The Jeff Wise Blog

Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen: Why Won’t She Leave Him?

The facts are straightforward: on Christmas Day, Charlie Sheen’s wife, Brooke Mueller, called 911, frantic that a switchblade-armed Sheen had threatened her. Police arrested Sheen, then released him after he posted an $8500 bond.

And then, yesterday, their lawyer told US Weekly that the couple were happily back together: “They’re very much in love, and they want to try to work it out. I think they had a really bad day, which is probably an understatement, but they need their privacy and they need some time.”

Three letters: WTF?

But as baffling as the story seems to be, science can offer an explanation.

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Filed under: Research, , , ,

Readers Driven to Panic

Is it possible for a mere book to hijack the amygdala, sending readers into paroxysms of madness? According to some photographic evidence arriving here at Extreme Fear headquarters, the answer is yes. Correspondent J.K. Lee gave copies to some relatives, who suffered the acute reaction depicted here.

Filed under: Extreme Fear,

Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem

The aughts been a good decade for Malcolm Gladwell. The  reigning king of urban intellectuals has never not had a book among the New York Times’s top 10 bestsellers since his first book, Tipping Point, debuted in 2000. (Currently, he has four.) With so much success, of course, invariably come brickbats. The latest volley of slings and arrows has arrived from the direction of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor who, reviewing Gladwell’s book What the Dog Saw in the New York Times Book Review last month, declared that the author “unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and… occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

As someone who has just published a somewhat Gladwellian tome myself, I have a somewhat different perspective. The problem, I’ve discovered, isn’t just that Gladwell is wrong. It’s that his formulations are so darn sticky. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Superhuman? No, Just Very Frightened

The AP just reported a story that vividly illustrates the incredible capacity of the human brain and body to perform under intense pressure. A Kansas man named Nick Harris was driving his 8-year-old daughter to school last week when he saw a car back up and run over a neighbor’s 6-year-old daughter.  “I didn’t even think. I ran over there as fast as I could, grabbed the rear end of the car and lifted and pushed as hard as I could to get the tire off the child,” Harris said.

The story continues:

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Filed under: Extreme Fear, Survival, Threats, , ,

Thanks, Pop Mech!

Was delighted to see that Popular Mechanics has chosen Extreme Fear as one of its Best Books of 2009. Writes editor Tyghe Trimble: “Who knew that neuroscience could keep you on the edge of your seat?” What a great magazine. In case you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend checking out this month’s gripping cover story on aviation safety.

Filed under: Extreme Fear,

For Athletes, New Ways to Fail

When the stakes are high, even world-class athletes can dramatically cave under pressure — the dreaded specter of choking. As I describe in my book, garden-variety choking is a catastrophic result of social fear, which causes all kinds of performers — from athletes to actors, and even ordinary people in the bedroom — to become painfully self-aware in a way that undermines the smooth flow of their well-practiced automaticity.

New studies from Europe, however, points to other ways in which anxiety on the playing field can cause athletes to screw up.

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Filed under: Anxiety, Mastering Fear, Social Fear, sports, , , ,

Toddlers Headed to Jail

One of the main counterintuitive takeaways of the book is the idea that fear, though generally considered a negative emotion, can both feel good and be good for you. Now comes a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that points to the harm that can result from an inadequate fear response: The researchers found a link between fearlessness and future criminality in children as young as three years old.

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Filed under: Extreme Fear, Fearlessness, Research, ,

Erasing Fear Memories – Without Drugs

Remarkable news on the memory-erasure front. A team led by Elizabeth Phelps at New York University has published a report in Nature this week about a technique for wiping out unpleasant associations by taking advantage of a psychological process known as reconsolidation. A good deal of research has gone on lately into the erasure of unpleasant memories, with the goal of treating people suffering from anxiety and PTSD, but so far the focus has been on using drugs, as I’ve described earlier.

This kind of emotional memory is processed in the amygdala, a crucial hub for coordinating the brain’s response to danger. Fear memories can be problematic because, unlike the conscious, “explicit” memories that are formed via the hippocampus — things like the name of a friend, or the number of pints in a gallon — they do not fade with time in the same way. As I write in Chapter 10 of Extreme Fear:

The amygdala’s memory system retains frightening associations permanently. If you’ve been bitten by white dog, your amygdala will never forget. But the memory can get overlaid by a positive or neutral association. If you later buy a friendly white dog, say, and spend day after day associating your pet with harmless fun, in time your fear of white dogs will be overlaid by a suppressing response generated by the medial prefrontal cortex. Your amygdala isn’t forgetting that white dogs are dangerous, but you’ve laid a new memory on top of it, like a linoleum floor over a trap door. The old unconscious fear connection remains, encoded subconsciously in the amygdala. Under stress, the buried fear can spontaneously reemerge.

In her study, Phelps explored the effect on extinction of  reconsolidation, an intriguing effect in which a memory that has been recalled into consciousness becomes temporarily malleable and subject to change. Previous experimenters have administered drugs, such as the beta-blocker propranalol, during the reconsolidation phase, and found that this can help erase painful memories. Phelps’ experiment was designed to see whether a similar effect could be obtained without the use of drugs. And the surprising answer was yes.

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Filed under: Research, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

Extreme Fear is Here!

The definitive (and gripping!) guide to your mind in danger is available online and in stores near you.

Filed under: Extreme Fear,

Are People Irrational in a Disaster?

News today of the terrible nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, in which at least 109 people died in a blaze caused by stage pyrotechnics setting fire to inflammable decorations. From the AP report:

Video recorded by a clubgoer and shown on Russian television showed partygoers dancing, before sparks from pyrotechnic fountains on stage ignited the club’s ceiling around midnight. Witness Svetlana Kuvshinova told The Associated Press that the blaze swiftly consumed twigs decorating the ceiling. Russian clubs and restaurants often cover ceilings with plastic insulation and a layer of willow twigs to create a rustic look…

The video showed people reluctantly heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling. Within seconds they started rushing away in panic as flames begin to spread faster.

“There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out,” said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. “They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn’t see anything.”

The catastrophe is eerily similar (as the AP story notes) to the Station nightclub fire that took place in Rhode Island in 2001, and which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book. In both cases, revelers milled about as the flames spread, then moved en masse towards the front door, where their bodies jammed the exits so that no one could escape. Those who didn’t die of smoke inhalation were crushed to death by the pressure of those pushing from behind.

In both cases, many or all of the patrons of the club would have survived had they left the club in an orderly fashion. Instead, it seems, they panicked and died — a case of fear provoking irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Or is it? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized

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