53 pages 1 hour read

Laurence Gonzales

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why is a 2003 book by American author Laurence Gonzales. Gonzales, a former military pilot and extreme-sports enthusiast, has been fascinated by survival since hearing his father’s harrowing World War II story as a child. Deep Survival examines how different kinds of fatal accidents occur and the differences between “victim” and “survivor” behavior. Gonzales relies on real-life anecdotes and neuroscience to support his arguments, as well as offering insights and advice to the reader about how to behave in an emergency. Gonzales received the Montaigne Medal from the Eric Hoffer society for this work, which rewards thought-provoking independent books. This study guide refers to the Kindle edition of the book.


In his Prologue, Gonzales explains that he has always been fascinated by survival stories because he grew up hearing his father talk about being shot down over Germany when he was a pilot in World War II. This led him to write Deep Survival, which compiles neuroscience, human behavior, and anecdotal evidence to explain why some people survive in the ultimate catastrophes.

In his first chapter, Gonzales reveals that he followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a career as a military pilot. Gonzales uses a fellow pilot who ignored warning lights and crashed his plane to explore how primal instincts can override people’s ability to reason and absorb new information. He also discusses the idea of conscious and unconscious memory, and how these memories create reflexive bodily reactions that can override thought. However, he adds, many people in high-stress jobs develop a shared gallows humor to decrease this reflexive stress response and allow cognition.

In Chapter 2, Gonzales uses a story of snowmobilers who caused an avalanche by performing a dangerous trick against warnings to explore the idea of ‘somatic markers.’ He compares these markers to “emotional bookmarks,” which the brain places when it receives a pleasurable chemical rush. Humans evolved somatic markers for efficiency; when people are hungry or thirsty, our brains meet those needs quickly. However, only chasing those markers can lead to risky and impulsive decision-making.

In the following chapter, Gonzales argues that humans are drawn to moderately stressful situations, since the brain tends to learn best when facing some difficulty. While people gain valuable knowledge through this “risk-reward loop,” its lessons only persist in the form of emotions, not reason (62). Gonzales also explores the physiological effects of fear. He explains that new stimuli reach the amygdala (fear center) before the neocortex (logic center), which means panic comes more quickly than conscious, rational thought. As a result, 90% of people cannot think clearly while under pressure, and it usually takes extensive training for people to be able to balance these impulses.

In Chapter 4, the author explores “mental models,” or imagining how a certain situation will unfold. In stressful situations, people can become too reliant on mental models and start to deny new information that should change their understanding. This denial can lead people to overlook risks around them. In Chapter 5, he explains mental models are stored in the same place as memories, which can make them difficult to question.

In Chapter 6, Gonzales uses a story about men climbing Mount Hood to explore how accidents, even fatal ones, are a predictable outcome of risk-taking behavior but previous success can give people a false sense of security. He argues this bias can increase risk-taking behavior and the fallout thereof. In Chapter 7, he expands on this and urges the reader to question what biases they might be bringing to a survival situation.

In the following chapter, Gonzales explores the ways modern society makes us complacent, arguing that life is too easy these days to create survivors. He himself almost got caught in a rip tide simply because the Hawaiian ocean looked beautiful. The author points to numerous examples of nature’s forces taking people by surprise and killing them, then relays the survival story of an American businessman who got lost in the woods during a ski trip and survived three nights in the snowy forest by himself because he was determined to see his son again.

In Chapter 9, Gonzales analyzes how people behave when they get lost. Research indicates most people, when panicked, hurry toward whatever direction seems to lead somewhere familiar, though it is often more beneficial to stay put. Gonzales relays a survival story about a climber in the Rocky Mountains who refused to believe he was lost and wandered farther away from the path. Though he was rescued, he severely damaged his health and chances of success during those extra days.

In the following chapter, Gonzales shares his experiences visiting two survival schools, which reaffirmed the importance of a positive mental state in a survival situation. To show this, he contrasts two stories of survival at sea. In one, an experienced and prepared sailor was able to think quickly enough to survive while stranded on a calm ocean for nearly three months. In the other, a crew of disorganized sailors died off over the course of only five days until the only two who maintained their mental health were rescued.

To drive his point home, Gonzales then tells the story of British mountaineer Joe Simpson, who broke his leg on a Peruvian mountain and was left for dead. Through calm thinking, strategic action, humor, and an appreciation for natural beauty even while in pain, Simpson managed to make it back to base camp and survived the experience.

Gonzales then argues survival is a way of life and should be practiced daily. He also says humility and respect for safety routines are essential parts of surviving dangerous activities and that professionals do not take these risks lightly.

In his final chapter, Gonzales completes his father’s survival tale, describing how he lived in a German prison camp for months with many injuries and little food. He praises his dad for not only surviving the war but retaining his joyful spirit and zest for life. He admits he always wanted to have his dad’s “cool” mindset that helped him survive, and that this desire motivated him to pursue his own extreme adventures.