One of the most amazing things about reading happens when you come upon a passage that puts into words one of your personal truths. You know those times? When things you know in your bones but have never had the language to articulate are suddenly there on the page?
When you find a book that gives you these words and that also teaches you something more—well, that’s a rare thing. I’ve been reading such a book. It’s Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, by Laurence Gonzales. I’m telling you this right now, today, because I’m afraid if I don’t, I might end up so overwhelmed by the whole experience that I won’t post about it at all.
I have no doubt that I’ll be thinking about this book for the rest of my life. I want to read it over and over. I want to copy down every word by hand to help it stick in my brain. I want everyone I know and love to read it so we can talk about it. I want to stop everything and study neuroscience so I can learn more about the things the author describes. I want to meet all the people he interviews and ask them questions.
Some of the ideas at the center of this book are things I’ve talked about before. They have to do with how activities like knitting affect the brain. This is a popular topic lately. It seems like every week there’s a new article encouraging people to knit to improve their health and happiness. Most of these articles are vague about exactly how the helping occurs, though. What Gonzales does is explain in detail some of the research that shows what goes on in our brains when we do certain things and why doing these things (knitting, walking, writing, traveling . . . ) becomes the vessel that can carry people forward when trauma (or a neurological imbalance) turns their world upside down. His examples are of people who have survived extreme trauma, who have had near-death experiences like being attacked by a shark or terrorized by a lunatic or living through a shipwreck, but the conclusions have implications for everyone.
One of the main things I’ve gotten from the book is a sense of how much of what we feel and do is determined beyond conscious thought. It appears that to understand how resilience works, you have to acknowledge this.
Despite my best efforts to go with the flow and follow my intuition and let the spirit move me, I want to think my way through everything. Not understanding why something has the effects it does is a real hurdle for me. I’m comfortable when things make logical sense. I like to be in the know. As I’ve begun to get more and more out of knitting (and spinning) over the last years, I’ve thought and thought about this, about how hard it is for me to just accept that something helps and go with it without understanding what’s going on behind the curtain. Sometimes I wonder if this goes back to the fact that my brain has taken me so many of the places I’ve really wanted to go. I’m not used to doing things just because. Thinking and reasoning have saved me, and my impulse is still, always, to dance with the ones who brung me. This – despite the fact that knitting saves me too, every day.
Reading this book has changed my perspective. Gonzales has convinced me, “How much more we know than we can ever know we know.”
I can imagine that this all seems pretty sketchy, but the book is not sketchy. It’s very specific, and that’s what makes it so compelling. Gonzales talks about what scientists call the brain’s “rage” and “seeking” pathways; he talks about the amygdala and the striatum, the hippocampus, mirror neurons, and the hypnagogic state. He looks at the role the primitive parts of the brain play in who we are and what we do. He explains that we have a “triune brain,” sort of like a three-scoop ice cream cone. The first small scoop is our reptile (or frog) brain; the second bigger scoop is similar to what mammals like dogs and cats and rats have; and the third scoop is our huge human neocortex. And while a lot of us tend to think of ourselves as operating almost exclusively from the third scoop, we don’t! The frog brain and the rat brain are seriously involved in almost everything we do.
To explain this, Gonzales gives an example. We have the same midbrain visual system that a frog has. We don’t use it for seeing, only for orienting ourselves in the right direction. However, people who have gone blind because of a brain injury, whose eyes themselves are undamaged, are able to pinpoint a light in a darkened room even though they aren’t aware of being able to detect light through their eyes. Their ability to accurately point out the light comes from the frog brain. It still works even though our conscious mind isn’t aware of processing visual input. Gonzales follows this example by saying: “So here is why we are tormented in the aftermath of trauma. Because we have a frog and a rat in our brain. But that is also one reason we have a sixth sense. The frog and the rat are always watching out for us.”
To make sense of why the frog and the rat torment us AND can save us, you must read this book. I can’t do the full explanation justice, but it is life changing. Gonzales explains clearly and eloquently the role the frog and the rat play in our lives and how something like knitting can quite literally save a life.