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Our brains might turn us into drunken rodeo clowns when things get bad, but that's just the beginning. Thanks either to evolutionary glitches or the will of Satan, human bodies also come equipped with a range of "survival instincts" that will kill you off quicker than a nuclear weapon covered in ebola.
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Good luck finding a hand-washing station now.
Take drowning, for example. Movies and television have long taught us that drowning people behave pretty rationally: They wave their arms around, shout "HELP," and generally try to attract the attention of the nearest or sexiest lifeguard. But in real life, a person who is about to be issued Davy Jones' locker combination will display a far less dramatic set of movements known as the "instinctive drowning response." Their arms will flap downwards in an attempt to keep their mouth above the water's surface, and their vocal cords will be suppressed. That's right, a drowning person cannot make any noise. In fact, it's not uncommon for swimmers to ignore people who are drowning a few yards away, because everyone expects drowning people to act like sensible human beings, not flail around silently like they're embarrassed by their awkward doggy paddle.
Behind this woman, the pool filter is slowly clogging with a giant pile of corpses.
And that's just one of the ways our instincts can kick us in the neck when things go wrong. People who have frozen to death are often found undressed, because our body's reaction to severe hypothermia can make us feel uncomfortably warm. Panicking divers have been known to remove their mouthpieces underwater, believing that getting rid of that pesky blockage will help them breathe better. In other words, the face of a human being in mortal danger is less "stoic action hero" and more "raving, incompetent naked person."
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Only some of us can be both.
A Canadian researcher studying the behavior of people who survived getting lost in an inhospitable environment (otherwise known as "Canada") discovered that one of the best things you can do to aid your own survival is to be a child under 6. This is not because Canadian rescue teams are only interested in people who can critique their Dora the Explorer fan fiction but because these protohumans who have barely grasped how to poop properly apparently exhibit more sensible survival behavior than a lot of adults.
Why? Well, imagine yourself as a 6-year-old, lost in the freezing Canadian wild. If you get cold, you're probably going to stop, curl up inside the nearest place that looks warm, and stay there until you get rescued 12 hours later. But what do most adults do in the same situation? They start thinking like this: "Fuck, I'm lost. Better retrace my steps. Or should I follow a stream? Or head north? Gotta do something! Come on Joe, you can do this."
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Tragically, Joe was later found living in Alaska.
We grown-ups are always "fixing" awful situations by choosing actions that make things much worse. We leave our cars when we're stranded in deserts or snowstorms, even though we're usually much safer staying with them. We wander off-trail on hiking trips, because we think we're smart enough to find our way back. We decide to go and try to reason with that mountain lion. We want to feel like we're smart and in control and doing something, because that's less scary than admitting that we don't know what the hell we're doing. Which is why pretty much every outdoor-survival course on Earth will tell you that when you're lost in the outdoors, the first thing to do is to stop, stay still, and build yourself a fire. The purpose isn't just to keep yourself warm, or piss off Smokey the Bear: It's to give you a chance to calm down and consider your actions before you launch any "clever" plans that might kill you.
Note: this advice does not work quite as well when you are escaping a burning building.
As for handling other kinds of crappy situations, experts tell us that the people who do best are those who have experienced similar danger in the past, whether through drills and training courses or through plain bad luck. So if your first survival situation goes badly, but you do manage to get through it alive, just mop up the spilled bodily fluids and tell yourself that you'll do better at it next time.
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Survival: It's a lot like being an awkward person in college.
C. Coville's Twitter is here.