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Tunnel vision

Fastened airplane seat belt on a passenger seatBrostock/Shutterstock

In a crisis, it’s reassuring to think that we’d respond by creatively thinking our way around the problem. But—you guessed it—it’s the opposite. A typical response to disaster is so-called “perseveration”—attempting to solve a problem in a single way, again and again and again, regardless of the results.

Issues with seat belts are reportedly extremely common in light aircraft, where they tend to buckle over the shoulder—people automatically look for them at their waist and panic when they’re not there. Other incidents have shown that 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, suggesting that the brain’s stress response of impairing this region might be to blame for inflexible thinking in moments of crisis.

Staying stuck in a routine

Soft tone of Money and credit card in a leather wallet on wooden table and bill slip backgroundKANOWA/Shutterstock

On the face of it, going back to get your wallet when your home is on fire seems like madness or sheer stupidity. But it’s so common that survival psychologists have a word for it: “stereotypical behavior.”

“When you leave your house, you grab your wallet. You don’t even think about it. It’s automatic,” says James Goff, a specialist in disaster and emergency management at the University of New South Wales.

When Emirates Flight 521 crash-landed at Dubai International Airport in 2016, footage emerged of passengers scrambling around the plane to collect their bags. Fortunately, no passengers were killed as a result.

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

Our brains rely 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—such as navigating an airport in a foreign city. “We’re in the present but we’re looking to the future,” says Leach.

In an emergency, adjusting to a new situation can be more than our brains can take. Instead, we tend to press on as though nothing is happening. Learn the tips that’ll help you survive in the (unlikely) event of a plane crash.


Smoke detector mounted on roof in apartmentAlexander Kirch/Shutterstock

At the extremes, this extends to completely ignoring the danger altogether. “Invariably, over 50 percent of the population do it; they go down to the sea to watch the tsunami,” says Goff, who works to increase public awareness of tsunamis in high-risk areas.

According to Robinson, denial usually happens for two reasons: people fail to interpret the situation as dangerous, or they simply don’t want to. The latter is extremely common in wildfires, since often evacuating your home means consigning it to ruin.

“People tend to wait until they can see the smoke—and this often means it’s too late to leave,” says Andrew Gissing, an expert in emergency risk management at consulting firm Risk Frontiers.

When the stakes are high, our brains tend to banish stressful thoughts. This may explain why a recent study suggested cancer patients wait an average of four months before getting their symptoms checked by a doctor.

So what should you do in a disaster?

First Aid KitA red first aid kit bag with a black zip and handle, in closeup.Ralph Gillen/Shutterstock

For Goff, survival 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 chilling scenarios, from hostage crises to helicopters that have crashed into water. He knows that the best way around the mental fallout is to replace unhelpful, automatic reactions with ones that could save your life. “You have to create adaptive survival behaviors that become the dominant response in an emergency,” he says. Often a single exposure is sufficient for a survival response to be created and instilled.

For George Larson, a survivor of Indian Airlines Flight 440, the biggest peril wasn’t the disaster itself, but what happened afterward. 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, doctors in India performed exploratory surgery. Weeks later, the wound wasn’t healing. On a hunch, Larson’s orthopedic specialist cut through the stitches and reached in with his forceps. “He pulled out this 30-day-old, rolled-up gauze,” he says. It was a fortunate discovery—if it had stayed in, his prospects would not have been good.

Preparation, acting fast, busting routines, and avoiding denial may all be ways to survive in worst-case scenarios—but sometimes you need a good dose of luck too. Next, learn what you should do to save your own life in 12 different emergency scenarios.

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