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Wilderness Safety and the TRUTH about Wilderness Survival: EXACTLY, what is "The will to survive"?

Julianne Koepke, survives a 2-mile fall when her plane breaks up over the Amazon, and survives 11 days in the jungle before walking herself to safety. Todd Orr, survives a bear attack, then survives a second by the same bear 15 minutes later, then calmly drives himself to a hospital. Gina Allen and Brandon Day go for a walk and get lost on Mt. San Jacinto, surviving freezing night temperatures for 4 days with only thin clothing and no food, but not before finding the remains of John Donovan who went missing there exactly one year before.

We have evolved to survive. Indeed, being survivors is what allowed us evolve. It’s been hard-wired into our DNA since the primordial ooze. Over time, we may have lost our knowledge of telling time or direction from looking at the sun, moon or stars, but our survivor instincts remain so deeply rooted  that it causes us to think, feel, act and react in ways we are scarcely aware of. I’ve been a wilderness survivalist for about 35 years, and I’ve always been fascinated by survival stories. Each offers a lesson, but a few beg the question, “WHAT is ‘the will to survive’?” Then in 1994, psychologist John Leach said:

“The ‘will to survive’ tends to be used with little thought to its meaning. It has become a throwaway expression which has a circular, self-fulfilling argument: How did these people survive such appalling conditions when so many others perished? ‘They had the will to survive!’ It tells us virtually nothing about the underlying behavioral process of human survival. In fact, the phrase ‘the will to survive’ can be readily exchanged with the word ‘magic’ with no loss to our understanding of the process.”

Neurologically, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the cognitive center, controls decisions and regulates emotions. The hippocampus, hypothalamus and amygdala, the emotional center (aka the primitive brain), controls emotions, working memory, etc. If there’s a difficult choice, these two systems clash, whichever overpowers the other defines your decision. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC, aka “the seat of will”) is the conduit between these two centers, it lets you to anticipate a challenge, find the motivation to overcome it and regulates emotions like anxiety and sadness. If the ACC is larger in the left hemisphere (aka “the male brain”), your perception is more dependent on goals and more confined to details. If it’s larger in the right hemisphere (aka “the female brain”), your perception is more sensitive to features around you and more focused on patterns.

Psychologically, the first step to understand the behavioral process is to define “Will.” Will is the control we exert to act, or restrain ourselves; a deliberate or fixed desire or intention. In other words, a decision. However, modern psychologists prefer the word “volition” over the word “will” because volition is the cognitive process by which a person decides on - and COMMITS to - a specific course of action (volition is the scientific term, and willpower is the colloquial term, for the same thing). The second step is to cite its constituent parts: If the will to survive is a decision, and committing to that decision is vital, then what we are really talking about is our ABILITY to commit to a decision to survive. The third step is to completely deconstruct those parts, toward that end, I give you a set of highly inter-connected elements called, “The Four Keys to ‘The Will to Survive.’”

1- VOLITION, Commitment, and Ability

VOLITION starts with, and consists of, five decision processes: 1) An early “whether” decision; current status, needs, desires, etc. are reviewed to decide if action is required. Then there are two “which” decisions, 2) Task selection; a decision on which goal/task is to be taken first/next, and 3) Action selection; a decision on what action is to be taken first/next. 4) A late “whether” decision; a final predictive check and decision to go ahead, and 5) Action execution.

However, willpower has limits! If a task simultaneously requires self-control, decision-making, conflict resolution, complex problem solving, etc., or the overall task is perceived as too big, or the number or complexity of different tasks is too much, willpower’s neurological and psychological resources can be diminished, making you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, hopeless, etc. (aka “ego depletion”).

COMMITMENT is tied to motivation and is crucial in goal-setting. It is the critical construct between goals and task performance, in our context, whether the person is alone or not is the first consideration, then there are factors such as; personal (needs and growth), situational (publicness and origin), and interactive (a mix of internal and external factors). The distinction between the condition of motivation, and the process of achievement, is a process called committed action (goal-directed, flexible persistence). The determining key? Your personality. The ‘script’ that dictates how you live your life and routinely deal with problems. If you’re a quitter, you’ll likely give up and die. If you’re persistent, you’ll likely continue and survive.

Once you make a real commitment, it is likely you will behave consistently with that commitment by self-regulating your behavior toward achievement. Self-Regulation is about interfacing with the world around us, reducing the frequency/intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery (reactive). Not to be confused with self-control, which is about the moment and the individual, and inhibiting strong impulses (proactive). Self-Regulation makes self-control possible or even unnecessary. If the duration of the ordeal is certain, focus on what is left to do. If the duration of the ordeal is uncertain, focus on what is already done.

ABILITY to overcome your adversity determines your commitment. To do this, you must: 1) Protect the will against external (i.e. thirst, injury) or environmental (i.e. terrain, weather) issues. 2) Preserve the will from psychological (hopelessness, ego depletion, etc.) and physiological (stressors, illness, etc.) issues. And, 3) Prolong the will over time, despite duration issues (longing, boredom, etc.) so they don’t diminish the will. If we are unable to overcome adversity, we experience negative emotions, leading to a negative feedback loop.

There are just two basic factors that determine all survival ordeals, 1) The sum-total of your life’s lessons, and 2) Your personality. If the sum-total of your life’s lessons includes survival, more the better. However, the first question on this point is, how much of that is applicable to the present situation? The next question is, if it is not directly applicable, how much of it is adaptable?

HOWEVER, if a victim gives up psychologically, they risk psychogenic death. This is NOT suicide or depression! Numerous cases of psychogenic death have been cited throughout the world, as well as by native peoples. The five stages of psychogenic death are: 1) Social withdrawal; indifference, self-absorption, lack of emotion. 2) Apathy; serious melancholy, lack of energy or effort, even not bathing. 3) Aboulia; withdrawal with no emotional response or motivation, no desire or ability to help self or others, 4) Akinesia; profound apathy, no response even in extreme pain, will not bathe often laying in their own waste. And, 5) Psychogenic death; no will to live (death often follows within just three days).

2- MOTIVATION, Goals, and Hope

MOTIVATION is the start of all decisions, the fuel for all actions, the reason behind all goals. Motivation effects the direction, persistence and intensity of goal-oriented behavior and nearly every facet of human behavior. The strongest motivators are emotional, the most powerful of which is fear. Fear is not bad in itself; fear, anxiety, pessimism, etc. prompt us to plan, prepare, etc., but fear is still a negative motivator. The strongest positive motivator is romantic love, which is associated with the brain’s reward and goal-seeking areas. In fact, romantic love is better described as a motivation or goal-oriented state leading to specific emotions.

Motivation is: 1) Activation; the decision to initiate a behavior. 2) Persistence; the continued effort toward a goal, even in lieu of obstacles. And 3) Intensity; the concentration and vigor in pursuing a goal. But it’s the type, quality and diversity of motivation that’s important, not the quantity. Internal motivations are benefits you seek for yourself (i.e. personal growth, self-fulfillment), external motivations are rewards you seek from your world (i.e. recognition, material gain). Others may be driven by “family motivation” (intrinsic if family is a top value, extrinsic if one feels family pressure or obligations). In survival, your actions are directed by internal long-term motivations (i.e. returning to a loved one), and shaped by external short-term motivations (shelter, fire, water, etc.). Succeeding at a short-term goal gives us a sense of progress. However, if we fail, and can’t see another way, we need to make-do or cope. Either way, bad moods prime you to think negative thoughts.

GOAL setting is the process of establishing an outcome to serve as the aim of one's actions, thereby increasing motivation and achievement. In fact, goals and motivation are so closely intertwined that many definitions of one includes the other. The effect of goals on motivation (and behavior) depends on their properties, for example, giving people specific goals, rather than just telling them to do their best, increases their motivation. Planning the steps to your goal may help resist distraction without depleting willpower.

Be clear on the motivation behind your goal; the more definite, the better. Long-term goals are more likely to fail, so break them down into short-term goals. At the end of each short-term goal (or periodically during long-term goals), note your progress (what you’ve done and need to do), and refocus yourself. Make goals challenging, but not impossible (don’t waste motivation/willpower!). Focus on succeeding, but be aware you may fail (learn to shorten the time it takes to acknowledge it and get back to work!). One simple approach is to make goals “S.M.A.R.T.” 1) Specific; goals should not be idealistic or situational, but something you can point to. 2) Measurable; the goal must be quantifiable (essentially “more” specific). 3) Achievable; goals are no good if they can’t possibly be accomplished! 4) Realistic; the expectation of the result must also be reasonable. And, 5) Timely; the achievement of the goal must be timely to be relevant and useful or beneficial.

HOPE is overlooked in survival because hope is not well understood. Hope is defined as 1) A desire for a particular thing to happen, a feeling of expectation, and 2) Grounds for believing something good may happen. GROUNDS! A reasonable or factual factor to depend on, adding an important facet to hope! Hopeful survivors are active, look to the future and ask, "How can I help myself?" People with “high” hope can articulate multiple viable pathways to their goals, develop alternative strategies, and are confident in their ability. If they fail, they try again or find a different way. They believe: 1) My future will be better, 2) I can make it happen, 3) There are many paths to my goal, and 4) No path is free of obstacles. Hopeless people act helpless, feel out of control and don’t believe they can succeed, when they fail, they quit. If there is a single “key” to survival, it’s hope.

In 1957, Curt Richter dropped two groups of rats, domestic and wild, into water to see how fast they’d drown. Some of the domestic rats drowned in within 2 minutes, but some managed to swim for days. Being very fierce and excellent swimmers, the wild rats were expected to do better. They drowned in within MINUTES. So Richter repeated the experiment, but just before they drowned, he picked them up, dried them off, and held them. Then he dropped them back in. But this time, the rats survived 240 times LONGER! Why? They were introduced to the concept of HOPE. They learned although they were in a survival situation (again), there was still a chance they would be rescued. All they had to do was just keep swimming.

3- SELF-DETERMINATION, Control, Competence, and Connection

SELF-DETERMINATION Theory focuses on volitional and agentic action (self-directed, goal-oriented acts), and causal agency (personal empowerment). When acting agentically, self-determined people see pathways to an end. Self-Determination presumes people are focused on personal growth through three needs:

A) CONTROL, the need to feel in charge of our decisions and destiny. Control, or autonomy, is based on the understanding that people are empowered when they feel a sense of choice and endorsement in a task – their actions are volitional. People need to perceive they have choices and can self-determine what to do, making people feel self-reliant, self-fulfilling, and self-initiating. It’s the sense of control that results in confidence and even calm, without it, we may feel lost, vulnerable, and may even panic.

B) COMPETENCE, the need to master skills, making people feel able and likely to make the effort to succeed. Competence is the psychological need to exert a meaningful effect on one's environment, an individuals' inherent desire to feel effective in interacting with the environment. We are naturally driven to master tasks and skills. It’s one reason why some are highly competitive and most strive to excel. Even in daily life, we naturally try to perfect our skills and abilities, no matter how trivial. We like feeling capable.

C) CONNECTION, the need to feel belonging or attachment. Connection should not be underestimated, we are hard-wired to be social creatures, it’s part of the reason we have survived as a species. Survival ramps-up the body’s stress systems, via the fight-flight-or-freeze response, but loneliness intensifies stress by increasing stress hormones, impacting cognitive abilities, even feeding chronic inflammation and lowering immunity, so lonely people even suffer more from a common cold. Loneliness activates dopaminergic and serotonergic neurons (key to emotional well-being) in a brain region called the dorsal raphe nucleus, which activates with acute isolation, triggering the desire to re-engage. In fact, chronic loneliness is as toxic to your health and longevity as smoking about 15 cigarettes a day!! Fortunately, our survivor-self has ways to compensate including anthropomorphism, attributing human qualities to non-human things (think “Wilson” in the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway”). When ANY of these three needs are not met, we are psychologically compelled to find ways to address it. 

4- EDUCATION (“Proactive Preparedness”)

While understanding the psychological processes and conditions underpin the will to survive, they are still only reactive and analytical. To be proactive and practical, we must have a specialized understanding of what it takes to survive. A wilderness survival education is that chance to regain the knowledge we lost, enabling us to maximize our chances. The goals of wilderness survival is to: 1) Protect, preserve and prolong the will to survive. 2) End survival ordeals as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible. And, 3) Prevent survival ordeals. Fortunately, we are also hard-wired to seek control and knowing what to do is great motivation while adding to the grounds for hope.


People who survive without a single survival lesson? “We are each the sum-total of our life’s lessons. From the day we’re born, we gather the skills and knowledge of a lifetime which, upon rare occasion, become focused into a singular life-or-death event. And in that moment, we are forced to take stock of what we’ve learned, and apply what we know.”

As above, the first question is, how much of your skill, knowledge and experience is applicable? The second is if it is not applicable, how much of it is adaptable? – Louis Zamperini, shot down over the Pacific, recalled his mother’s recipes to quash the hunger of he and his fellow survivors. Edith Bone, who spoke six languages, jailed in Hungary after WWII, made an abacus from stale bread and inventoried her huge vocabulary. Hussain Al-Shahristani, Saddam Hussein’s chief scientific adviser, jailed 10 years in solitary, survived by making up math problems, then trying to solve them.

In each case, they didn’t have any applicable survival skill, knowledge or experience, so they adapted what they had. This is because who you are before survival is who you’ll be during survival. How and whether a person survives is entirely within their character, in fact it’s been said, survival does not create character, it reveals character.


“What has this got to do with me?” More than you may think! A good example is cancer, Volition, Motivation, Self-Determination, and even Education, still apply. See if you can spot them: Cancer patients at Stanford are often asked how they transcend their problems. However diverse their age, education, or background, they all go through a similar process, starting with a “decision to live.” One patient, with high-risk cancer, had a mastectomy at 29. At 31, she had advanced Stage IV cancer with massive liver and bone involvement and extensive lung metastases. She also had a strong will to live; “I would get out of bed every morning as if nothing was wrong, I may have known I was going to face things and feel sick, but I never got out of bed thinking it. I was fighting for a lot: I had a three-year-old child, a wonderful life, and a magical love affair with my husband.” Thirty years later, she is still alive, still on chemotherapy, and still living an active life. In fact, the advice for cancer patients is astonishingly similar to wilderness survival:

“Of all the ingredients in the will to live, hope is the most vital. Hope is the emotional and mental state that motivates you to keep on living. A person who lacks hope can give up on life and lose the will to live. Without hope, there is little to live for. With hope, positivity can be maintained, determination strengthened, coping skills sharpened, and love and support freely given and received. Even if a diagnosis is such that the future seems limited, hope must be maintained. Hope is what people have to live on. Take away hope, and you take away a chance for the future, which leads to depression. When people fall to that low emotional state, their bodies simply turn off. Hope can be maintained as long as there is even a remote chance of living. It can be kindled and nurtured by minor improvements or remission and maintained when crises or reversals occur. There may be times when you will feel exhausted and drained by never-ending problems. All too often it seems easier to give up than to keep fighting. Frustrations and despair can sometimes feel overwhelming. Dogged persistence is needed to accomplish the difficult task of fighting for your life.”

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