COMPLEXITY: Physics of Life

The Art & Science of Resilience in the Wake of Trauma with Laurence Gonzales

Episode Notes

Each of us at some point in our lives will face traumatizing hardship — abuse or injury, lack or loss. And all of us must weather the planetwide effects of this pandemic, economic instability, systemic inequality, and social unrest…and find a way to live on with their consequences. Trauma isn’t evenly distributed. But it IS ubiquitous, and learning how to get on with our lives is one of our main tasks as human beings. 

From this hardship grows the best of us: our wisdom, compassion, creativity, and service. By understanding the psychology and neuroscience of the body-mind’s response to trauma, we gain potent insight into how to “live with living without” — how to be both incomplete and whole. 

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and each week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week’s guest is best-selling author and journalist Laurence Gonzales, a four-time SFI Miller Scholar whose writing has won widespread recognition, including the Montaigne Medal, two National Magazine Awards, two Eric Hoffer Awards, and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. In this episode we talk about his book, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience — and the lessons therein for those living in the wake of trauma.

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Episode Transcription

LAURENCE GONZALES: I’ve made recordings in the past. I don't know if you know, I used to be a musician.


LAURENCE GONZALES: Yeah. Right out of college. I grew up with my father as a scientist and everybody expected me to follow in his footsteps and become a scientist. I literally grew up in medical school when he taught in medical school. And then I got to college, this was while I was a kid, mind you, and into high school, and between high school and college, when I was 17, I was the only electron microscopist in Chicago that was available for hire because they had all been spoken for. My dad had taught me electron microscopy from the time I was about 11 till 17. And so, I was hired because there was a shortage of these technicians. I was hired by Children's Memorial Hospital to run their electron-microscopy department. It was very bizarre. 

And I did. I did. I ran it for the whole summer, you know, processing specimens for the doctors who were doing research there. And then I ran away with a rock and roll band and I spent several years touring all over the country with it. It was actually a rhythm and blues kind of band, like Otis Redding type stuff. And, you know, it was a fun thing for a kid to do. But after a couple of years, I realized that I don't want to stay in a motel with my nine closest friends. That's no fun.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: So, you became a stunt pilot then, is that right?

LAURENCE GONZALES: No, not right at that moment. Although I became a pilot just as quick as I could arrange it. I went back to Northwestern, went to school, realizing that I wanted to be a writer. And I didn't stay very long, I never got a college degree. It was just too slow for me. I didn't find it to be a good pace. I mean, to take months and months to learn the things that they learned seemed a frivolous waste of time. So, I went off on my own as a writer. And when I started flying stunt planes – that was probably in the nineties, it was probably 1990 – I flew stunt, and I flew aerobatics for about eight years until enough of my friends had gotten killed that I realized that I was going to get killed unless I stopped. So, I stopped.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: It takes an unusual amount of self-awareness. I think a lot of people see it and don't care. I know that that's very common among mountain climbers, that they hold the funeral and then they go out and they're hitting the cliffs the next day, you know?

LAURENCE GONZALES: Well, it's true. And I see this in our present situation with this pandemic going on, just I see behavior that is stupid. But you don't have to be stupid to do stupid things. And that's the central theme of my research over the last 25 years, I would say, is why smart people do stupid things.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: So that's a great place to jump into this. I really want to focus on Surviving Survival for this call, because I feel like this particular book and its lessons on the neuroscience of how we cope with trauma are really perennial, but they're timely. It’s very clear that these insights are deeply important insights to be sharing right now, as we grapple with the economic and the public health and the social unrest impacts of this mess. And then the looming crises that are sort of saddled on top of that. I know this book grew out of a career length interest in survival, but I'd love to know sort of the origins of this particular work

LAURENCE GONZALES: Well, I wrote Deep Survival and the way that I structured deep survival was that each episode was used to illustrate a particular point, a point of science, or psychology, or something like that. And the stories of these people were told so that they came to an end at the point of the rescue. So, if you're shipwrecked at sea, the story is told until the rescue and then that story ends. And afterwards, I became acutely aware through a variety of sources – not the least of which were the readers of Deep Survival who contacted me – and I became aware of what I should have known initially, which is that that's not where the story ends. That is where a whole new story begins. And in fact, it’s a very interesting story, maybe even more interesting than the first, because it takes a person who has established a life and a mind and an emotional system and forces this person into a completely new set of rules, a new set-up of environmental cues, behaviors, and so forth.

So, one of the things I was trying to get across to people in Surviving Survival is that once the crisis is over, the immediate impulse is, “Let's go back to the way things were before.” You know? Let's say that you're a soldier and you go to war and your crisis is war. You come home to your wife and family and you think, well, “Let's just pick up where I left off.” And it turns out to be impossible. So, what are the rules? What are the constraints? What are the boundary conditions, and how to approach this problem became the quest of Surviving Survival. And, I think we're all facing this right now. We're going to face it even more when the pandemic is really over. When we try to go back to regular life, it's going to be different, and we don't yet know how it's going to be different.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Yeah, that's one of the things I really like that you emphasize in this book, is the model of the brain as an organ of prediction. And then how trauma challenges the mental models that we create, including models of the self: the way that the brain and the body are linked. Especially in the numerous cases you're given this book where someone has been physically altered through a bear attack, or an IED, where they've lost parts of themselves and their mental model of their own body no longer fits the model that they have. And the model of the world has been challenged by rare but intense events that the brain has now latched onto and decided are frequent events, because of their intensity. There's that whole evolutionary psychology around “rare but awful” events, and that we give special emphasis to these events when they happen.

So, you've got a great sense for the pithy encapsulation, the efficiently encoded point. You put it two different ways. One is, we don't get over it, we get on with it. And then another is that we live on, but we also live with. So, I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about this particular thing, because inside of it is this whole profound lesson about (1) what the brain is and how trauma is actually a functioning brain. And then (2) how the things that we take for granted about our human nature and our cultural existence are ways that we have adapted to the anxiety-inducing conditions of our world.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Well, to begin with, I will say that the thing that we call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is not in my view, a “disorder,” and it shouldn't be called that. It is the normal working of the brain. And I say “brain” with a caveat, which is that most neuroscientists and cognitive scientists no longer believe that the brain is this great operating system that runs everything. The brain is part of the body. And the body actually has more to say to the brain than the brain says to the body. So, if you look at the vagus nerve connections coming from the base of the brain, about 20% of the information goes from brain to body, but about 80% goes from body to brain. And this is a very interesting conversation that's going on, because we don't know what it's saying, but we do know that the body is constantly speaking to the brain.

So, when I say “brain,” you have to have a revised view of that. It's the body/brain complex, which is too much of a mouthful to say, but we do have concepts such as memory, for example, that we associate with the brain. You know, we look at places in the brain like the hippocampus and say, “Oh yeah, well that makes memories well,” but the body makes memories, too. And so being intimately involved with the body is something to keep in mind. When we talk about this, it is believed now by most neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, people like David Krakauer’s brother, John, at Johns Hopkins, that the brain remembers everything. So, there's a little slice of our memory that we have conscious access to. And I believe, and John and other scientists believe, that it's a small slice, but that elsewhere stored somehow is a lot of other stuff that we're not even aware of most of the time.  And, it's probably the most important stuff that's going on…

It will do things for us constantly like solve problems. Any scientist will tell you, any artist will tell you, “I've been working on a problem for a long, long time and I couldn't figure it out. And finally, I went to Hawaii and lay on the beach and the answer came to me.” And this is the part that Cormac McCarthy calls the night shift, a term that George Zweig invented, which is what goes on under the surface. So that's a kind of, long-winded preface to say that when we’ve experienced trauma, the brain encodes everything about that situation. And so, in the case of one lady in the book Surviving Survival who was attacked by a bear, just before the attack, she sat down with her husband to take a little rest and she had crumbled up some pine needles to smell, because she always liked the smell of pine. After the attack, she went home and discovered that the smell of pine would send her into an immediate anxiety attack, a panic attack. So, something that had been labeled by her as good, through trauma got labeled by her as bad. And she had no control over it. It doesn't make sense. It doesn't appeal to our will to change. It just is. It's like a scar.

So, when I talk about getting on with it, as opposed to getting over it, I mean that sort of thing: that we have to learn to adapt, and not everyone can. In the case of a lady I wrote about who was attacked by a shark, she lost the use of her right hand. She didn't actually lose the whole hand, but lost the use of it. And the many things that she liked to do in life, from cooking to shooting pistols, became very difficult for her. She devised all kinds of workarounds to make this work for her. And in fact, became very capable in the face of the loss of her hand. So, she was getting on with it, but she didn't get over it. She didn't get a new hand. And most of us, when we’ve experienced trauma – and we all will experience some level of trauma. It's very rare to go through life, through childhood and adulthood, not having experienced trauma – but most of us will have some kind of coping mechanism like this. There's a whole other system, and if you'd like I can talk about it, that mediates this process of upset and regaining balance. It's pretty interesting stuff…

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Before we go there, I want to dig a little into the rest of the iceberg that we take for granted, you know, like in Vedanta. I've heard it talked about as the rider and the elephant, that is that you trust the elephant, you trust the wisdom of your body, and you give a couple of really great examples. One is research that David Eagleman has done on chick-sorting, and how there is this implicit knowledge that people have –  they don't know how they know the difference between a male and a female chick – but it's something that is patterned into the body through experience. And that we have all of these different forms of kinesthetic intelligence. You know, it was a real eyeopener for me reading this book because I have made a point in my life to develop faculties that I have always called intuitive faculties. But, you've laid out for me that this is not some sort of abstract woo, kind of spiritual thing, but that this is about sub-threshold kinesthetic, encoding of knowledge and experience in the body.  I'd like to hear you connect that piece of it, to this other piece of it. You talk about how, when people get lost in the woods or when they've experienced a traumatic blow or something, that this “self” that has all of these different layers to it, many of which we're not aware of, that they can fragment and that people end up talking to animals, or they're visited by the apparitions of dead loved ones. Aron Ralston trapped under the boulder sees a vision of his future child. And so, there's another piece which is like the secular ghost that I find really interesting here.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Yeah, so think about us as humans, half a million years ago, or even Australopithecines three or 4 million years ago. At some point in this continuum of developing through evolution, we begin to have what we call conscious, literal, rational awareness. And I could imagine this having to do with tools, or something like that. But before that, you have an animal consciousness in which the animal is doing everything it needs to do by way of the system you're talking about. And again, George Zweig coined the term “the night shift” because it happens overnight in your brain/body, not necessarily at night, but it's a nice term, it's the unconscious processing. And we know almost nothing about it. We know nothing about it. Let me put it that way.  We just know it happens. It happens reliably. It does all kinds of things for us. And it operates us all the time.

Most of what we do, and every neuroscientist will tell you this today, most of what we do arises from unconscious impulses. And in fact, studies of the lower parts of the brain seem to suggest that these lower parts are constantly suggesting actions for us that we veto. And that, if you have Tourette syndrome, for example, you're failing to veto those things, and you do things like throw your coffee cup at the refrigerator and curse out loud in public. But anyway, this whole subterranean system of directing is the norm and the newer, much newer, conscious, rational deciding thing is just a very thin bandwidth that we have to work with in managing this other thing or trying to, or trying to imagine what it wants from us, or trying to override it. And so this is constantly helping our lives and interfering with our lives.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: When I had David Krakauer on…we discussed this in a few episodes of the Transmission series, about when we’ve experienced a massive disruption to our collective understanding, you know, the implicit models that we take for granted, as the coronavirus has done to us. We were discussing Simon DeDeo’s contribution to the Transmission series, and Melanie Mitchell's, and how both of them make this case that we're kind of babes in the woods with this, having to sort of reconstitute the frames that we take for granted here. This seems associated with a loss of effective leadership at many different scales, and in many different sectors of society.

And, you know, when you talk about the veto being a relatively tenuous and recent thing, what we're also talking about, I think, is the difficulty that we've had in coordinating an effective response to this pandemic. Or to guide our way through all of the racial justice conversations in a way…I hear a lot of people talk about how we've sort of lost the political will to keep corporations in check, this kind of thing. I see that operating at both the level of the individual, as well as the level of the collective right now.

LAURENCE GONZALES: I mean, let's not forget, I think I point this out in Deep Survival, that the way that we live in the United States and Europe, and so-called first world countries is like we're domestic animals. So, that’s part of my impulse for writing about survival. If you have a dog that you keep inside all the time and take for little walks and feed him two or three times a day, you've got a dog who's not going to do very well, if you throw him out in the forest, you know? Throw him into the Grand Teton National park or someplace like that, he won't know what to do. He's never learned to hunt. He’s not used to predators. And we're like that, people, you know? I wake up in the morning, my coffee machine goes off and feeds me a cup of coffee, and there's a meal ready, and people deliver groceries to the door.  And if I'm bored, I turn on YouTube or TV. It's just endless rewards.

Now, if you have a dog, you know that the way you train a dog is with rewards. So, you put some treats in your left-hand pocket, and the dog puts his nose up to your pocket, and you give him one every once in a while, you got a dog that heels all of a sudden. So, you know, what is my behavior? Am I responding to rewards with logical behavior? No, no I'm not. I'm just going about my life, doing whatever I want. Anything I want, I can do. And as a journalist, all my life, I've gotten to do all kinds of wonderful things, just because I wanted to do them and then write about them and get paid for writing. So, I have this amazing life and I get these rewards.

And what are the rewards telling me? It's like, “Wow, this works! All I have to do is heel, and I get all these treats.” Well, when you're put in a position of power and that is your attitude, you're in a very dangerous position: dangerous for you, dangerous for all of us, because you think you've always been right. And moreover, you want the treats to keep coming. And so ll of this leads you into a really bad decision space. And, this has nothing to do with what party you're affiliated with, or what you believe in. It's just a fact, an animal fact of life.

In my view, if you occupy a public office, you should be stripped of all of your possessions and wear, like, a robe or something. You should have nothing, and you should be allowed to have nothing, and your decision-making will become purer because you'll have to actually work for your rewards. That's, I suppose a radical, view.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Well, that's like Jerry Brown, right? Sleeping on the floor…

LAURENCE GONZALES: Yeah, but I mean, I think what we're seeing is very natural animal reaction, like Memorial Day. So, on Memorial Day, everybody went crazy, they said, “Okay, I'm sick of this. I'm all done. I’m all done with pandemics. I'm going back to the beach to have a barbecue.” And everybody's getting sick, now. It’s been about four or five weeks…just about ripe for an explosion. And people do that because they're not trained, they've had no training in what survival means, they've had no training in patience, they've had no training in even understanding what the heck a virus is, and how extremely dangerous it is.

So right now, for a guy like me – I'm 72 years old and I have lung damage from when I covered the World Trade Center collapse, breathing all that stuff that was floating around in the air – so I am extremely vulnerable to this pandemic. And in talking to my family about how I expect to behave, I say, “this is free solo climbing. You slip, you die,” you know? “This is without ropes.” I cannot get it and say, “Oh, I want to do over. I'll be more careful next time.” There won't be a next time. And people just don't get that, because they've never been trained to get that.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: So, in bringing up the domestic animal piece, something that I've been reflecting on a lot in this extra-long quarantine phase, has been this walk that I took my friend's dog on a few years ago through a very nice neighborhood. And every house we passed, a dog was jumping up at the window, you know, like, “Let me out!” And this sense that we have boxed up these creatures that we love with very sensitive nervous systems in areas where there's all this…for us as humans, subsonic noise, pollution, the refrigerators and the air conditioners. Or if you're in a tall building, the frequency of the building swaying in the breeze has been known to like drive certain pets insane. And here we are. We've reproduced the conditions, the crazy-making conditions, that we've been subjecting our animal familiars to all these years.

So that's one side of the catch-22 that we're in. The other side is the one that you just mentioned, which is that if we buck against the leash and run off into the woods, then we're running off into a situation for which we are unprepared. Later in this book, you look at this…this is sort of a slant rhyme to the issue that you just mentioned, but the issue of why people dealing with post-traumatic stress isolate themselves in the woods. Or historically, people who would escape the plague in a monastery would become monks in order to escape these conditions. That in pre-history, we're dealing with these Dunbar number and sub-Dunbar number groups, families nested into clans. And you have a kind of reasonably self-sorted group of people with whom everyone's life depends on everyone else’s.  So, you're highly incentivized to agree in a way that we don't have in the city.

I know you know, David Krakauer’s riff that he brought up in the first episode of the show, his landscape of science, the mountain: where you go off alone for the insight, you have the vision and you take it down into the monastery to play with friends, test it out. That's where SFI is, the science monastery. And then you bring it into the metropolis, in its marketplace and you test it against the third party. But as you point out in Surviving Survival, the problem is that our mirror neurons are tuned for these much smaller groups. We are so sensitive to one another, that a lot of people cannot return to their life in this city. That emotionally it's impossible. They can't go out to a restaurant anymore.

So, I was thinking about that, you know, and talking with Geoff West. How do we continue to reap the benefits of a metropolitan existence, the wealth and the innovation, but in a way that does not amplify our vulnerability to the social hazards? And, it seems increasingly obvious that one of the social hazards that we're already experiencing, and that we were experiencing even before the situation, was that we have basically cut open and exposed a raw nerve here with one another. You know, the 24-hour news cycle and social media…That we are sharing a mind now in a way that we didn't use to, and at a scale that we didn't use to. And this sort of presents its own whole set of complicating problems with respect to the traumas that we're going to be coping with in the years to come.

LAURENCE GONZALES: So I'm going to direct this conversation to a place where those things converge and make sense. When David Krakauer and I talked recently, we were talking about the fact that the pandemic, the economic collapse, and the social violence that's taken place were all part of the same complex system, and that it works a little bit like this: So, the pandemic, which he suggested I not say that Santa Fe Institute predicted it, but in reading over the past literature, the symposia and all that, since 1987, SFI has been studying epidemics and the immune system…they might as well at predicted it. But whatever!

But it did happen. We knew it was going to happen.  And when it finally happened, everybody got hit in the head, essentially. You lose your job. You'd have to stay at home. You can't go to the grocery store. You can't get your hair cut, whatever. All of these different things impinged upon our domesticated animal way of life that we talked about. Suddenly we were domestic animals in the pound and we didn't like it, and we wanted to be back home in the comfortable living room where we're used to. So that went on for a couple of months and we got more and more up with it, priming our emotional systems – And everybody's familiar with emotional priming: you know, you're cooking dinner with your wife and you cut your finger while chopping onions. You're much more likely to yell at your wife if she annoys you, than if you didn't cut your finger – So all of a sudden, we're all emotionally primed, we're fed up, we're tired, sick and tired, pissed off.

And this thing with the policemen murdering George Floyd happens, and it's like, “Okay, that's the last straw! I'm going to break some windows now.” And the whole country went up in flames. So, this is all of a piece. This is all of a piece. This is all one big complex, interwoven, tightly connected system, and we were seeing the different kinds of eruptions and outcomes from it. But to understand it as a system, and not just isolated things is the important point that David was making. And at this point, I just want to step back and talk about emotional priming so that we all understand what it is, since this is also the basis of PTS, as we'll call it, post-traumatic stress. And it goes back to what we started with, which is memory.

So, we're all familiar with what happens when you step on a cat's tail. Step on the cat's tail and the cat screams, it's claws come out, it's a jaw tightens, all these chemical changes go on inside of it. It's in a fight or flight reaction, that's very powerful. All mammals have this. And the scientists who study it refer to the part of the brain that's involved in this as the “rage circuit.” Not every neuroscientist likes the idea of a circuit, but nevertheless, it's a pathway in the brain that goes through identifiable areas that we can give names to, like the tegmentum gray area, and so forth. This is known, and it's easy to demonstrate. The cat has another behavior that we're familiar with, which is stalking behavior. And when it's stalking, it has to be very quiet, it has to be methodical, goal-oriented, usually rhythmic in nature. This gets it to get to the prey, and it can't have the “rage circuit” going off in the middle of this, or it will never catching anything. As a biological fact, these two circuits cross each other, so if you're using one of them, you can't use the other one. So when you're in the race, you can't do stalking because you're too distracted. And the stalking circuit – they call the “seeking circuit” – when you're using that, you can't be in a rage.

Well, this is a very convenient thing for people, because people are clever and they find ways to activate the seeking circuit, if they've been traumatized and their rage circuit is going off all the time and making their lives miserable. So, this doesn't happen to everyone, but it happens to a lot of people. Once you get traumatized – and this is part of priming – I irritate you enough to where that rage circuit is going off all the time. And this can happen in a million different ways, as we know: anything from war, child abuse, you know, there's all kinds of ways to do that. You'll go off, you have a hair trigger, panic or anger or some kind of response like that, but you will find something to help you with that. Most people will find something. Maybe you discover when you play my guitar, you really feel calm. I like playing guitar. It makes me feel good. So, after a while you discover you're playing guitar 12 hours a day, and guess what? You become really good at it. “Michael, he's a genius! Have you ever heard him play guitar? It's unbelievable.”  And meanwhile, you're miserable unless you're playing guitar.

This is the same thing. You look at the career of famous people like Glenn Gould, Pablo Picasso, Newton. Newton was a total mess and spent every waking minute and many of his sleeping minutes working on his stuff, and it made him a genius, you know? He worked night and day on this stuff. So, it's a very common thing. Not all of us become geniuses, but many of us become obsessed with what makes us feel good. Something like that is going on in all of us. And, and in these times in particular, we need to find it.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Indeed. Yeah, this was such an eye-opening part of your book for me because it links the trauma with a super power. You know, when you think about the origins of superheroes and…it was about a month or two ago that I started realizing that the confinement that we're undergoing is bringing out people's innate awesomeness in interesting ways, not everybody. And you, you do a really good job in this book of differentiating what it takes to be made, to be tempered like a sword under these conditions, rather than broken. But so many people are stepping into themselves in a way now through physical patterned, repetitive, organized, directed towards a goal…you list it on page 109. And you give, like you mentioned a few moments ago, some guesses into human prehistory here: that maybe people were so preoccupied with the manufacture of stone tools as a way of coping with the anxiety of our vulnerability in prehistory, that ritual and the early forms of religion may have emerged in an adaptive response to those conditions.

And then I loved that you turn it on yourself, and you talk about your own writing as an instance of this. Because, one of the things that is a very, very clear pattern that Richard Doyle, English professor at Penn State University pointed out in his book Darwin's Pharmacy, was that this is ubiquitous among psychedelic trip reports. That it's page after page of, I believe he called it “hypergraphic claims to ineffability,” that people are confronted with this experience that is on one level traumatic: it's a radical reformulation of subjectivity. And the only way that most people through history…he actually proposes this is where modern language came from, it was an attempt to grapple with these bizarre experiences. So, I was just like, “Oh wow, I get it now.” Like, I understand me and my brother and all of these other people who are locked into these ultimately amazing, but nonetheless compulsive, and kind of screwy patterns of repetitive creative, goal-directed behavior.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Well, when, my father came back from world war two in 1945 – I was not yet born, but I was born soon after I was born in 47– he was still recuperating from his wounds and trying to get a PhD in biophysics. So, he was a busy, distracted guy, but I was very acutely aware, even as a little kid, I can remember seeing his shins and feet, which had been broken in his plane crash when he was shot down, and being very impressed by how injured he was. But he also typed a lot because he was doing his thesis and all that for his PhD, and he had an old typewriter on his desk that he used manual typewriter. He was pretty good typist. And I was fascinated by the typewriter. I really wanted to type and he would let me type, I didn't know how to type, I didn't know how to read.  And then, I mentioned earlier that I grew up in the medical school with him, where he taught me and I would get to type there and I would use a manual typewriter, but then I would see the secretaries had electric typewriters and it was like, “Oh man, an electric guitar!” So when I went to work at Children's Memorial Hospital, running the electron microscopy department there when I was 17, my first paycheck went to buy me a typewriter, an electric typewriter…a Corona. It wasn't very expensive, but it was a lot of money for me at the time. And I immediately learned to type correctly, and I typed for the rest of my life. I'm still doing it. So, when people say to me, “Oh, you're a writer.” I say, “No, not really, I'm a typist.”

And I don't know where the words come from, but they come from the night shift. I know that now. So, when I was writing Deep Survival and Surviving Survival, which is the sequel to Deep Survival, I would sit down in the morning, early morning, usually five o'clock or so, and I would start typing and I wouldn't look up until my wife would say, “Don't you want lunch?” And I'd be like, “Oh, it's noon already?!” She took good care of me, she would make me lunch and I'd look at what I'd written, and I’d think, “Where did that come from? I mean, I don't remember thinking of those words. I just know that I was typing.” And so, this whole process literally took place out of reach of consciousness. And I remember distinctly this feeling coming over me, when I was writing the last chapter of Deep Survival. And I said, “I am going to blow their minds. Now I'm going to sit down. I'm going to make my mind a blank, and I'm going to blow their minds. I don't know what it will be, but here we go.” And I just typed it.


LAURENCE GONZALES: And it worked. It, to me, is the most interesting part of humanity. And going back to what you said about coping with trauma, I never had any discipline, I was just coping with trauma. It made me feel good to type. So, I have no doubt that, you know, 300,000 years ago, some human being who was traumatized in some way was sitting down there, flaking rocks because it felt good. And that's how many tools got made. And that's how many more tools than were needed got made. That's an interesting logical finding, by the way, that they’ve discovered communities where they were like millions of knives. And it's like, how could the small group of people have needed all these knives? Well, they didn't, they just made them.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: It was prehistoric e-waste, right? So, to that point, and with a nod to SFI trustee, Josh Wolfe – because Lux Capital, his firm, invests in advanced technologies, and he's written some really interesting pieces on Medium about his understanding, informed by SFI science, about the trajectory of technological innovation. And, you know, one of the things that he talks about is how technology is getting more and more intimate with the human body. It used to be something you hold at arm’s length. Now it's something that you're carrying in your pocket. Now it's becoming something that we wear all the time. We're already looking at implantables, if things continue as they have been, that's going to be normal in the years to come. And, you know, I've been thinking about this. I think I sent you one of my own recent drafts recently about my experience with wearable computing and Google Glass, and how Google just decided all of a sudden that they were going to stop mirroring the software for Glass. And they cut off this community of thousands of people wearing this thing, who…when I started wearing Google Glass, I was dreaming about wearing it within a week. It became a part of my body image and the homunculus.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Are you familiar with the Tetris experiments?

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Yeah, You talk about that a little bit in the book, but unpack that for people.

LAURENCE GONZALES: I can't remember who did it now, but essentially, you take people who have lost all short term memory through brain damage and teach them to play Tetris. And then after a little while they'll learn very easily how to play Tetris, which is a game, if you don't know. It's little geometric pieces that fall on a computer screen and you have to turn them to orient them so they fit correctly. And then if you mess it up, it blows up and you have to start over. So, these people who had no short term memory would learn Tetris easily. They would come into the lab the next day and have no idea what you were talking about, and when you said, “Let's play Tetris,” but if they put their hand on the keyboard, they'd know exactly what to do. So, this was again, operating out of the night shift, this invisible part of us, they would start to dream about Tetris within a few days and improve at it over time. There's this whole memory system that exists in which you embody things. And there are many, many examples of this, but what you're talking about is this embodied memory system.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Yeah. So, Jaron Lanier, who was a founding figure in virtual reality now works at Microsoft on the HoloLens, he talked about the plasticity of the body image as a feature that we could explore for educational purposes in virtual reality. And you know, my experience with Glass and then suddenly losing this part of my body because…

LAURENCE GONZALES: They cut you all off?

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Yeah, they just immediately stopped mirroring the app, and the final update to the device had like one 10th of the functionality that it used to. Admittedly, I'm not somebody…as you are aware of and reflect on in your book, I've had trauma. Everyone is coping with some degree of trauma. And I don't mean to magnify this issue. It's certainly a lot less than divorce or cross-country moves or the loss of love or any of these things, but nonetheless, this experience forced me into reflection on our increasing interdependency with technologies. And, you know, David Krakauer has talked a lot about this in terms of de-cephalization in the evolutionary process. That as we scaffold ourselves more and more with environmental processes, our own cognition becomes more and more vestigial. I began to be really concerned.

I hope that Josh Wolfe is listening to this, and is thinking about the cognitive and ethical issues of wearable technologies, because you know, someone else whose trauma informed an insane career in hypergraphia was Phillip K Dick. And in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, that book starts with the mood organ, which is like the alarm clock that Rick Deckard, his wife is using to regulate her own emotional state. And he's arguing about why she's choosing to be sad. But we have these technologies, now. We have wearables that regulate through vibration, your parasympathetic nervous system. And the question for me is, are we digging ourselves into a hole we're going to have a hard time climbing out of. If we become more and more dependent on technologies that…as we've seen through the way that the pandemic has disrupted our food supply chains and so on, that are based on brittle systems that are regulated externally. So, this is like, this is where I think I'd like to bridge to the conversation that you have towards the end of this book, about the internal and the external locus of control, and how important it is to reclaim our sovereignty. Which, in the case of wearables, might look like owning your own data or having agency over your own software, but more broadly, it's this issue of how we deal with trauma, and how do we find wholeness?

LAURENCE GONZALES: Psychologists use this term “locus of control,” and we're all familiar with what I call the whiner. This is a person who is always complaining, always blaming others for things that happen to the person, and these people take on a kind of attitude of helplessness, that the world is victimizing them, and indeed they live like victims. And this is called an external locus of control. It means you view your life as something that shit is happening to. The internal locus of control is pretty much the outburst. It's, when something bad happens, say you trip on the sidewalk, you don't say, “I'm going to sue those guys.” You say, “Wow, I better be more careful and watch where I'm going.” And so, your knee jerk reaction is to take on the responsibility yourself, to blame yourself for things and not make the blame pathological, but make it be inspirational.  So that you say,”I've got an idea, I'm going to do this, this and this,” and you change your behavior.

And these are adaptations that are very good for survival. They're very good in situations such as this pandemic, where in the case of me and my wife, we have to stay home, pretty much. We can't go out socializing. We don't go to the grocery store. Other people do that for us. And we're making creative use of the time, not like, “Oh my God, this terrible thing is happening. I'm so bored,” but like, “Wow, I always wanted to learn German, let’s do something about it.” And so, it's one of the things I say in both Deep Survival and Surviving Survival, is that survivors – and in both cases, that's what you need to be – take adversity and turn it into opportunity. So when something bad happens, that means something new has happened because this thing has not happened before.  And it's an interesting learning opportunity. How exactly did we get here? What can I do with it?

I looked at my 401k when the stock market was crashing in March and it was like getting beaten up like a red-headed stepchild. I'm part Irish, too, by the way. I went out and I bought some stocks, because they were like basement bargain, cheap. You know, I bought things that I knew would bounce right back like Amazon. I got Amazon in March for like 1700 a share and it's now 2,700 a share. So, there was adversity. I was looking at my retirement fund and going, “Oh my God, I'm going to pull my hair out,” and on the other hand, I said, “Wow, this is really cool. I'm going to get some more.” So, you know, that's just one example. That's a trivial example. But in all of our doing and thinking, we can be constantly saying, you know, what can I do with this? How is this useful? And, moreover, how can I help? Because if you're helping someone else, one of the things I say in Surviving Survival is find somebody who's worse off than you are, and help that person because then suddenly you're a rescuer, you're not a victim anymore. So, I think these are all important things for our time.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: That brings me to the last issue that I wanted to touch on with you for this call, which is that issue of service that you just highlighted, and how it relates to use of travel as a way of recovering, as a way of coping, and getting on with and living with trauma. You identify that, like you said, with rage versus stalking pathways, that curiosity and fear are kind of mutually incompatible, and that to follow curiosity, to recognize opportunity, to pay attention, to be vigilant, but in a sort of focused, open, beginner's mind kind of way, leads us out of the fetal position that were curled up in, and out into the world, in what for many people who have survived really horrible life experiences becomes a life path of service, of teaching, or of social work. So again, I'm thinking about this on the social scale that we're on and there's sort of the childish level at which everyone's like, “Oh, as soon as this is over, it's going to be the resurrection of the great American road trip.”  But on a bigger level, there is this question of right before the pandemic, it seemed like we may never find the solidarity as a species that we experienced in the moments of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. And like, here we have now lived through something traumatic together, and we're going to be in a position where we have to turn our attention out of the cave and into the cosmos and ask ourselves, “How do we stay curious, and how do we explore in a way that allows us to live with what we've just undergone?” And I, that, for me, that really speaks to what SFI has been communicating with the InterPlanetary Festival. It gives us a sound moral and empirical founding upon which we may be able to reconstruct a concerted global effort at space exploration. Or at least, a restoration of travel in a way that is, for lack of a better word, more spiritually attuned than the kind of predatory tourism that we were slipping into before all of this.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Well, I think that one of the key qualities of a survivor is curiosity, because the system of memory that we bear that runs everything that I talked about earlier works like this. We see something, and we very quickly make a mental model of it, which is a kind of prototype. So, I have a one-year-old granddaughter and the first time she saw a dog, somebody said “doggy.” And the second time she saw a dog, somebody said “doggy.” And the third time she saw a dog, she tried to say “doggy”. She knew exactly what it was. She had created a sort of prototypical dog, an er-dog of some kind in her brain. And we believe this happens in the hippocampus, but in any event from that moment on, through the rest of her life, she'll never mistake a dog for anything else. She'll never mistake a goat for a dog.  And moreover, dogs look so different. I mean, from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane, to a Lhasa Apso, it's a miracle that she can do this and create what I call a mental model.

Well, we do that with everything, everything in our world is made up of mental models. Eventually, unless we see something we've never seen before. And because it makes us so much more efficient, our brain/body system likes these mental models, and it doesn't want you to see the world. It wants you to see the model. Then we take these models and we do things with them. So we learned, for example, to tie our shoes, and we learn even to drive a car unconsciously, automatically. If we play tennis, the tennis serve is automatic. We can't think through it. If we think through it, we'll mess it up. It takes place explosively and automatically, most of our behavior is of that type.  And if you do something enough, it'll become automatic.

And I think you and David talked about that habitual behavior before on this program. It’s something that's made us very efficient. If you were the guy who could see the single stripe through the bushes and know that it was a tiger, you could run away and carry your DNA to the next generation. On the other hand, in our modern lives, it's not always helpful.

The guy who is curious and who jumps over this process and says, “Hey, what's going on? Maybe I don't know,” because the system is designed to tell you, you know what? You don't need any more information. You don't have to study this problem anymore, you know, automatically to do, go ahead and do it. That leads to accidents. It leads to mistakes. You know, when I talk about this stuff in keynote speeches or something, I often begin by saying, “Raise your hand, if you have ever known someone who has made a really bad decision about a love relationship.” And of course, if you're over 13, you raise your hand, right? Because you do know someone, and maybe it's you. So how do you make those decisions? Well, you don't make them by calling your lawyer and saying, “Hey, I met this girl. What do you think?” You make them through the night shift. You make them automatically. And so goes the rest of the world. And only by being curious are you going to interrupt things and say, “Maybe I don't really know enough to act. Maybe I should learn more about the situation I'm in.”

And I see this in simple things, very simple things out on the street. People wearing masks, who don't recognize that you have different holes in your face that are avenues for pathogens to get in.  You've got two eyes, two nostrils and a mouth. And if you're going to cover up, you better cover them all. So, you need to cover your nose as well as your mouth. And you need to put on goggles or a face shield if you want to cover your eyes. I mean, I see this on a TV. I see supposed experts with their mask over their mouth, but not over their nose, and I think, “What are they thinking? I don't want to listen to this guy. He doesn't know what he's talking about.”

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Yeah. As someone with a lot of Jewish blood in me. I tend to think of the moment that we're in right now as sort of the Exodus, it’s like the beginning of our 40 years of wandering. They talk about this, it's like the so-called promised land was only a few miles away. And yet somehow, they ended up like wandering in these canyonlands for 40 years. Like, what was that? And arguably, you know, if we're talking about what you just said, it might have been just a maladaptive thing. But then again, there's also recent research on the random walk in search for foraging animals, and how you watch the basking shark. Then it takes a levy flight. You know, if there's no external stimulus to guide it in a directed hunt, then it just sort of moves through the space randomly. And I look at your chapter on travel, which I found deeply inspiring, and I think, maybe that's what we have prescribed for us right now is that without clear guidance, without an operable set of models that we can fit to the novel reality that we're now inhabiting, that what this takes is an open, random walk through the space of possibility until the lava cools and it becomes something that we can stand on.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Well, one of the things that I've been doing – speaking of how to fill this time, and of course I can fill it writing, but I can't write 24 hours a day – is just picking up books that I've had for a long time and never read and seeing, you know, what is, what is in this book anyway. And it can be anything from a novel to a scientific book, to a historical book, to a biography. Just by following my own theory, which is not mine, but the theory of the night shift that I've talked about, you don't know what you put in there that's going to be helpful. And so, this is another way in which curiosity is important, because if you're very narrow – and this is a definitely an SFI concept – if you're very narrow, there are a lot of things you won't think of.

And so, to get back to my father, he taught me that everything is interesting. There's no such thing as a boring thing. And so here is a rock on my desk, what's so interesting about that? And then I look at a book on my bookshelf and there's a thousand-page book by John McPhee about geology. That's essentially the story of this rock. How can you write a thousand-page book about a rock? Well, he did. And it's quite a page-turner, too. It’s called Annals of the Former World. I highly recommend it, do you know it?

MICHAEL GARFIELD: No, but I was trained in paleontology, so I can sympathize.

LAURENCE GONZALES: It's an indication of, like, ok, I'm going to put all this geology in my brain. I have no idea what use it's going to be. But somewhere along the line in the night shift, in the constant processing of information, it may lead to something that pops out when I want it. And it's a miracle. And so, I think this is a very important concept for people to bind to their souls with hoops of steel.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Excellent. Well, Laurence, do you have any parting thoughts for us before we wrap this? It's been awesome talking to you.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Thank you. I enjoyed talking to you.  You too. Well, my thought is to be aware. I mean, some people call it mindfulness, but to just be aware. And it's hard to be aware, because of the memory system I talked about that makes everything automatic. You know, we make mental models and we forget what everything looks like. And we make what I call behavioral scripts, automatic actions. And we forget why and how we're doing things. All you have to do is slow down and really pay attention to see, well, there is this thing on my desk and it is a key. What is it the key to? why do I have this? And then to realize that there's a mechanism that's turned by this key.  “Wow, let me look inside this clock and see how it works.” You know? It leads down a path. To be curious, leads you down a path.  I was once exploring caves in Custer State Park in the Black Hills. I was with an expert who was mapping the caves, and we went deep, deep, deep into this cave, 600 feet below the ground. It is the largest barometric cave, I think, in the United States, called Wind Cave because it breathes. And luckily, I was with him or I would never would have gotten out. But at one point in the cave, I said, “I wonder where that goes,” and pointed down one of the holes in the rock. And he said, “That's the beginning of becoming a caver, to want to know where does that go?”

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Well, to beginnings then. Thank you. Awesome. We'll end it there.

LAURENCE GONZALES: Okay. Thank you, Michael.

MICHAEL GARFIELD: Thank you, Laurence.