• Question: if you had a life or death situation, and you chose to live when someone else is suffering, what in your brain tells you to save yourself?

    Asked by myersh to Hannah, Ian, Jono on 27 Jun 2013.
    • Photo: Hannah Brotherton

      Hannah Brotherton answered on 27 Jun 2013:

      Hi myersh,
      This question is something very very close to my heart!!!!!

      If someone was inside a burning car and you were driving past – would you stop and help them???

      Many would be scared to..maybe because they wouldn’t know what to do, or maybe there is no point because they would both die, maybe they are too selfish and don’t care (because some people can be like this)

      Some might stop…..because they know the person, because they know they can help, because they just happen to be a firefighter.

      This decision is based on WHO you are……so this depends on our personalities. Our personalities are in the front part of our brain and can differ from person to person because of how they were brought up.

      However, we still have animal instincts and this is why we get scared of loud noises or run away from snakes. If we were still animals and saw a burning car, we would run away.
      But the front part of our brain makes us human and lets us make decision, taking into decision the pros and cons. We also have emotions which can affect our decisions like empathy – so we feel what others feel

      So when we see a burning car, we have the animal instinct to run away from the fire, but our human side feels empathy and tell us that person is hurting and that we must save them no matter what.

      Usually the human side ins and that is why we get amazing heroic stories in the press

      But why do people save themselves…..the brain has put together all the cons and pros – like how strong you are – can you breathe in all the smoke, is the person already unconscious and tells you body to get out of there. But sometimes we can fight what our brain tells us and this is why people just stand there and watch – because they haven’t decided what to do yet.
      Sometimes in some situations, you can only save yourself – but people of our human side and the emotions we feel like guilt – we can feel really upset and angry afterwards.

      This is why we have scientists that look after our minds and thoughts – these are called clinical psychologists. Just because we might not have been physically hurt when trying to save someone, by saving ourselves and seeing them die will impact our emotions so much that we can become overwhelmed by guilt and sadness. Psychologists are here to treat your mind and treat your emotions.

      I hope that wasn’t too deep for a Thursday morning 🙂

    • Photo: Ian Wilson

      Ian Wilson answered on 27 Jun 2013:

      Hi mysersh,

      This is a great question because it looks at human characteristics that we’re sometimes not happy to look at.

      Pretty much every animal on the planet has a survival instinct. This is a natural urge to preserve your own life. All life is born with an instinct to save itself and protect itself from danger. That’s because, if you live longer, you have a better chance of mating and passing your genes onto the next generation. And that’s a key part of life – everything competes to pass on its genes.

      What’s really fascinating is when we choose to save someone else instead of ourself. In that case, we’re fighting our natural instincts and sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of others. This is called ‘altruism’ and can be seen in a few species in nature. For example, soldier ants will launch suicidal attacks on predators attacking the colony in an effort to save the colony. They know they’ll die but their group and species stands a better chance of surviving if they sacrifice themselves. Maybe this is what’s happening to us subconcsiously when we save someone else and sacrifice ourselves – we just don’t know yet!

      Hope that helps,


    • Photo: Jono Bone

      Jono Bone answered on 27 Jun 2013:

      Hi myersh,

      That’s a tough question.

      I suppose our survival instinct is largely associated with the fight, flight or freeze response. This is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival and primes us to fight, run away or freeze (play dead). This reaction comes from the hypothalamus, in close association with the limbic system of the brain.

      Some people do die to save others. This is most likely if the individual you are saving is related to you. This is because by saving them you are in a away saving part of yourself because you share genes with them. This is called kin selection and is used to explain how these kind of behaviours could evolve.