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June 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 27, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why You Might Remove Your Regulator When You Shouldn’t

from the June, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Many divers trying to save a buddy from drowning report afterwards that, against all reason, their buddies removed their regulators from their mouths while they struggled for air. Over the years, Undercurrent has reported on many drowning deaths in which divers are found on the bottom with their second stages hanging free, but plenty of air still in their tanks. In one article, we reported that many firefighters breathing from air tanks have been found dead in the aftermath, with their regulators no longer in their mouths.

Recently, I came across the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez, in which he reports on research by Ephimia Morphew, a psychologist and founder of the Society for Human Performance in Extreme Environments. Gonzalez writes that she has "studied a series of accidents in which scuba divers were found dead with air in their tanks and perfectly functional regulators. 'Only they had pulled the regulators out of their mouths and drowned. It took a long time for researchers to figure out what was going on.' It appears that certain people suffer an internal feeling of suffocation when their mouths are covered. That led to an overpowering impulse to uncover the mouth and nose.

"The victims had followed an emotional response that was in general a good one for the organism, to get air. But it was the wrong response under the special, non-natural, circumstances of scuba diving. It's possible that the impulse, the feeling of suffocation, was formed as an implicit memory by some previous experience that was not available to conscious (explicit) memory. And the divers had no way of knowing that the one thing that would keep them alive, covering the nose and mouth, was the one thing the organism would not tolerate. At the critical moment of decision, reason was not enough to overcome emotion. For no one would say that those divers believed they could breathe under water without a regulator.

"Morphew and the other researchers wanted to know what divers were thinking when they removed their regulators and tried to breathe without them. The answer is: you don't need to think. That's what emotions and implicit memories are all about. By tradition, reason is regarded as the highest function. But from the point of view of an organism in desperate trouble, an organism that evolved by relying on emotions as the first line of defense, cognition is irrelevant and gets set aside. It's slow and clunky. As Remarque said, there's no time for it.

"Most of the mystifying accidents that happen in the course of risky recreation, the seemingly illogical decisions, actions, and outcomes, can be explained by the same interplay of emotions and cognition that shapes all human behavior. What the scuba divers did made perfect sense from the point of view of the organism's survival: The impulse to get air is automatic, and can be overpoweringly strong. Those who can control that impulse to survive, live. Those who can't, die. And that's the simplest way to explain survival."

As for the dead divers, says Gonzalez, "If you had magically transported them to the surface a moment before they removed their regulator and asked them about their impulse, they would have told you that it made no sense: The regulator was necessary for their survival. If you were able to ask them afterward, they would tell you that they didn't intend to take it out. They intended to live."

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