around the problem.

But – you guessed it, it’s just the opposite.

A typical response to disaster is so-called “perseveration.” We try to solve a problem in a single way, again, and again, and again, regardless of results. This happens so often, it’s how they design seat belts in light aircraft.

Because people practice looking for their seat belts around their hips, in an emergency it’s the only place they look. Previous designs involved a buckle higher up. In a crash-landing panic, people just couldn’t handle it or find the buckle.

Other incidents have shown in a crisis, pilots tend to become obsessed with one item of equipment or response.

Intriguingly, this tunnel vision is also seen in those who have permanently damaged their prefrontal cortex. The brain’s stress response switching off this region might cause inflexible thinking during crisis.

Which leads us to the next big stumbling block. “The number of people who have been killed going back to get their wallet from their house, or checking if they’ve left the oven on…” says James Goff, a specialist in disaster and emergency management at the University of Hawaii.

After years of working to increase public awareness of tsunamis in high risk areas, he’s seen his fair share of unbelievable reactions.

On its face, risking your life for your wallet seems like madness or sheer stupidity. But it’s extremely common – so common survival psychologists have a word for it: “stereotypical behaviour.”.

With animals, the term refers to repetitive and apparently useless routines, including pacing back and forth in a zoo.

In humans, it refers to the disconcerting phenomenon of continuing with everyday routines, even when, your home is on fire.

“When you leave your house you grab your wallet – you don’t even think about it. It’s automatic,” says Goff.

In an emergency people tend to act as though nothing is happening or amiss.

When Emirates Flight 521 crash-landed at Dubai International Airport last year, footage emerged of passengers scrambling around the smoke-filled plane to collect their bags from the overhead lockers.

Fortunately, no passengers died as a result (though sadly one firefighter tackling the blaze did die).

It wasn’t just a one off – the same thing happened a year earlier. And again in 2013.

So why can’t we turn these unconscious reflexes off?

It turns out in everyday life, our brains are extraordinarily reliant on familiarity. In non-disaster scenarios, mindlessly fetching our bag when the plane lands is thought to help free up mental space to focus on stuff we’ve never encountered before. Maybe navigating an airport in a foreign city affects us the same way.

“We’re in the present but we’re looking to the future by routine,” says Leach.

New situations are extremely mentally taxing.  As we work to build up a new model of the world around us, we tire. That fact may explain why we tend to feel so tired when we’re abroad or the first day at a new job.

In an emergency, adjusting to the new situation can be more than our brains can take. Instead, we tend to just press on as though nothing is happening.

At extremes, we may completely ignoring the danger altogether.

“Invariably more than 50% of the population are guilty, as they go down to the sea to watch the tsunami,” says Goff. He shows people watching the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004, taken by a person who was racing to get to high ground.

According to Robinson, denial usually happens for two reasons. Because they fail to interpret the situation as dangerous, or because they simply don’t want to. The latter is extremely common when confronting a wildfire, since often evacuating your home means consigning it to ruin.

“People tend to wait until they can see the smoke – often it’s too late then to leave. So they’re trapped in a house not well prepared for bush fires. Or, risk being burnt trying to evacuate.” Andrew Gissing, an expert in emergency risk management at consulting firm Risk Frontiers.

During recent fires in Portugal, many people perished trying to escape at the last minute.

For decades, scientists have known most of us are terrible calculating risk. When stakes are high, our brains tend to rely more on feeling than fact. Banished stressful thoughts and reassuring ourselves to explain away the danger, doesn't help.

This may be why cancer patients wait four months on average before getting their symptoms checked by a doctor. Or, why after the 9/11 attacks, people on the upper floors of World Trade Center waited an average of five minutes before they started to evacuate.

One person who has experienced denial of realities of a disaster first-hand is Yossi Hasson. In 2004, he and his girlfriend were scuba diving in Thailand when the Boxing Day tsunami struck. They were underwater, several miles out at sea when it hit. “Suddenly I felt as if I had been pushed, hard – then I couldn’t really control anything anymore,” he said. And later, he returned to the island.

Though the entire seafront was a panorama of destruction, rubbish and bodies floated all around the boat, Yossi found himself asking if they could go back to the hotel to fetch their luggage.

“The boat driver was like, ‘guys, your hotel probably doesn’t exist'.”

When the Boxing Day tsunami struck in 2004, there were still people on the beach.

At this point you may wonder – if we can’t rely on our natural instincts, what should we count on?

For Goff, surviving a natural disaster is about having a plan.

“If you know what you’re doing in advance and you start early, you can usually get away from a tsunami,” he says. “But it might be a bit hairy.”

Leach has years of experience training the military to escape an eclectic mix of chilling scenarios, from hostage crises to helicopters which have crashed into water (top tip: stay in your seat until the fuselage has flooded and turned upside down, then slip out at the last minute to avoid getting caught in the still-turning rotor blades).

He knows the best way around mental fallout: replace unhelpful, automatic reactions with ones to help save your life.

“You have to practice and practice until the survival technique is your dominant behavior,” he says.

And what of Larson, survivor of Indian Airlines Flight 440? In the end, the biggest peril for this survivor wasn’t the disaster itself, but what happened after.

Eventually some local villagers found him and took him to hospital. The fire had been so close by the time he escaped, it singed off the hair on one half of his head. He emerged with first and second degree burns, a broken pelvis, a “busted” arm and damage to his bladder.

To make sure he didn’t have any other internal injuries, his doctors performed exploratory surgery. Weeks later, he had lost weight and his wound still wasn’t healing.

On a hunch, Larson’s chiropractor back in the US cut through the stitches and reached in with his forceps. “He pulled out this 30-day old, rolled up gauze 12 inches long.”

It was a fortunate discovery – if it had stayed, his prospects would not have been good.

Preparation, acting fast, busting routines and avoiding denial may all be ways to live a bit longer in worst-case scenarios. Larson’s experiences suggests, sometimes you need a good dose of luck, too.

Note: It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we lull ourselves into a false sense of "we are not in danger." If, in the first 2 seconds you don’t act, it’s too late. (It just took me 3 and 3/4 seconds to read those two sentences)

We watch television from the comfort of room controlled - warm in winter, cool in summer, temperature, in an easy recliner. There’s no question in your head you could handle the situation you watch.

Try again, and time yourself on those two sentences...and think more about ready:
to run for you life...without thinking.

PS - Blue Bloods is a favorite show. Two episodes contain anecdotal evidence which contain:
“Too late, you’re dead.”
“Please don’t hurt my family.”
Ask for specifics if you have an interest.