Ultimate Survivor Stories (Part 1)

To what lengths would you go to survive in the face of death? Could you amputate your own arm to free it from beneath a boulder? Could you survive 10 weeks on frogs and leeches?  Over the next four days, Big Think interviews men who survived the harshest conditions.

To what lengths would you go to survive in the face of death? Could you amputate your own arm to free it from beneath a boulder? Could you survive 10 weeks in the harsh Australian outback, subsisting just on grasshoppers, frogs, and leeches? At what point would you give up? 

As part of our new four-part Ultimate Survivor Stories series, Big Think spoke with men who faced this very question and survived to tell their story. Everyday this week, we will present an interview with a different survivor—ranging from journalist Jere Van Dyk who spent 45 days held captive by the Taliban to Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa who clawed his way through the front window of a cab despite having been shot repeatedly by mafia gunmen to Stanley Alpert, a former federal prosecutor who was mugged and kidnapped and used his wits to convince his captors to release him. 

Our series begins today not with an individual survivor story, but rather with an expert on the limits of human survival. Laurence Gonzales is the author of the bestselling "Deep Survival," which takes a scientific look at why some people make it through extreme situations while others with the same resources do not. Gonzales tells Big Think that he first became interested in this topic because his father, a WWII combat pilot, had survived the war, while the other nine members of his crew had not. When Gonzales began the research for his book, he came across case after case of people who should have survived but did not and of those who should not have lived but miraculously did: "Search and rescue people would go out and they would find someone dead who was in possession of all the equipment he needed to survive and yet hadn’t used it for some peculiar reason.  Conversely, they would find someone alive who they had expected to find dead, and this person would be in possession of none of the equipment they needed to survive."

Gonzales hypothesized that there must be some innate set of characteristics that makes people good survivors. After surveying many cases of extreme survival, he concluded that there are 12 traits of good survivors, including persistence, organization, being well informed, and most importantly the ability to stay calm in the face of possible death. Another interesting trait that he noted was that survivors tended to be socially connected: “I’ve talked to a lot of survivors who said that at the moment of truth they said to themselves, 'I have to get back to see my son,' or 'I couldn’t do this to my wife; if I died, it would be horrible for her.'" Knowing that their loved ones would suffer if they did not survive pushed these men and women beyond what is normally possible. 

There are of course limits to what the human body can endure. The rule of thumb is that humans can last three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food, Gonzales tells us. But there are cases of people who have gone for nine days without water. Much of survival is mental, Gonzales believes. "There is definitely a phenomenon of giving up," he says. And once you give up, it's over. 

Gonzales believes that learning how to be a better survivor can actually help with everyday life, because ultimately survival is about how you think and make decisions. "Reason and emotion work like a seesaw: the higher the emotion, the lower your ability to reason," he says. "In a high state of stress, you literally can’t remember your own phone number." So whether your business is going bankrupt, you're going through a divorce, or you're being diagnosed with cancer, learning to deal with stress while remaining calm will lead to clearer thinking and better decisions from mundane to life-and-death situations.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Can you guess which state has the most psychopaths?

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less