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Stories of survival: Tales of extreme struggle continue to captivate
A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' "In the Heart of the Sea," which opens in December. - photo by Tiffany Gee Lewis
As a child, Laurence Gonzalez cut his teeth on the survival stories of his father.

Federico "Fred" Gonzalez was a World War II bomber pilot whose plane was shot down over Germany in 1945. He plunged 27,000 feet, broke nearly every bone in his body, got captured by the enemy and somehow walked out alive, the only member of his 10-man crew to do so. With one arm permanently immobilized, he went on to become a renowned biophysicist.

These stories, told only when Laurence Gonzalez pestered his father for details, became the impetus for a lifelong fascination with survival and an award-winning book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.

Though he may have had some of the best bedtime tales growing up, Gonzalez isnt alone in his attraction to survival stories. Laura Hillenbrands Unbroken, the account of Olympic runner Louis Zamperinis survival during WWII, both at sea and in a Japanese POW camp, has sold nearly 4 million copies and is one of the longest-running New York Times best-sellers of all time. The film version of "Unbroken" opened Christmas Day 2014 and earned more than $115 million at the domestic box office.

Books like Jon Krakauers Into Thin Air and Alfred Lansings Endurance: Shackletons Incredible Voyage shoot to the top of publishing charts. The public laps up movie portrayals of the same kind, from Unbroken to the upcoming Dec. 2 release of In the Heart of the Sea," which tells of the ill-fated 1820 whaling voyage that inspired "Moby Dick" and is based on the book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Gonzalez said the ongoing fascination stems from our innate drive to survive. In the developed world, we live in a sort of fishbowl. We survive from one fast food meal to the next. Our most harrowing moments might be merging onto the interstate during rush hour. Yet not too long ago, our entire lives were taken up with survival.

The coping mechanisms that we have are the stories we tell, he said. When we strip away the distractions, thats what we see.

More than skin deep

Gonzalezs fascination with survival led him to a deeper study of brain imaging and what happens at a cellular level when humans are confronted with survival. All of this plays into not only how we cope in survival situations but also why we are drawn to secondhand accounts.

In neuroscience, the idea of "mirror neurons" is a relatively new area of speculation, but it's one that Gonzalez stands by. Mirror neurons fire when a human (or animal) acts, or when a human watches the same action in another human, hence the mirroring effect. Its the neuron that causes us to cringe or gasp when we watch someone else cut his finger or fall off a bicycle.

According to Gonzalez, mirror neurons are powerful because its through them we learn to do almost everything, and its those mirror neurons that keep us captivated with tales of survival.

When we read about Ernest Shackleton, the British polar explorer whose ship Endurance became trapped in the ice and crushed beyond repair, we are right there with him, pulling his crew to safety on an ice floe in the middle of the Southern Ocean. When we read "Unbroken," we can feel the sharks bumping against the disintegrating life raft as Zamperini bakes under a brutal sun.

Gonzalez said it's the structure, not just the story itself, that captivates us. The classic story structure we learned in grade school of inciting incident, rising action, climax and resolution exactly mimic the bodys emotional response in any survival situation, whether in real life or through story, according to Gonzalez. Our pulse quickens, we start to breathe more heavily and sweat builds on our forehead. Down to a cellular level, we are wired to have a chemical response when it comes to survival.

The bigger picture

However, more than just good entertainment, survival stories can help us understand more about human nature. From the horrific accounts of cannibalism in In the Heart of the Sea to the triumphant conclusion of Unbroken, stories of survival get at the heart of what it means to be human.

Its these stripped-down crisis moments that Amy C. Edmondson, the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard University, studies to ferret out what creates compelling and effective leaders.

Crises like the Chilean mining accident in 2010, in which 33 miners were trapped underground for 69 days, provide insight into how leaders manage crisis situations and how those effective tools can be used in the everyday workplace.

The best leaders, Edmondson said, attend not just to the physical needs of those in trouble but to the emotional needs as well. Theyre also aware of not just actualized threats, but ambiguous ones.

Not surprisingly, Edmondsons favorite survival story is that of Ernest Shackleton. Hailed as the consummate leader, Shackleton survived his ill-fated voyage with the lives of his entire crew intact.

Getting beyond the book

While tales of survival continue to captivate the public eye, adventuring beyond the book has gained momentum in the last few decades. Ultra marathons, extreme sports and other exploits seem to be the developed worlds way of stepping outside the fishbowl to experience life.

Up until his 30s, Ray Zahab was the opposite of an adventurer. He was a sedentary chain smoker on a road to nowhere. When the realization hit him, he turned his life around. He started by ditching the cigarettes and picking up running. A year after taking up the sport, he ran a 100-mile race and won. He realized that the human body was capable of incredible feats, such as running 7,500 kilometers across the Sahara Desert, which he did with some buddies in 2006.

That exploit seared a hot realization into Zahabs brain. He wished he could have had that perspective not in his mid-40s, but when he was 16. With that in mind, he founded impossible2Possible (i2P), an ambassador program that sends groups of young people on physically demanding, educationally based excursions around the world.

These kids come in with a preconceived notion of what they can do, Zahab said. They leave realizing they can do anything with their lives.

Zahabs own brushes with death while crossing the Atacama Desert and traversing the Arctic ice have taught him not to take things for granted.

Ive learned that people are capable of so much, he said. If theyre wiling to give themselves a chance and a risk, they can get out there and do some amazing things.

He also insists that adventure and survival don't need to be extreme. While good stories lie between the pages of a book, the best are the ones we experience ourselves.

Theres always an adventure to be had, he said. Wherever you live, you can get to an amazing adventure.