This has been a subject that has long fascinated me, but any time I delve into the literature, I am left feeling deeply bored. I guess, I want more to solve puzzles and problems than read about how psychologists have dissected how we solve problems.
That is until recently. Two years ago in an airport bookstore in Bangkok, I found the the book, How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. It is a fascinating volume, quite outside of the AP Psychology syllabus, which is too bad because it sheds more light on problem solving and decision making than the dry discussions of expertise and heuristics and biases found in our textbook does.
In the book, Lehrer reviews the recent findings in neurocognitive psychology regarding both problem solving and decision making. He takes the, by now, conventional approach of relating an interesting personal narrative of someone experiencing the topic of the chapter, and then, he discusses the neurology and cognitive psychology that explains the behavior.
He relates the story of Wag Dodge who as a smokejumper in 1940’s and 1950’s had jumped with his crew into the Mann Gulch river valley to fight a small fire. Upon their arrival, however, they found that the fire had gotten out of control. Dodge did not trust the fire; it was much larger than they were told but heading away from them.
Since they were too few to effectively fight a fire of such a size, the men moved down into the gulch and simply watched the blaze. As evening fell, the wind shifted and started blowing the fire towards them. At this point, the flames began leaping 60 meters into the air, and the fire grew to 1,500 meters wide, and almost 1,000 meters deep. At its center, the fire was over 1,000° Celsius — hot enough to melt rocks. Dodge ordered his men to drop their gear and retreat up the steep side of the gorge.
At this point the fire covered 1,200 hectares in 10 minutes. The fire was now a firestorm, moving at over 60 km/hr and roaring like a freight train. The rising heat started sucking the air in front of it causing the men to run into a head wind slowing them even further. Dodge could feel the heat of the fire scorching his back.
Dodge yelled for his men to stop and follow his directions, but they could not hear him over the roar of the flames and wind. He realized they could not outrun the fire. There was no escape. Then, he took out his matches and lit a grass fire. After the flames burned an area large enough to lie in, he covered himself with his fire blanket (designed to resist flame and heat), and waited for the fire to pass over him.
Thirteen of the sixteen men there died. The fire overtook them as they climbed the ridge. Dodge lived through the ordeal because the flames could not touch him because there was nothing left around him to burn. The buffer was enough to allow his blanket to insulate against the terrific heat. Two others did essentially the same thing as he did: they had wedged themselves into rocky outcroppings and covered themselves with their fire blankets.
How did Dodge come up with his unique method of surviving the fire? He had no algorithm or heuristic to guide him, although smokejumpers now learn his technique as part of their training. First, he contained his panic which causes you to experience perceptual narrowing where you begin to focus only on the essentials. He realized that their initial instinct to run from the fire, even if fueled by their adrenaline, would not save them. Then, his limbic system (seat of emotions) stopped interfering with his thoughts allowing him to use his prefrontal cortex to evaluate his options. Once he thought of his solution, he realized he had nothing to loose.