Inside a Hero's Head

What psychologists call heroic imagination, many pilots might call training. And Dr. Charles Raison, assistant professor in the Mind-Body Program at the Emory University School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, agreed that a familiarity with at least the possibility that such a situation could arise probably helped Sullenberger save both his own life and those of his passengers and crew.

"What are the things that make people completely lose it? One of the major ones is unexpected trauma," Raison said. "The 'new' is very shocking. Training ensures that these pilots have a sense that they know what to do -- they don't have to cogitate; they don't have to think about it. In a time of stress, it's good to have a memorized program."

But heroic imagination is not the only psychological impulse that can influence one's decision in a disaster. On the other side of the coin is a concept called "behavioral inaction."

Ben Sherwood, author of a new book called "The Survivors Club: the Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life," says that within all of us lurks a so-called "disaster personality." Think of it as your mind's set plan for reacting to a sudden crisis. And while a few of us may be hard-wired to act heroically, he said that most people simply freeze when things get too intense.

"When you look out the window and see the wing of your plane burning, you've never seen that before," Sherwood told "20/20." "And your memory searches for what to do in this situation. Finding nothing that compares to a wing burning, you search again. And it becomes an endless loop of searching and having no action."

Journalist Amanda Ripley, who has covered dozens of catastrophes and is the author of the book "The Unthinkable," said that our disaster personalities can have be a huge factor in whether or not we are able to survive a crisis.

"I think the thing that's most surprising is that your biggest threat is that you will move too slowly or shut down altogether," she told "20/20." "We think people will panic, and that almost never happens.

"The more I looked at this, the more examples I found, in sinking ferries, in plane crashes and burning buildings, you name it -- there is a good number of people who literally stop moving and they shut down."

A Hero's Instincts Are Good in a Pinch

Bea was quick to point out, however, that just because a hero is able to rise to the occasion, it doesn't mean that he or she is impervious to fear. On the contrary, psychologists know that the body's natural response to fear often helps get us out of dicey situations.

"I'm inclined to guess that at some level, physiologically, he was panicked," Bea said. "But when you're anxious in that way, you are also very vigilant, alert and able to respond."

Still, there remain elements of heroic action that even psychologists can't fully explain.

"I think what impressed me the most about this guy was that at the moment he lost the engines, he knew he couldn't land at LaGuardia," Raison said. He added that Sullenberger's instinct under pressure to forgo a different airport in New Jersey, choosing instead to ditch the Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, may have saved lives on the ground as well.

"There is a human tendency to say, 'That's an airport; I'm going to get there no matter what,'" Raison said. "What amazes me is that he was able to say, 'No, I'm not going to get there, I'm going to put it into the water.'"

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