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November 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Panic

Malcolm Gladwell explains in his latest book

from the November, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When a diver finds himself in an adverse situation underwater, he needs to stop and think about what is the best move to take. For example, he draws on his regulator and he gets no air. Does he free ascend? Rush to his buddy? Rise a few feet and try again? Try to breathe air from his BC? Which move he selects depends upon variables, such as his depth, the proximity of his buddy, and whether there is air remaining in his tank.

A well-trained and experienced divers will know just what to do, while someone more novice may be at a loss and panic, perhaps shooting to the service while holding his breath, or even yanking out his regulator when it provides no air (not an uncommon reaction from divers who die).

Most divers who die could save their own bacon if they didn't panic - - or choke. In his recent book, What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to "The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic." He cites interesting examples of Jana Novotna faltering at Wimbledon, Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch finding himself unable to throw to first base any longer, and golfer Greg Norman freezing up during the 1996 Masters Championship. However, for us scuba divers, the story of Epjimia Morphew in a diving class is indeed instructional. Here is what Morphew told Gladwell about her experience:

"It was an open-water certification dive in Monterey Bay, California, about 10 years ago. I was 19. I'd been diving for two weeks. This was my first time in the open ocean without the instructor. Just my buddy and I. We had to go about 40 feet down, to the bottom of the ocean, and do an exercise where we took our regulators out of our mouth, picked up a spare one that we had on our vest, and practiced breathing out of the spare. My buddy did hers. Then it was my turn. I removed my regulator. I lifted up my secondary regulator. I put it in my mouth, exhaled, to clear the lines, and then I inhaled, and, to my surprise, it was water. I inhaled water. Then the hose that connected that mouthpiece to my tank, my air source, came unlatched and air from the hose came exploding into my face.

"Right away, my hand reached out for my partner's air supply, as if I was going to rip it out. It was without thought. It was a physiological response. My eyes are seeing my hand do something irresponsible. I'm fighting with myself. Don't do it. Then I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind. All I could remember was one thing: If you can't take care of yourself, let your buddy take care of you. I let my hand fall back to my side, and I just stood there."

"This is a textbook example of panic," Gladwell summarizes. "In that moment, Morphew stopped thinking. She forgot that she had another source of air, one that worked perfectly well and that, moments before, she had taken out of her mouth. She forgot that her partner had a working air supply as well, which could easily be shared, and she forgot that grabbing her partner's regulator would imperil both of them. All she had was her most basic instinct: get air. Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short-term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on. But what did a novice like Morphew have?

"Panic also causes what psychologists call perceptual narrowing. In one study, from the early 70s, a group of subjects were asked to perform a visual-acuity task while undergoing what they thought was a 60-foot dive in a pressure chamber. At the same time, they were asked to push a button whenever they saw a small light flash on and off in their peripheral vision. The subjects in the chamber room had much higher heart rates than the control group, indicating tat they were under stress. That stress didn't affect their accuracy at the visual-acuity task, but they were only half as good as the control group at picking up the peripheral light. 'You tend to focus or obsess on one thing,' Morphew says. 'There's a famous airplane example, where the landing light went off, and the pilots had no way if the landing gear was down. The piloits were so focused on that light that no one noticed the autopilot had been disengaged, and they crashed the plane.' Morphew reached for her buddy's air supply because it was the only air supply she could see.

"Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is thinking about too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversing to instinct. They may look the same but they are worlds apart."

* * * * *

I recommend you read the entire chapter to understand fully the phenomena of choking and panic. However, the entire book is filled with exceptional pieces, from pieces on "dog whisperer" Cesar Milan, how we can blame no one for the Challenger disaster, and how smart people are overrated. Gladwell gained fame for The Tipping Point and other books. Order his latest through www.undercurrent.org , and our profits will help save coral reefs.

- - Ben Davison

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