The human mind is a truly amazing piece of the human body. It holds memories. It helps us to learn. And it controls everything that a person does every day. That includes the choices that a person makes in the direst of circumstances. It is at the heart of what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response that can help a person to survive those circumstances in question. In the new documentary, Surviving Disaster: How the Brain Works Under Extreme Duress, PBS presents viewers with a look at how exactly the human brain works. It presents stories from survivors of some of the most terrible events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as a basis for the discussion on whether it’s natural human instinct that helps a person to survive or if it is indeed extraneous factors such as “training” and “teaching” that leads to a person’s reactions to disasters. In the simplest of terms, it’s something of a discussion of nature versus nurture. So it’s a good piece for students of the social sciences.
Surviving Disaster: How the Brain Works Under Extreme Duress is an interesting documentary to watch first and foremost because of its discussion on nature versus nurture. It presents arguments from specialists in psychiatry and neuroscience to present both sides of the issue. One individual interviewed even goes so far as to seemingly come out and claim that there is no such thing as the “fight or flight” response. That one alone will lead to quite a bit of discussion. On the other side, viewers are presented with an argument that is exactly the opposite. It notes that the amygdala takes over in extreme situations and does in fact create responses that would be considered the fight or flight response. Again, set against the more psychiatric side, it makes for quite the discussion topic.
The central discussion on whether it is nature or nurture that causes the brain to react is the biggest part of what makes this documentary so interesting. At a more superficial level, what makes this a worthwhile documentary is the manner in which it is presented. It presents stories from survivors of some of history’s worst tragedies. Those tragedies include 9/11, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, and even an infamous jet hijacking from the twentieth century. Those stories serve as the basis for the arguments made on both the side of psychiatrists and neuroscientists. There are other segments. But these segments in particular take center stage in the discussion. Each segment is separated cleanly throughout the course of the documentary, making for smooth transitions that make the documentary that much easier to follow. Viewers will especially appreciate this division. It all comes together to make for a presentation that would be a welcome addition to any college level class for medical students and those studying the social sciences. It’s available now and can be ordered online direct via PBS’ online store, http://www.shoppbs.org.
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