3 Profound Truths From History Channel’s Survival Show ‘Alone’

It’s been a long time since Bear Grylls commercialized the arts of wilderness survival. But if there were one primary reason why the show eventually lost popular interest, it probably had something to do with the weakness that had been embedded in the show from the very start: the ever-present camera crew.

But that’s particularly where History Channel’s Alone shows us the true nature of what it takes, stripping away the glitz and glam, leaving only the average modern human to adapt to the harshness of the wild. There’s no camera crew.

Here are three lessons to glean from such a unique and thought-provoking gem of a television show:

No. 3 — Systems depend on systems (that depend on circadian systems).

While watching Alone, I was left with the distinct impression on how each contestant’s performances progressed from Day 1. If a contestant was not able to sustain a regular sleep pattern, then that contestant’s ability to function, critically think and maintain emotional toughness decreased significantly. Thus, shelter, bedding and warmth became a make-or-break aspect of their ability to continue.

Which leads us to the circadian rhythm. According to Psychology Today, this is how the circadian rhythm is best defined: “Often referred to as the ‘body clock,’ the circadian rhythm is a cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, rise, eat — regulating many physiological processes.”

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PT also notes that when the circadian rhythm is disturbed, depression and bipolar disorder even can arise. However, the psychological detriment doesn’t stop there, because the longer the body is subject to sleep deprivation, the more the mind becomes unravelled. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says:

In addition to these normal fluctuations, not getting enough sleep — whether for just one night or over the course of weeks to months — has a significant effect on our ability to function. Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions.

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No. 2 — Physical fitness is a game-changer.

We, modern humans, have become poorly adapted to wilderness environments. Even though we may devote ourselves to living a healthy life, our muscles, joints, tendons and even equilibrium are not accustomed to some very fundamental factors. Simply put, flat and level ground puts strain on the unadapted body over time — and unless you take the time to construct them, furniture is a modern luxury that doesn’t exist out there.

Alan Kay, the winner of Season 1, knew he was getting a run for his money within minutes of starting the race [1]:

The thing that stood out to me was how hard it was to even walk in that environment. Everything is so wet and so thick that you’re burning massive amounts of energy.

By the end of the season, Kay had lost 60 pounds.

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No. 1 — To break the body, break the mind.

It’s no wonder why we weren’t exactly seeing Bear Grylls as someone who accurately demonstrates the true nature of wilderness survival. Sure, even though one may have knowledge and skill, it’s the accumulation of many small stressers that leads to bigger stressers. Ultimately, Alone shows us that the greatest toll taken is on the mind, and its ability to endure sleeplessness, physical fatigue, and the vast mental abyss of total isolation.

It’s not terribly difficult to become physically fit and knowledgeable about how to survive in such environments. Instead, all of those varying stresses accumulate against that which is the most critical component in a survival situation: the mind — and more importantly, the ideas that permeate it. Once the mind believes it has finally reached a maximum stress point and begins to sustain fatal errors (such having given up hope), then the body is soon to follow.

It’s no secret that isolation can be uncomfortable, but over the course of days, weeks, months and years, the psychological toll becomes more and more severe. It even may devolve into outright hallucinations, according to an article from the BBC that discussed a woman who had endured 10,000 hours of total isolation in an Iranian prison cell. Wired Magazine also published an article discussing the effects of solitary confinement on the U.S. prison population, telling of symptoms that they describe as “universal”:

Consistent patterns emerge, centering around the aforementioned extreme anxiety, anger, hallucinations, mood swings and flatness, and loss of impulse control.

Alan Kay: A Remarkable Mind

Thus, it’s also no wonder why Alan Kay won the first round of Alone. Out of his fellow contestants, the man wasn’t exactly the most skilled, nor was he the most fit. But what most certainly separated him from the pack was that he took good care of his mind. He kept his brain active, his ego at bay, and he regularly reminded himself of the truly simple and rather beautiful things that are common to all biological life.

A tough mind is a well-ordered mind, recognizing that true adaptation is an active state of negotiation between the man and his environment. To survive is not an act of war; it’s an act of humility and harmony, trading with — and learning from — that complex ecosystem of trees, fish, weeds, bugs, critters and morning mist they all commonly share. Alone seemed to prove that survival begins with the toughness of the mind, reinforced by the pure and simple truths that it keeps within.

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