Who survives when disaster strikes, and why? Amanda Ripley seeks to answer this question in her riveting book, Unthinkable. I’ve been on a bit of a non-fiction kick lately (I’ll talk more about this next week), and I first discovered Ripley through her newest book, The Smartest Kids in the World. I couldn’t wait to explore the fascinating topic of disaster and survival, and Ripley didn’t disappoint.
Split into three parts, Unthinkable details the advantages and disadvantages of each stage of responding to disaster: denial, deliberation, and the deciding moment. For each stage, she uses real-life examples—9/11, Hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, plane crashes, being held hostage, huge fires, and more. Not only that, she consults brain experts, military researches, and other scientists to uncover what goes on in our brains during disasters.
While examining the three stages, Ripley dives deeper into various facets of each. For instance, she discusses paralysis—what is going on in our brains when we freeze up and whether it is beneficial. As with most of her conclusions, the verdict is that paralysis can be life-saving in certain situations, but it can be deathly in others. For instance, one of the survivors of the Virginia Tech shooting may have been spared because he immediately froze and remained completely still while the shooter ravaged others in the room. However, for those in 9/11, freezing and not acting often meant their death.
Ripley also scrutinizes heroism—why do people try to save others—and, most fascinating to me, how our brains and genetic makeups play a huge part in how we respond. For example, Special Forces troops actually have different blood make-ups that allow their brains to respond more efficiently and smartly to danger. She offers hope, though, relating that we can train our brains to react better through preparation (for instance, find out where the exits are in a building—surprisingly, most people don’t do this and it may cost them their lives in a disaster).
Similar in style to Malcom Gladwell, Ripley presents information in a clear, straightforward manner and effortlessly and logically connects each topic and chapter to each other. I love how she poses a question and proceeds to use numerous examples and stories to eventually answer it—only to raise even more questions, which she then answers in the same manner. The whole book is a series of questions that delve deeper and deeper into the topic that seeks to answer the big question of the book—who survives when disaster strikes, and why? Well-written and fascinating, it is a treat for anyone.
I also enjoyed the optimism she conveyed. Although Unthinkable relates numerous stories of pain, fear, and even death, it ends with a message of hope. Our brains can be trained to respond better to danger, and by preparing in simple, common sense ways, we can greatly increase our chances of survival.
There were, however, a few aspects of the book that I had problems with. One, which I expected, was her references to evolution and how our brains have evolved to cope with different disasters. I always found it interesting how she remarked how strange it is that people beocme much more selfless and kind to each other in danger. It doesn’t really fit the survival of the fittest theory, does it? According to evolution, we should be even more focused on our own personal survival in danger, trampling over others to save ourselves. But many stories she discusses portray the exact opposite. I personally believe it’s God common grace, the image of God in each of us. Of course, she did not talk about God at all, either in the reason behind some disasters or in how to handle a disaster, but again, that was to be expected.
Ultimately, despite the differences of worldviews, Unthinkable was an enthralling and quality read that I highly recommend, especially for those who want to read more non-fiction but don’t want to try anything too difficult or boring.