Unobvious Drowning

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A reader emailed me a link to an article about drowning, writing that he finds that it has "interesting epistemological undertones". The article is titled, "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning", and it debunks the widespread belief that someone who is drowning is obviously fighting for his life.

How did this captain know -- from 50 feet away -- what the father couldn't recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that's all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, "Daddy" she hadn't made a sound. As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn't surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life.
I agree that the article has interesting epistemological undertones, but I think the focus on television as the cause of the misconception is misplaced. The dramatic portrayals are technically wrong, although they may mimic the related phenomenon of aquatic distress, but they are not the only reason drowning doesn't "look like" drowning to the untrained eye. (Aquatic distress may precede drowning, and there may be more time to save the victim, who can often play a role in his own rescue.) Television is only perpetuating a stereotype that seems reasonable. After all, wouldn't you fight for your life if you realized you were drowning?

I think that last question holds the key to understanding what's really going on: We are misapplying introspection to a situation in which it cannot be used to understand the actions of others. I have not thought deeply about this topic, but I think I would probably prefer a different name than "Instinctive Drowning Response". Nevertheless, it is clear that the characteristic actions of someone who is drowning are limited by his inability to breathe adequately or are involuntary. This means that the actions a drowning person takes will not be the same that a fully conscious, rational person might take.

This is a very unusual situation, and the observations of experts have shown us that "What would I do?" is the wrong basis for forming a notion of what someone drowning would "look like". This is a case where applying our introspective knowledge of ourselves to understanding the actions of others is the wrong approach and will lead us to the wrong conclusion. Fortunately, we can learn from the observations and thinking of experts to recognize what drowning really looks like, and react appropriately if the necessity ever unfortunately arises.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,
I didn't think about it earlier, but perhaps Reflexive Drowning Response would be more accurate? I remember doing an exercise where I would submerge my head in ice water. The object was then to exhale through your nose in a steady stream.

The first time I tried it, my "throat" locked up - it took real effort to override what my body was insisting I do - conserve air in the face of its sensory inputs telling the involuntary system that there was no other air available.

Whether I would have the presence of mind in a real situation (instead of an exercise) to exhale prior to surfacing to make room for fresh air is another question. It's one thing to approach an exercise calmly and with full knowledge of what you must do. It's another to have that situation thrust upon you.

Which gives me a bit more understanding of what goes on in military training. My accountant's son wanted to be a Forward Air Controller in the Air Force. One of the training regimes that that MOS requires is underwater survival. They put you in a tank with two other divers whose sole purpose is to screw with you. They detach hoses, play with your air regulator, impose barriers of various kinds, etc. If you break for the surface, you are done. They wash you out. I once thought that to be egregiously abusive.

But in light of this information, it becomes apparent that what the training is devised to do is to force you to think through your situation when panic, reflex, and even self-preservation is insisting you do something; something that in a battlefield context could get you and your team mates killed. I imagine that Para-rescue and the Coastie Divers probably have the same kind of training.

In the end, my accountant's son opted to be a TAC-P. He's the guy that calls in fire support and controls the terminal weapons guidance by lasing or other appropriate means. He had always been afraid of water - a full blown phobia that he had conquered mainly by forcing himself to do the things he feared, but, as he put it, "That underwater survival course just looked way too hairy."

c. andrew

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "A reader emailed me a link to an article about drowning, writing that he finds that it has "interesting epistemological undertones"." I first read that as "epistemological undertows," which is an interesting idea. "Beware the epistemological undertow!" "It's a deceptive current of thought--penetrate below the surface and you'll be swept out to sea." "Just as with watery undertow, the way to escape its influence is to swim perpendicular to it."

Gus Van Horn said...


I lean towards "Reflexive Drowning Response," but would need to know a lot more about the phenomenon before I'd make a definitive choice.

It is also interesting that we can train ourselves out of some of these behaviors.


"Epistemological undertow". Nice.