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See Inside August/September 2008

MIND Reviews: August/September 2008

Reviews and recommendations from the August/September 2008 issue of Scientific American MIND

WOULD YOU PANIC?

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why
by Amanda Ripley. Crown Publishers/Random House, 2008
($24.95)

Your plane just crash-landed. You can’t see anything through the suffocating smoke around you, yet you know you have to get out of the plane. Do you jump up and feel your way to the nearest emergency exit or stay put, paralyzed with fear? Do you help others around you or fend only for yourself? What factors determine who you are in the face of disaster?

These are questions veteran Time journalist Amanda Ripley addresses in her harrowing book The Unthinkable. Through the riveting accounts of survivors of natural disasters, plane crashes, fires and terrorist attacks, Ripley illustrates that every person responds to crisis differently. These differences, she learns through interviews with experts ranging from neuroscientists to risk analysts, are determined by both biology and experience.

For example, soldiers who produce high levels of a stress-related brain chemical called neuropeptide Y are much more likely to pass the rigorous training tests required for admission into the selective U.S. Army Reserve. But survival is about more than chemicals: a person can, to a certain degree, affect his or her chances in trying situations. People who were in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were much more likely to survive if they had participated in fire drills. (Many people, Ripley explains, did not even know where the nearest staircases were.) Similarly, experienced police and firefighters—and people who have survived previous disasters—perform better in crises than do those who have never encountered tragedy.

Because experience is so critical, Ripley raises an important question: Why isn’t disaster preparedness more integral to our culture? Many American cities are built on fault lines and in hurricane hotspots. “Largely because of where we live, disasters have become more frequent,” she writes. “But as we build ever more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors.” Luckily, she says, it is possible to self-educate: people who take simple steps such as checking the locations of stairways and exits are in a much better position to take action if they ever find themselves in a crisis.

Ripley has accomplished a rare feat in The Unthinkable. In a page-turner as exciting as any mystery novel, she has delivered insight into a scientific mystery, voiced an important and convincing political plea, and collected a handful of tools that readers can use to empower themselves in the unfortunate face of tragedy.

FIDO THE PHILOSOPHER

Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds
by David McFarland. Oxford University Press, 2008 ($34.95)

You may not see a connection between your poodle and a robot of the future, but David McFarland thinks that they have a lot in common: both are “alien minds.” Accordingly, McFarland says, if we want to answer the long-standing question of whether robots can have minds, we need to look no further than our animal aliens.

Do animals have minds? And if they do, how would we know? In Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs, McFarland, a British animal behaviorist, takes a look at the various scientific and philosophical approaches people have employed to address these questions. Although his accounts are sometimes tedious, McFarland has succeeded in writing about philosophy in a way that the lay reader can follow. He covers topics ranging from the interpretation of behavior to what he calls the “feeling of being” and gives examples of animal behavior that appears to be rooted in conscious thought. For example, when a fox approaches an incubating sandpiper, the bird limps away from its nest, pretending to be injured. Once it has lured the predator far enough away, it flies off. McFarland shows, however, that both the bird’s and the predator’s behavior may be explained with or without the existence of mental states in these animals.

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