From the epic sagas of fictional characters like Robinson Crusoe and Luke Skywalker, to actual people who’ve made it through horrific battles, accidents and natural disasters, we’ve long celebrated persevering heroes who’ve proven that they have the ability to survive. But what enables some amazing humans to make it through ordeals that are scary just to think about? In recent years, researchers have probed the neuroscience behind survival, and discovered that evolution hardwired the brain with instincts that aided ancient humans in escaping extinction. They’ve also studied the experiences of modern extreme survivors, and how their mental and emotional characteristics enabled them to get the most out of the brain’s survival equipment. What they’ve learned just might help you to be ready to face whatever scary situation comes your way.
How your brain and sensory systems are wired for survival
As a human, you’ve got natural equipment that developed through evolution and helped keep your distant ancestors from being eaten by big animals or killed by rival human clans, and also made helped them to hunt and find food. Without those adaptations, you probably wouldn’t be here to read this article.
One example is your vision. Like most predators in nature, you’ve got two eyes in the front of your head that get slightly different views, which a portion of your visual cortex called the extrastriate cortex merges together to form a single image. Binocular vision, as it’s called, gives you the advantage of depth perception, and allows you to make sense of complicated environments that might be obscuring threats to safety or sources of food. “Our binocular region is a kind of 'spotlight' shining through the clutter, allowing us to visually sweep out a cluttered region to recognize the objects beyond it," Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute perception researcher Mark Changizi explained in a 2008 article. Your retinas also are equipped with neurons called M cells that are sensitive to fast movement, which enable you to spot and zero in on anything that moves quickly toward or away from you.
Hearing is another survival attribute. As neuroscientist Seth Horowitz explained in a 2015 interview, sound can travel a long way and provides information about things that you can’t see, such as something that’s enshrouded in nighttime darkness or concealed around the corner. For that reason, your brain has evolved not just to be sensitive to sound, but to process it 20 to 100 times faster than visual information, by circumventing the area devoted to conscious thinking. "You hear a loud sound?" he explained. "Get ready to run from it."
If your brain picks up a signal of a threat—or feels under stress from having to struggle with some difficulty—it quickly kicks into survival mode. Even a small amount of stress triggers a reaction that starts in your brain, and releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. “There's a flood of neurochemicals that affect your frontal lobe which messes up your logical thinking, your reasoning, “Lockheed Martin neuroscientist Bart Russell explains in the episode. “But it’s also what enables you e-enables your fight or flight reflex, and allows you to move quickly out of a situation if you need to. “ One of the effects of the stress reaction is to cause “tunneling” of your vision, in which your visual system becomes more efficient and focuses narrowly on the immediate danger.
Your brain’s survival equipment also includes navigational gear. Whether you’re roaming through the wilderness, as your ancestors did, or trying to figure out an unfamiliar urban neighborhood, your limbic system helps you to create a mental map of your route. The hippocampus, a brain region, contains cells that organize memories about specific locations that can aid you in finding your way. In another brain area, the entorhinal cortex, you have grid cells, which fit the environment into a regular pattern, almost like graph paper.
Your brain also has a special survival-oriented thinking mode. Most of the time, you learn things gradually, by building connections between actions or events and outcomes. But in some situations, you switch to a system called one-shot learning, and make quick decisions based on hunches. For example, you might avoid eating berries, because you remember that in the past you ate some that looked similar and later became ill, even though you don’t know for sure that was the cause. In a study published in 2015 in PLOS Biology, California Institute of Technology researchers reported that one-shot learning takes place in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas of the brain, and that seems to be triggered by uncertainty in causal relationships.
What makes some people better at survival
Despite that basic survival equipment, some people do better in difficult situations than others. Laurence Gonzales, author of the 2008 book “Deep Survival,” studied people who survived horrific situations such as being stranded in a raft at sea or buried under earthquake rubble, and found that they had certain common psychological characteristics. They tended to be realists who quickly recognized the seriousness of a situation, rather than becoming stuck in denial, and focused upon what they needed to do to survive, rather than complaining about their plight.
Additionally, Gonzales observed that the survivors had a realistic view of their own physical limitations, and knew when to rest or when not to try something that might be beyond their abilities. At the same time, they were independent thinkers who would break rules if they thought it was necessary. And perhaps most important, most reported having a strong family bonds, and were motivated to endure an ordeal because of their desire to see loved ones.
Those adept at survival also usually are good at remaining organized and tuning out distractions and panic while they stay on task. “The type of people who do really well in a crisis are those who are able to focus on the things that they have control over, things that they can affect in their environment to improve their situation,” neuroscientist Russell explains in the episode.
Another distinction between the typical person and someone adept at survival is how they react to setbacks—for example, becoming lost and disoriented.
“Some people who are bad at survival will panic and start running in all sorts of directions and get themselves more lost,” explains John Huth, a Harvard University scientist and author of the book “The Lost Art of Finding Our Way,” about personal navigation in the pre-GPS era. “Other people will actually--their minds will open up to what's going on around them. An awareness of landmarks tends to make for good navigators, and that's how we actually find our way through the environment.”
“There are that lucky few that respond really well to stress, and they can use that adrenaline to their advantage and channel it in a way that's productive,” Russell explains.
Cooperating instead of competing
Another important survival attribute is the ability to work together with other people who are facing the same plight. Probably one of the main reasons that the human species not only managed to survive but eventually grew to dominate the planet is that starting about 200,000 years ago, humans began developing a bigger prefrontal cortex that enabled them to deal with social complexities.
“Much of that brain’s programming was already in place, an inheritance from prehuman ancestors,” British evolutionary psychologist Nigel Nicholson wrote in a 1998 article. “But eventually, thanks to natural selection, other circuits developed, specifically those that helped human beings survive and reproduce as clan-living hunter-foragers.”
“No other animal can get together with a group of unrelated individuals, unknown individuals and collaborate in the same way that humans can to overcome things that individuals would otherwise not be able to,” University of Texas evolutionary biologist Alex Jordan explains in the episode.
And while you might think that putting people under stress tends to make them more selfish, a 2012 study by German researchers actually suggests that the opposite may be true. In the experiment, some players in an economics game were forced to do exercises beforehand—such as performing complex math problems in their heads—that were designed to stress them out. Surprisingly, those players actually turned out to be more trusting of others and likely to cooperate and share profits, compared to a non-stressed control group. As Scientific American writer Emma Seppala observed, such cooperative responses to stress “may be responsible, at least in part, for our collective survival as a species.”