Skydiving and Expectations
What Acute and Chronic Stress Do to Us
In 2004, a thirty-something man died after his parachute failed to open. When his equipment was examined, it was found he’d never even tried to release his reserve parachute, which was intact and fully functional. The interpretation was that the jumper had suffered a stress overload that had given him such a mental block that he couldn’t remember what to do or think clearly enough to take the right action. A study of skydiving fatalities in the United States in the 1990s classified eleven percent as “no pull.”1 A fatal consequence of stress.
An individual’s cognitive abilities are partly inherited but remain nonetheless far from constant. In Chapter 7 we saw how childhood experiences can form the brain and affect cognitive function. There are also more fast-acting effects that change a person’s abilities from one day to another, even from minute to minute. One of the most significant factors behind such effects turns out to be stress.
Psychologists John Leach and Rebecca Griffith at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom decided to look into how stress caused by skydiving influences working memory.2 While one accompanied the skydivers in the plane and tested their working memory during the minutes before they were due to jump, the other waited at the landing site to test their working