Thursday, March 4, 2010


"BARCELONA, Spain – Monstrous waves that smashed into a Mediterranean cruise ship flooded people's cabins, broke windows in a restaurant and sent terrified travelers screaming for doctors, passengers said Thursday."

The Associated Press reports that freak waves--over 33 feet high--took two lives and left fourteen injured. The cruise ship, the Louis Majesty, was 24 miles off the coast of Cabo de San Sebastian near the Spanish town of Palafrugell, when the wave hit.

How would you handle disaster? How would you behave if the ship was going down? A recent study analyzing survivors' behavior on sinking ships says it all depends.

The Titanic and the Lusitania sank just three years apart, and in many ways they are thought of as sister tragedies--both gargantuan ships with roughly the same amount of people on board ending in disaster--but the differences end there. The Lusitania was torpedoed and went down 18 minutes after being hit, and the Titanic remained afloat after hitting an iceberg for over two and a half hours--enough time, according to a recent study, for social rules to come back into play. People behaved differently on the two ships.

"Precisely how long it takes before decorum reappears is impossible to say," says an article in Time about the study by Bruno Frey of the University of Zurich and David Savage and Benno Torgler of Queensland University, "but simple biology would put it somewhere between the 18-min. and 2-hr. 40-min. windows that the two ships were accorded. 'Biologically, fight-or-flight behavior has two distinct stages,' the researchers wrote. 'The short-term response [is] a surge in adrenaline production. This response is limited to a few minutes, because adrenaline degrades rapidly. Only after returning to homeostasis do the higher-order brain functions of the neocortex begin to override instinctual responses.'"

In a ship wreck, it takes time to be civilized. What about the high-stress, alienating culture we live in? Are we too rattled to get beyond "fight or flight" and use our higher-order brain functions?

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