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Smart Pop Classics: The Neuroscience of Survivor

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. In “The Neuroscience of Survivor” from The Psychology of Survivor, Dr. Karyn Frick explores why Survivor is tough on brains, and why the “Sole Survivor” might have the most resilient brain.

Outwit. It’s the first of the three tenets upon which Survivor is built, and is perhaps the most important. The other principles of the Survivor mantra, Outplay and Outlast, both involve elements of physical strength. Strength can enable an individual to outplay rivals in Challenges and better endure the harsh physical conditions of the game. But the strong do not always survive. If physical strength was the critical element in an individual’s ability to win the title of “Sole Survivor,” then past winners such as Sandra Diaz-Twine or Jenna Morasca should have been gone long before the final vote. Rather, Survivor is a game of wits-quickly judging with whom to make alliances and carefully deciding when to honor and break them, trying to make friends or win respect without betraying your strategy, and, if you win the final Immunity Challenge, carefully selecting the best person to take to the final two. Thus, when discussing the “psychology” of Survivor, it is important to consider how the human mind deals with such an intensely mentally and physically draining experience.

In modern neuroscience, what we refer to as the “mind” is really the byproduct of the activity of millions of neurons in the brain. It is the brain that forms attachments, feels emotion, and calculates the odds in our favor. As such, this chapter will focus on the contributions of certain portions of the brain to the game of Survivor. What are the critical regions of the brain that may contribute to determining who wins and who loses? How are these regions affected by elements of the game such as stress, lack of sleep and food, and age? Because we, as viewers, can never know what it is truly like to experience the game ourselves, and because CBS is unlikely to ever let neuroscientists measure brain activity during the course of the game, the best we can do is to examine the existing scientific literature for clues about how the brain might fare under such arduous circumstances. Unfortunately, the field of social neuroscience, the study of how the brain processes complex social situations, is in its infancy. Therefore, scientists still have a rather rudimentary knowledge of the specific neural processes that mediate complicated social concepts such as loyalty and group affiliation. However, several brain regions are critical for aspects of these behaviors, so this essay will extrapolate from there. Before we get started, however, it is important to review briefly how the brain works.

A Crash Course in Brain Function

The basic unit of the nervous system is the neuron. Neurons consist of three main parts-the cell body, dendrite, and axon. The cell body is the storehouse of the neuron-it contains a nucleus housing DNA and other structures that keep the cell alive. Neurons differ from other cells in our bodies because they have the ability to transmit information rapidly. Information enters neurons via the dendrite. This information can take multiple forms-for example, a change in the permeability of the membrane that encases a neuron or a cascade of chemical changes inside a dendrite. Either way, if the sheer volume of information eventually reaches a certain threshold, then an electrical potential is generated that passes down the dendrite, through the cell body, and then down the axon, the portion of a neuron that sends out information. When the potential reaches the end of the axon, chemical messengers are released which cross the narrow space separating the neuron from its neighbors (the synapse), and bind to receptors on the post-synaptic surface of these adjacent neurons, thereby propagating the information from neuron to neuron.

Individual neurons are grouped into structures that form anatomically and functionally distinct regions of the brain. Most neurons in a brain region are involved in the same psychological function. For example, neurons in the occipital cortex at the back of the brain are all involved in some aspect of vision. Neurons in the hippocampus are all involved in memory formation. Individual brain regions, then, are further integrated into brain systems, or circuits. For example, the occipital cortex can’t “see” by itself. It receives information from the eyes through the thalamus in the center of the brain. The hippocampus forms memories in conjunction with several cortical areas, including the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain. In addition, it also can influence memories made by other regions of the brain-for example, emotional memories formed by the amygdala. Thus, brain regions are not islands unto themselves; each interacts with other regions to allow us to interact with the world.

For the purposes of Survivor, we will limit our discussion to three regions of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex is likely to be involved in all psychological aspects of the game. It is a region of the cerebral cortex located right behind your forehead and is responsible for most of the high-level cognitive function (termed “executive function”) that makes humans unique among animals. This region is critical for making decisions and judgments, knowing right from wrong, focusing attention, inhibiting socially inappropriate behavior, calculating odds, projecting into the future, and forming short-term memories. Humans with damage to the prefrontal cortex typically exhibit crass and inappropriate behavior, are very impulsive and risk-taking, and have difficulty forming new memories and focusing their attention.

The hippocampus is critical for forming memories in which relationships among elements (e.g., locations or objects) must be integrated to form a context. For example, the hippocampus helps to make the mental maps of your environment that you use to navigate through the world. The hippocampus is also important in helping you to learn new information-patients with damage to the hippocampus and related cortical regions have difficulty remembering new names, faces, and factual information.

The amygdala is principally involved in forming emotional memories, particularly those associated with fear and threat. Removal of the amygdala prevents animals from being able to associate fearful stimuli (e.g., a shock) with other non-fearful stimuli that predict them (e.g., a tone). Similarly, humans with amygdala damage show little emotion and have difficulty recognizing emotions in the faces of others. They also respond much less to fear- or threat-inducing stimuli. The hippocampus helps the amygdala make sense of these stimuli by providing information about the context in which the fearful situation occurred. This information helps us to be fearful only in the context in which the fearful stimulus was encountered, and not at all times. Interactions between the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala allow us to further shape our thoughts and memories, for example, in helping us to judge the amount of fear to express in various situations, the likelihood that a previous event will happen in the future, and the amount of attention necessary to devote to various tasks.

Now that we have a basic understanding of some brain regions that are vital to the game, let’s consider how Survivor might affect these structures and the psychological processes that they mediate.

Decisions, Decisions

From the moment Survivor contestants congregate to start filming the show, the game, and the psychological stress associated with it, begins. A group of strangers must immediately begin to size each other up, and form opinions about who they like, whom they can trust, and who they perceive as a threat to them in the game. Tribal affiliations typically lead to the strongest alliances (e.g., the powerful Richard-Rudy-Sue-Kelly alliance from season one), but as the game wears on and tribes merge, managing alliances and interpersonal relationships becomes more difficult. Making the right decisions, calculating the correct odds, and accurately judging the reactions of other players to breaks in alliances and loyalties, become absolutely critical to surviving.

All of these important skills involve the prefrontal cortex. In addition, the hippocampus helps keep track of events of the game and the amygdala aids in perceiving threats to one’s position in the tribe. So how might the stresses of the game affect the functioning of these brain regions? Acute stress, such as that experienced when encountering a bear in the woods, typically enhances brain function. The rush of endorphins to the brain heightens the senses, and allows one to act quickly and vividly remember the event. However, chronic stress, the stress experienced over time, can profoundly interfere with psychological and brain function. In animal studies, chronic stress reduces the number and length of dendrites (so-called dendritic arborization) on neurons in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, thereby reducing information intake. In the prefrontal cortex, these alterations can reduce cognitive flexibility (Liston et al. 2006), and hinder the ability of an individual to change strategy when the rules or situation changes (e.g., when tribe members switch or tribes merge). In the hippocampus, stress-induced reductions in dendritic arborization impair the ability to form accurate memories about events or facts (see Kim and Diamond 2002 for review). Interestingly, stress produces greater dendritic arborization in the amygdala, which may serve to heighten anxiety and fear (Radley and Morrison 2005), and may lead a player to make a bad decision due to paranoia.

Of particular relevance to Survivor may be studies of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a disorder in which people repeatedly relive traumatic events in their lives. These patients have an atrophied hippocampus and deficits in hippocampal-dependent memories. They also exhibit reduced blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, and their symptoms suggest a hyper-responsive amygdala. Although Survivor does not produce enough stress to cause PTSD, the game is designed to produce constant stress. For example, players have been frequently surprised by sudden switches in tribe members or, as in Survivor: Pearl Islands, sudden reintroduction of members that were previously voted out. These stresses likely take their toll on the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. Altered functioning of these brain regions could lead players to become more anxious or forgetful, or impair executive function. For example, for goat farmer Tom Buchanan of Survivor: Africa, the goat herding reward Challenge should have been a piece of cake, but somehow he was not able to apply his skills well to the task and his tribe lost. In addition, hesitation in making decisions about alliances can be costly, like when Christy Smith from Survivor: Amazon was voted out because she was hesitant to commit to Rob Cesternino’s fledgling alliance. The ability of an individual to handle stress prior to the game will likely determine how much the psychological stress affects them. As such, it would appear that those crowned “Sole Survivor” previously had excellent strategies for managing anxiety and stress in their daily lives.

Sleeping in the Elements

Sleeping on Survivor appears, from the viewer’s perspective, to be very challenging. Of course, there are the relatively minor inconveniences-sleeping in groups, and not having comfort items such as pillows, blankets, or mattresses (unless they’re won). However, the elements themselves pose significant challenges for sleep. For example, torrential downpours and exposure to rats, snakes, and bugs can make sleeping all but impossible. Perhaps most harrowing of all was the experience of Survivors from Africa, who had to sleep in shifts to guard their camps against lions. As such, it’s really quite amazing that the contestants get any sleep at all. But anyone who has found it hard to think after a poor night’s sleep knows the importance of a good night’s sleep to proper psychological functioning.

Unlike stress, chronic sleep deprivation does not lead to long-term alterations in the brain; however, lack of sleep does appear to have deleterious short-term consequences on cognitive function. For example, it reduces the ability to pay attention (often resulting in accidents on the road and elsewhere) and form new memories. Sleep deprivation prevents an individual from thinking clearly, thus interfering with prefrontal cortex-dependent cognitive processes (e.g., making judgments, forming strategies). One theory also holds that sleep is critical for memory formation; while we’re unconscious and oblivious to external stimulation, our hippocampal neurons are busy replaying the events of the day and storing that information (Wilson and McNaughton 1994). This theory garners some support from evidence that sleep-deprived individuals have a more difficult time remembering things. Nevertheless, individuals with serious sleep disorders still manage to learn and remember new information, so not all remembering is dependent on sleep.

How might sleep deprivation affect the play on Survivor? A lack of sleep from the conditions inherent to the game should have detrimental effects on cognitive functions subserved by the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These effects would likely be subtle and vary from day to day, depending on how well each individual is able to sleep in camp. On its own, a lack of sleep is unlikely to significantly change how a player deals with the game. However, sleep deprivation in combination with the other stresses of the game could lead contestants to make bad decisions that compromise their position in the tribe. For example, exhaustion due to lack of sleep and hunger may have prevented Nick Brown from formulating a strategy to stay in the Barramundi tribe on Survivor: Australian Outback.

Rice, Rice, and More Rice

Without question, one of the most important challenges that Survivor contestants face is food availability. In some seasons, the tribes have been provided with rice. In others, they have been given no food at all. Being able to provide food for the tribe can, at least temporarily, afford protection from being voted out at Tribal Council. The Survivor diet typically consists mainly of starchy food (rice, taro, manioc flour) with some protein (fish, rats, chicken) and, occasionally, coconuts and fruit. Contestants who make it to the end of the game experience significant weight loss, so much so that seeing them again when the final vote is revealed can be shocking. In Australia, the final four were given a scale to weigh themselves. Colby Donaldson and Keith Famie lost twenty-five and twenty-seven pounds, respectively, and Elizabeth Filarski (now Hasselbeck) lost twelve pounds. The eventual winner, Tina Wesson, lost sixteen pounds to tip the scales at an emaciated ninety-nine pounds. Similarly, Survivor: Amazon winner Jenna Morasca also weighed just ninety-nine pounds by the final four, reflecting a loss of nineteen pounds. Out of desperation for a certain kind of food, Jenna and her tribemate Heidi Strobel produced one of Survivor’s most memorable moments by stripping naked for peanut butter and chocolate. Although beneficial for the waistline, does this kind of semi-starvation impair psychological function?

Chances are that it does. Glucose is one of the main fuels used by the body to produce energy. In the brain, neurons depend on glucose to make the copious amounts of energy they consume. Although the brain consists of only 2 percent of our total body mass, it accounts for approximately 50 percent of the body’s total glucose metabolism (Fehm, Kern, and Peters 2006). Because neurons cannot store glucose, they can be vulnerable to significant fluctuations in glucose availability.

Relatively few studies of starvation in adults have been carried out, given ethical issues surrounding such treatment. Thus, it is somewhat difficult to draw parallels to Survivor from the existing scientific literature. Perhaps the most insight into this issue can be drawn from studies of patients with anorexia nervosa. Anorexic patients experience a significant reduction in the volume of the hippocampus and several areas of the cerebral cortex, including the frontal cortex, as well as an increase in the volume of fluid-filled spaces in the brain (Connan et al. 2006; Krieg et al. 1988; Swayze et al. 2003). Further, reduced cerebral metabolism in the prefrontal cortices of anorexic patients has been associated with impaired verbal learning, attention, and executive function (Ohrmann et al. 2003). Decision-making in tasks that tap the ability to balance immediate reward with future negative outcomes is also impaired in anorexic patients (Cavedini et al. 2004). Although anorexic patients experience semi-starvation for much longer periods than Survivor contestants, the data do suggest that severe nutrient loss can influence neural function in adults. As such, the lack of food experienced during the game may influence how well an individual’s brain is able to process stimuli. Clearly, reward Challenges that lead to increased food intake are beneficial for both the mind and body, which may be why most rewards involve food or tools for acquiring food.

Are Older Contestants at a Psychological Disadvantage?

Statistics indicate that the chances of winning Survivor decrease with age. Of the contestants in the final two through season twelve, 50 percent were in their twenties, 25 percent were in their thirties, 16.7 percent were in their forties, and 8.3 percent were in their fifties. Of the first twelve winners, five each were in their twenties and thirties, and two were in their forties. None were fifty or older. Surely, one factor behind these data is declining physical strength. But can declining neural function also account for this effect?

For contestants in their sixties and beyond, the answer may be “yes.” Typically, alterations in cognitive function start to appear around age sixty (Schaie 1994). These changes are considered “normal” aging, or aging not associated with a neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. Normal aging is associated with an impaired ability to remember new information-e.g., new facts and events, the order of events, multiple items at a time, and the source of new information (see Woodruff-Pak 1997 for review). Spatial memory, the ability to use a mental map of the environment to navigate around the world, can also be severely impaired (Evans et al., 1984). Executive functioning may also be reduced, causing difficulty learning new strategies, planning, making decisions, and dividing attention (Woodruff-Pak 1997). These alterations are easily traced to deterioration in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which are particularly vulnerable to aging.

On average, the brain’s ability to process and store information starts to decline in the early sixties (Woodruff-Pak 1997). At the most basic level, the brain shrinks in size and fluid-filled spaces expand. Brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex experience a reduction in volume and metabolic activity. In aging humans, hippocampal size can significantly predict future decline in memory, with a smaller hippocampus in the late sixties leading to greater memory loss in the early seventies (Golumb et al. 1996). Although neuron loss with aging is much less widespread than previously thought, neurons shrink in size and lose both dendrites and synapses. The resulting reduction in the ability to receive and transmit information is significantly correlated with impaired cognitive function in aging subjects (Rosenzweig and Barnes 2003). Furthermore, animal studies report numerous changes in the neurotransmitters that neurons use to communicate. For example, deficits have been noted in the ability of neurons to synthesize and release neurotransmitters, to generate sufficient numbers of receptors to bind them, and to produce enough enzymes to properly degrade them. In particular, age-related alterations in neurons that release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the hippocampus have been associated with memory loss in normal aged subjects and patients with Alzheimer’s disease (Muir 2000). Changes associated with another neurotransmitter, dopamine, in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus lead to impaired short-term memory and executive function (Arnsten and Goldman- Rakic 1985; Luine et al. 1990).

In sum, normal aging is associated with numerous alterations in many different brain systems, which all can result in compromised cognitive function. Thus, it would seem that these age-related changes would automatically put older players at a disadvantage. However, the changes outlined above describe the mean, or average, of study populations. One of the main characteristics of any aging population is variability- that is, not all individuals age at the same rate. Thus, many elderly are as mentally sharp as younger individuals. In fact, one of the benefits of aging that is often ignored by society is the wisdom that accumulates from life experience. Although younger players might have the physical and neurobiological edge, older players should benefit from years of experience dealing with people in complex social situations. As such, older players might be construed to have an advantage in outwitting their younger counterparts.

As with all of the factors discussed thus far, the effect of age on a contestant will depend greatly on the individual. Although advanced age may put the average player at a disadvantage, the possibility that an extraordinary older individual could win the game is not out of the question-witness Rudy Boesch’s third place finish on Survivor: Borneo. However, even Rudy’s popularity couldn’t save him on Survivor: All- Stars, as he was the first survivor voted out of his tribe due to his age and perceived weakness. Nevertheless, an older player with the right combination of physical strength, social skills, and strategy usage could certainly win the game.


What may we conclude about Survivor’s effects on neural functioning? Of all of the reality game shows, Survivor is perhaps the toughest on its contestants. Other shows in this genre involve similar psychological stressors (e.g., Big Brother) or physical challenges (e.g., Fear Factor). However, the combined effect of psychological stressors, difficult environmental conditions, lack of food and sleep, and extreme physical challenges make Survivor a very difficult game to win. The conditions even forced one strong young man, Osten Taylor from Survivor: Pearl Islands, to quit the game in exhaustion. In this essay, I have attempted to review how some of these factors might affect neural functioning in Survivor players. Individually, increasing age and/or chronic exposure to psychosocial stressors, semi-starvation, and sleeplessness can profoundly affect neural structure and function. In combination, these elements may significantly affect an individual’s performance. For example, the ability of players to judge the motivations of others or make decisions in their best interests could easily be impaired due to peer pressure, exhaustion, or hunger. Perhaps the “Sole Survivor” is the player whose brain is most resilient to the stresses of the game and, therefore, is able to make the best decisions and judgments.

Indeed, Survivor is a very interesting psychological experiment. When I first heard that CBS was planning to strand willing participants on a desert island to see who could outlast the others, I thought this was a particularly cruel idea for a show. But for some reason, I watched, and got hooked. The fact that people are so eager to compete on Survivor (and indeed, to compete more than once), suggests that the challenges posed by the game are a primary attraction for players. Certainly, the $1 million prize is enough to lure contestants, but it is far easier to win $1 million on other shows. Rather, being able to claim the title of “Sole Survivor,” having outwitted and outplayed the other contestants, and outlasted the elements, is the pinnacle in bragging reality TV rights and should be worthy of our respect as such.

Karyn M. Frick, PhD, is an associate professor of behavioral neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. She received her B.A. from Franklin and Marshall College, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from The Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on the neurobiology of learning and memory, with particular interest in how hormones, aging, and the environment affect these processes. She spends way too much time watching reality TV, including Survivor, and still feels that Boston Rob should have won Survivor: All-Stars (at least he got the girl!).

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