The Jeff Wise Blog

How Breathing Can Lead to Panic

This footage was taken from inside the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose. In June, 1996, he was flying back to his base from a training mission when his engine failed with a loud bang. Here’s what happened next:

At the time of the accident, Rose was at an altitude of 13,000 feet, and above a layer of thick clouds. Immediately he turned in the direction of the nearest airstrip, at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. But where was it? With the help of his fellow pilots in the squadron he found his way through the clouds and broke out into clear air at 7,000 feet. From there, it was just a question of keeping his wits while nursing his damaged aircraft onto the runway.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the sound of Rose’s breathing, clearly audible on the tape’s audio track.  While it sounds heavy — clearly the breathing of a man under stress — it’s not excessively fast. He was not on the verge of hyperventilation. If he had been, he might well have lost control and panicked.

The connection between breathing and self-control has been recognized for centuries, but only recently has a scientific connection between the two been identified. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, Aviation, Mastering Fear, Research, video, , , , ,

Panic Over the Hudson

Hudson River midairOn August 8, 2009, a light airplane collided with a helicopter carrying tourists near the Statue of Liberty. Both aircraft crashed, and nine people were killed. The catastrophe was witnessed firsthand by hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, and it became a major news story, much like the earlier fatal crash of Cory Lidle, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics. In both cases, public alarm and outrage led to calls for flight rules to be tightened. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, went so far as to demand that tourist helicopters be banned from Manhattan.

The FAA said they would study the problem — and two days ago, they finally began implementing the new rules for the flight-seeing route over the Hudson River. The biggest change? Now, pilots passing through the area have to stay between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, and local traffic (such as tourist helicopters) have to stay below 1,000 feet.

At first glance, it seems like the FAA has responded to the public’s concerns by implementing a substantive initiative. But has anything really changed? As someone who loves flying over the river, and hopes to continue doing so, I have to say that the answer is no. And that’s a good thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation, Policy, safety, , , ,

I Am Ready for Launch!

Wise space probeIs this some kind of an omen? I just learned that NASA is getting ready to launch their latest space telescope, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which will head out into the cosmos on Wednesday, December 9. Yes, WISE is ready for launch, just one day after Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger takes off from bookstores everywhere. To Infinity and Beyond!

Filed under: Extreme Fear, ,

The FAA’s Computers Are on the Fritz. Should I Worry?

Flights in several major hubs across the nation were heavily delayed early this morning by a glitch in an FAA computer system that helps manage air traffic. The snafu resulted in no accidents, but it raises an obvious question: could future such problems  put passengers in danger?

The short answer, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price, is no. “Radar coverage and communication with aircraft were never affected,” he told me. “So it’s not a safety problem at all.”

What happened was that the system that automatically generates flight plans crashed, forcing FAA personnel to input the data manually, and thereby slowing down the whole system. Flight plans are electronic documents that tell air traffic controllers where each aircraft is going, when, and by what route, and are required for all commercial flights. If an airliner’s crew can’t be issued a flight plan, it simply has to sit on the ground.

Though no lives were at stake, it’s troubling that the problem occurred at all. A very similar glitch struck the system responsible, the National Data Interchange Network, in June 2007, and another occurred in August 2008. After that episode, the FAA declared that it would fix the problem for good, CNET reported:

FAA representatives said that by September, it plans to add more computer memory to its data communications network known as National Data Interchange Network (NADIN). And by early next year, the FAA plans to completely upgrade the decades-old data communication network with new hardware and software. “The big difference is that (the new system) has a lot more memory, so what happened yesterday could never happen again,” said FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere.

Obviously that didn’t happen. At the moment, the FAA still hasn’t said what has caused the problem, and reports have conflicted which of the two NADIN centers failed. Presumably, in the aftermath, they’ll promise that the system will be upgraded, and that the problem won’t repeat again in the future. Hopefully, this time they’ll mean it.

Filed under: Aviation, safety, ,

Feeling Anxious? Congratulations!

Anxious, depressed, or both?If you’ve been unusually stressed out in 2009, here’s something else to fret about: Anxiety is not only an unpleasant emotional condition, it’s physically harmful. Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol weakens the immune system, disrupts the memory, and damages the cardiovascular system. Thanks to anxiety your life will not only be more miserable, but shorter.

That’s the case for most of us, at any rate. But a recent study carried out by researchers at King’s College London found out that among people suffering depression, those who suffer from anxiety as well actually have a longer life expectancy. “‘One of the main messages from this research is that a little anxiety may be good for you,” observed team leader Dr Robert Stewart.

In terms of the relationship between mortality and anxiety with depression as a risk factor, the research suggests that help-seeking behaviour may explain the pattern of outcomes. People with depression may not seek help or may fail to receive help when they do seek it, whereas the opposite may be true for people with anxiety.

To put it another way, anxiety can do you a lot of good when there really is something for you to be anxious about. Which is, I suppose, why evolution has bequeathed us with anxiety in the first place. Whatever its downsides, anxiety focuses our attention and motivates us to take action. If you’ve got a serious medical issue, and depression is demotivating you from doing anything about it, then a case of gnawing nerves is just what you need.

Filed under: Anxiety, Threats, , , ,

Everything’s Normal, pt 2

Another perspective on getting swept away unexpectedly.

The incident took place last April in Haines, Alaska. The helmet-cam belongs to Chris Cardello. According to Freeskier magazine, Cardello was wearing a device called an Avalung that allowed up to breathe while trapped in the concrete-like snowpack:

Chris described it like this: “When the slide propagated, I tried to remain as composed as possible and make sure my AvaLung was in. As I was getting buried and the slide slowed, I threw one hand up and with my other hand I grasped the AvaLung, which had been ripped out of my mouth during the turbulent ride. While I was buried, I tried to be as calm as possible—I knew my hand was exposed so my crew would be digging me out shortly. I was able to breathe through the AvaLung, but it was difficult due to the snow jammed down my throat.”

To me the most interesting thing about this quote is Cardello’s statement that “I tried to be as calm as possible.” How does one do that? Famously, survival experts say that in a life-or-death situation, the most important thing to do is not to panic. This has always struck me as a rather absurd idea, since surely no one chooses to panic. But I think I understand what Cardello meant. Trapped under the snow, his heart racing, the possibility of death very close at hand, he must have felt himself on the edge of losing control. And yet he willed himself to keep it together. He fought back the creeping panic. In neurological terms, his prefrontal cortex maintained dominance over his amygdala. Sounds simple — but it’s a lot easier said than done.

Filed under: Survival, video, , , ,

The Love Drug’s Dark Side

Everyone loves oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter that functions as the body’s internal “love drug.” It has a reputation as the warmest, fuzziest chemical around. As I’ve written about earlier, oxytocin can moderate feelings of fear in social settings. But it does much more than that. Apart from a rather extensive list of functions in sexual reproduction, childbirth, and breastfeeding, oxytocin affects how mammals behave towards one another. In one famous experiment, for instance, subjects were found to behave more empathically after inhaling a dose of oxytocin-laced nasal drops.

But not all of oxytocin’s effects are so delightful. Experiments with rats have shown that increased levels of oxytocin can lead, in certain circumstances, to heightened aggression. And a recent experiment carried out at the University of Haifa in Israel has found some not-so-pleasant effects in humans as well. Subjects were given doses of nasal spray that contained either oxytocin or a placebo, and asked to play a computer game against a fellow test-subject. Actually, for the sake of experimental consistency, there was no other player — the subjects were playing against a computer. The interesting result was that subjects who had taken oxytocin gloated more when they won, and were more envious when they lost, than controls were.

It seems, explains researcher Simone Shamay-Tsoory, that oxytocin somehow helps to engage a person’s social drive, for better or for worse. “When the person’s association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments,” she says.

Filed under: Social Fear,

Sullenberger Redux

I was in the thick of writing Extreme Fear when Chesley Sullenberger ditched his Airbus A320 in New York City’s East River. I was instantly struck by how perfectly his feat embodied the central paradox of the book: how is that certain people can respond creatively to intense, life-threatening crisis? I wound up exploring his story in Chapter 12, “Mastery,” in which I  recreated the incident in some detail. This recently released computer simulation, however, gives a far more vivid sense of what Sullenberger was going through.

Kudos to Kas Osterbuhr, the engineer at K3 Resources who created the video, and to Jason Paur at Wired.com for his posting it.

Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger

Filed under: Mastering Fear, video, , , ,

Everything’s Normal, Then It’s Not

We don’t expect to have our lives upended suddenly and unexpectedly, but that’s how fear often intrudes in our daily lives.

This footage shows a rockslide in Polk County, TN, that was captured by a local news crew filming the cleanup of a previous rockslide. Watching the torrent of boulders and trees reminds me of the avalanche that struck Dave Boon when he was driving with his wife on a highway near Denver. One minute he was chatting with his wife, the next he was hurtling end-over-end down the side of a mountain. Time and again, survivors of disasters report thinking to themselves: “This can’t be real.” Looking at this footage, it’s easy to relate to that sense of disbelief.

Filed under: Survival, video, ,

Can Handwashing Save Us?

flu particlesThe nation is suffering from a shortage of swine flu vaccine, leaving millions at risk of infection from a potentially deadly pandemic. Fortunately, the experts agree that there’s a simple and effective precaution that we can all take to help keep us healthy: wash our hands. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from USA Today’s article “Stay safe from swine flu with 3 simple steps.

Studies prove that hand-washing dramatically reduces the spread of infection and is even a lifesaver. Even before the outbreak of swine flu, the World Health Organization reported that regular hand-washing — after using the toilet and before eating — could save more lives than any other medical intervention…

The Centers for Disease Control seconds the motion on its swine-flu advice page:

Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Here’s the medical-advice web site Suite 101:

Handwashing is the single most important measure to prevent the spread of infections, including swine flu.

And so on. There’s just one problem, however. There’s no scientific evidence that this advice has any scientific foundation. In fact, a recent Canadian study found that handwashing did nothing to prevent flu transmission. “Most transmissions of flu virus are through respiratory secretions — coughing and sneezing,” says my brother-in-law John Emy, who practices internal medicine here in New York. Essentially, clouds of fine particles laden with virus waft thru the air, get inhaled, and infect a new host. The hands have nothing to do with it.

Why, then do medical authorities continue to recommend handwashing as a preventative measure?

Well, one could argue that when it comes to swine flu, handwashing is at worst harmless. And it has indeed been demonstrated to help prevent transmission of other diseases, so it’s a worthwhile habit to get into. And in the short term it will at least give healthy worried folks something to do. As I write in Chapter 11 of Extreme Fear, taking constructive action in the face of danger helps to reduce fear. So if the public believes that washing their hands will help them survive the coming flu season, perhaps that’s a good thing in itself.

Let’s not get lulled into complacency, however. As the New Scientist points out in its excellent article on the topic, handwashing is just one of several ineffective measures that the general public believes can keep them safe. Getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and eating organic foods are all things that will, in fact, do nothing to prevent swine flu transmission. They’re just comfort blankets, and the downside of comfort blankets is that they can demotivate you from taking constructive action. The reality is that only vaccination offers demonstrated protection the flu. As soon as you can, get that shot.

Filed under: Policy, Research, Threats, , , ,

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise