The psychology of getting lost

Many of us have been there: maybe you had a low-resolution map, not knowing exactly where the camp spot is, and after every curve, you thought, "It'll be after the next one." It is important to realize if you're lost during a hike, because what starts out as harmless as this may turn into a fatal trip. 11 percent of search and rescue cases are fatal, and almost three quarters of those die within 48 hours of hypothermia.

Phase 1: Denial

You push on, believing that your destination lies close at hand. Your mental map, which is created by the hippocampus in your brain, may be inaccurate, so you're actually not where you think you are. Very few people who get lost ever backtrack in this stage.

Phase 2: Panic

You realize that it seems to be longer to get to your destination than you had expected, and landmarks seem unfamiliar. There is a tendency to hurry to 'find the right place', says search and rescue expert William G. Syrotucks. In later stages, the person behaves irrationally and may begin rushing and frantically thrashing through the brush. The amygdala in your brain had triggered action. You may think it would be rational to climb to a lookout, but you're exhausted, and instead, you easily end up injuring yourself.

Phase 3: Strategic Planning

After you've expended the chemicals of emotion (usually following injury or exhaustion), you form a strategy for finding some place that matches your mental map. You attempt to backtrack. It's too late for this, however, as by this time, you are genuinely lost.

Phase 4. Deterioration

You become progressively worse emotionally and rationally, as the strategy you have devised fails to resolve the problem of being lost. At this stage, many give up.

Phase 5: Resignation

As you run out of options (and energy), you become resigned to your plight. You make a new mental map with yourself in the center. You assess what you have and go into survival mode. You discard the hope of rescue. As paradoxical as this may seem, this is an essential step that separates the survivors with those who die. You accept the new world you are in and let your brain settle down. The sooner you progress to this last phase, the better your chances of survival.

Note: All of the information in this post was gathered from the excellent book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. It's one of my favourite books and an amazingly exciting read; highly recommended!

Have any of you noticed yourself going through these same phases? Or can you identify these phases in episodes of I Shouldn't Be Alive? Share in the comments below!

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