This story comes from a book How We Decide by the brilliant Jonah Lehrer, and all credit to him for tracking it down. I will provide his analysis and also offer some of my own.
At twilight in the summer of 1949, a smokejumping veteran named Wag Dodge was leading his parachute brigade to fight a wildfire in the Mann Gulch River Valley. The valley is a geographical paradox, as the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains meet in the middle of it. While the land in the area is beautiful as a result, it’s also a prime location for particularly ferocious fires. To make matters worse, the team’s radio malfunctioned after they jumped in and they had no map of the area. Dodge worked to keep his men close to a nearby river, but soon the blaze had burned so far out of control that all the preparation in the world would have been in vain. Staring down a blaze two hundred feet tall that quickly accelerated to speeds of upwards 30 miles per hour, Dodge ordered his men to retreat.
However, he soon realized that trying to outrun the inferno was futile. Dodge then did the unthinkable; he stopped in his tracks and yelled for his men to do the same. None of his men listened, who would? Dodge’s order sounded like suicide. As his men continued to run Dodge did something that made his first decision sound responsible. He struck a match and lit the brush surrounding him on fire. Dodge then laid down on the freshly burned ground and waited. 13 men died in the canyon that day, and only 3 men survived the inferno. Two of those men blundered a small crevice in the rocks of the hillside, while the other inaugurated the use of a firefighting technique that has since saved many lives.
Dodge had invented the “escape fire”, where a smaller, controlled fire is started in an area to burn away all the potential fuel for the larger fire, allowing firefighters and others to survive blazes that previously would have been death sentences. Lehrer uses this example of creativity under fire to highlight the rational thinking generated by the prefrontal cortex in our brain. That specific lump of gray matter has been linked to creative problem solving, among other extraordinary things. However, I wish to go further with the analysis. In hindsight, especially after over 60 years of this being a commonly used technique, Dodge’s actions do seem rational. However, this is only after the fact. When you were reading the preceding paragraph, you might have sensed based on the article title that whatever Dodge was going to do was going to be successful, but your rational mind probably told you that stopping in your tracks in the face of an onrushing fire does not sound like the best strategy. While taking away the fire’s fuel with a smaller fire seems rational in retrospect, the sheer “irrationality” of lighting another fire would likely keep most people in a rational frame of mind from coming up with that solution.
Also, there was no precedent for anything like an escape fire prior to Dodge’s exploits. There was no completely rational blueprint to follow while attempting to solve this life-threatening issue. Could it be that rational thinking is in many ways constrained by an overwhelming set of norms and rules? In most situations, especially ones where we try to commit to only rational courses of action, our imaginations might be stifled. If we are constantly comparing our ideas and products to the mold, we can tweak and refine it plenty, but if we want to cast an entirely new mold we’re often out of luck. In situations of extreme emotion, the problems could be viewed in a more novel context, and those brief moments where one is freed from his or her normal framework could be seminal.
Don’t get me wrong, irrationality can lead to all kinds of poor choices, and in some cases those choices are even systematically poor (That kind of thing allows casinos to stay in business) However, in at least some cases emotional states could help lead people to epiphanies they would not otherwise have had. Our rational mind and creative thinking are undoubtedly important, but that rational part of the mind can work in concert with the irrational part of the mind to help us examine an all to familiar problem, such as facing down a fire as man has done for millennia, and examining the problem from a completely different angle, a task the rational mind may not have been able to complete on its own.
What do you think? This is just my observation after reviewing this case study, and I was unable to find any studies that support or overtly attack this theory in my literature search. Do you know of any studies that support or refute this idea? What are your thoughts about the idea in general? Please comment below or tweet @erikcarrera and we can get a conversation going.