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

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.


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.

Rather than giving definite answers, Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs raises a number of thought-provoking questions. For example, does a dog experience pain if someone gently squeezes its injured paw? Most people would probably answer “yes,” McFarland says. But what about the rooster that lived on for another 18 months after a Colorado farmer decapitated it? Fed with an eyedropper directly into its throat, the bird gained five and a half pounds, walked around and even attempted to crow. Would that animal experience pain?

After examining the question of alien minds from all angles, McFarland surmises that most of the attributes suggesting mental processes in animals can be achieved without thought: “Probably all the phenomena that have been cited as evidence that animals have some kind of mentality have also been demonstrated in robots.” He ultimately leaves the reader with only one conclusion: we will never really know if robots can feel guilty or if dogs can be happy.


Quid Pro Quo
HDNet Films, 2008

In a dark New York City basement, reporter Isaac Knott finds a group of people sitting in wheelchairs, talking in hushed voices. A woman moves her legs. To his surprise, Isaac realizes he has interrupted a support group for able-bodied people who want to be like he is: paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.

These are characters in the feature film Quid Pro Quo, and they have variants of body integrity identity disorder (BIID), a rare psychiatric illness that causes people to feel alienated from their own body parts [see “Amputee Envy,” by Sabine Mueller; Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008]. Members of the fictional support group go by the real-life slang for their particular desire: a “pretender” wears a nonworking breathing tube, and “wannabes” strive to become disabled by ingesting a paralyzing chemical or by bribing doctors to sever their limbs.

Isaac quickly falls for Fiona, a beautiful woman attached to her unnecessary antique Milwaukee back brace. Filmmaker Carlos Brooks takes creative liberties to explain Fiona’s behavior, melding various explanations for BIID. Unfortunately, he misses the mark by focusing on the more bizarre and titillating elements of the disease, ignoring the latest neurological findings that brain damage may be the root of some cases. The movie and its treatment of BIID veer off course when both Isaac’s and Fiona’s symptoms fluctuate wildly and unbelievably. Though surreal, the film deserves credit for daring to raise the question, Why would someone who isn’t paralyzed want to be?


Inquisitive kids love learning about the brain. For those still a little too young to read Scientific American Mind, here are some excellent book and DVD choices: Why does the family dog have such a better sense of smell than Mom or Dad does? In Inside Your Brain (Chelsea House Publishers, 2007), neuroscientist Eric H. Chudler answers this
question and many more concerning how different parts of the brain work, why we experience emotions, and what happens in our head when we sense, sleep and remember. Games, experiments and illustrations help to elucidate ideas for kids 11 years old and up.

With autism increasingly in the news, some children might be curious about
what life is like for kids who have the developmental disorder. Autism: The Musical (HBO Documentary Films, 2007) follows five autistic children as they exceed expectations by writing musical with the help of their families. Buy the DVD online at www.cduniverse.com

Tourette’s syndrome may affect up to 1 percent of all kids in the U.S. In the Emmy Award–
winning documentary I Have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me (HBO, 2005), more than a dozen children aged six to 13 describe the challenges they face living with the tic disorder. Buy the DVD online at www.tsa-usa.org

Why does a raspberry taste different than a blueberry? How can we tell whether we are seeing a small tree up close or a big tree far away? In a series of five books for six to eight-year-olds called Hearing, Seeing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching (Capstone Press, 2006), author Rebecca Olien uses colorful photographs and drawings to imaginatively explain how our fi ve senses work. Neuroanatomy is not typically a topic for young children. Physician Fred Ehrlich, however, has created a bright and engaging book for kids ages seven to 11 that describes different types of animal brains ranging from a worm’s to a human’s. See how these organs work and what they can do in You Can’t Use Your Brain If You’re a Jellyfish (Blue Apple Books, 2005).