Reading through the material in Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why is grueling. And yet, Ripley examines each instance - stories of the 14th Street Bridge plane crash, hostage situations, murderous stampedes in Mecca, a wedding party trapped in a fire and 9/11 - not to marvel or mourn, but to learn from people's reactions. Ripley wants to know how we respond to moments of extreme terror, and what those responses teach us. She shows how the way people tolerate and even use their fear response binds them together, but also demonstrates the highly individualized nature of disaster reaction.
Ripley, a Time magazine journalist, even puts herself under duress by undergoing both an MRI and a day of test-taking to investigate a theory suggesting that people who are subject to post-traumatic stress disorder have a smaller hippocampus (a part of the brain that helps us remember and learn). She wonders how much these biological factors matter: "Do we all walk into disasters with a probability attached to our names? Or do other things matter more - like our lifetimes of experience and the people fighting for survival right next to us?" Ripley's under-the-microscope examination of how emotions and actions shift under extraordinary pressure shows that we all contain complex reaction potential in our everyday makeup.
Eliza McGraw writes from Washington, D.C.