The Jeff Wise Blog

The Irony of Road Fear

It’s nearly upon us: the centenary of America’s first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, conceived by entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher in 1912. That means we’re also about ready to start celebrating another major anniversary: 100 years of dreading driving on the highway.

Rich Presta, a Wisconsin therapist who specializes in the fear of driving (UPDATE: See note below), says that when he asks his patients what part of being on the road scares them the most, the most common answer is the highway. (A close runner-up is bridges.) In a sense, their loathing of the highway isn’t wholly irrational. Each year, some 5,000 people die in crashes on interstates. But Presta points out that what drives people’s fear isn’t a reasoned assessment of the risks. “Certainly, people do die on the roads every day,” he says. “But the chances of you being involved in an accident on any particular day, and it happening the way you’re imagining it in your head, is pretty darned remote.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety

Fear Itself? Maybe We Need More

One of the most resonant quotes of the ongoing financial crisis was actually uttered 77 years ago, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt assured Americans during his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

That sentiment remains the operational philosophy of the federal government. When bankers panicked last year and stopped lending money, the government stepped in to take its place. When markets looked ready to crumble, the government shored up confidence by guaranteeing trillions in private investments. As President Obama put it in his State of the Union speech last night, “We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit.”

But is fear really what we should be afraid of? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

Fear of Flying Takes a Deadly Toll

Which is safer: flying, or driving? Rationally speaking, it’s no contest. Commercial air travel in the United States is incredibly risk-free. In 2008, the U. S. fatality rate was less than 1 per billion passenger trips. In comparison, America’s roads are a veritable slaughterfest, prematurely ending some 50,000 lives every year.

Unfortunately, people don’t make decisions based on pure reason. To the brain’s subconscious fear centers, flying looks like a very bad bet indeed. Trapped in a narrow metal tube, dangling at precipitous heights with no apparent mechanism to keep us there — it’s no wonder that 20 percent of the public suffers from fear of flying.

So here’s the paradox. If we allow our emotion of fear to overcome our rational decision-making, we actually put ourselves at a vastly greater risk of having those fears come true. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

Some Call Them Deathtraps

I’ve got a piece in the February issue of Popular Mechanics about gyroplanes, which were the exciting cutting edge of aviation back in the ’30s but have been languishing in obscurity ever since, having been upstaged by the helicopter. I first became aware of them thanks to the movie Max Max 2: The Road Warrior, which featured one of these strangely retro-futuristic craft and made it seem like the coolest thing ever. I later found out that some people consider gyroplanes fundamentally dangerous, but I decided not to let prejudice stop me from investigating deeper. Here’s a bit of video about what I found:

Filed under: Aviation

A Nod from The New Scientist

One of my favorite magazines, The New Scientist, has a capsule review of Extreme Fear in its latest edition. Writes reviewer Alison Motluk:

CAN understanding how fear works make it easier to manage? Jeff Wise, an outdoor adventurer and science writer, believes it can. He uses stories of real people – like Sue Yellowtail, who found herself alone with a hungry mountain lion, and Ian Thomas, who defended his house against a raging forest fire – to explore how we react to terrifying situations. Juxtaposed with these tales are explanations of what is going on in our brains and bodies when we are afraid.

Read the rest here.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

How To Jump Out of an Airplane Without a Parachute. And Survive.

A fascinating article in the February issue of Popular Mechanics, about people who have fallen from airplanes at altitude and somehow managed to survive. The piece draws heavily from the amazing web site Free Fall Research Page, run by amateur historian Jim Hamilton. Along with the many astounding anecdotes about people surviving multi-mile plummets is a short paragraph about Japanese parachutist Yasuhiro Kubo, who has pioneered the amazingly bonkers pastime of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute:

The sky diver tosses his chute from the plane and then jumps out after it, waiting as long as possible to retrieve it, put it on and pull the ripcord. In 2000, Kubo — starting from 9842 feet — fell for 50 seconds before recovering his gear.

To my chagrin, I was unable to find anything about Kubo on YouTube.  (Come on, people!) Fortunately, there is video documentation of a similar feat performed by noted reckless lunatic and motocross champ Travis Pastrana, who on September 26, 2007 jumped out of an airplane over Puerto Rico without a parachute, or even a shirt, and then managed to link up in flight with a confederate who hooked him into a harness for a safe tandem landing. Here’s the footage:

Filed under: Uncategorized

Stuff of Nightmares, Pt. 2: Shark Attack Quiz

Hopefully this information will never be relevant to you, but here goes: if you’re ever attacked and eaten by a shark, what part of your body is most likely to be found? Go ahead, chew that over. The answer is after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Phobias

Clear Thinking Under Pressure: Second Amendment Version

Intense, life-or-death pressure tends to shut down the frontal cortex, and with it the capacity to think logically and rationally to solve an urgent problem. Some people, though, show the remarkable ability to engage in creative problem-solving when death is just a few seconds away. How do they do it? It’s one of the framing questions of my book, and indeed I begin with the story of Neil Williams, an aerobatic pilot who found a remarkably creative way to save his own life when his wing started to fall off at low altitude, leaving him a few seconds away from a fiery death.

Well, the interwebs today carry the news of yet another creative self-rescue, this time from Northern California. A security guard was driving along the highway when his cell phone rang, startling him. In the first, hapless part of the story, he responded to this intrusion into his thought process by veering off the road, over the guardrail, and into a river. (Was he sleeping, by any chance?) Now for the heroic part. Trapped by the water as his vehicle sank to the bottom, the as-yet-unnamed guard improvised a blunt but effective solution to his imprisonment: he pulled out his gat and blew out a window. Or, as the AP report framed it:

A spokesman for the Roseville Fire Department said the man was traveling northbound on Industrial Avenue in Roseville when the cell phone device activated. The driver was startled and veered off the road through the guardrail. The SUV landed in Pleasant Grove Creek. He used his gun to shoot himself out, then flagged down a passerby.

So there you have it. Americans love their guns, and their guns love them back.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Stuff of Nightmares, Pt. 1: Parasitic Tongue

This little beastie is an 1-inch-long isopod called Cymothoa exigua. Its unique lifestyle involves fastening itself to the inside of a fish’s mouth and then gradually devouring the tongue, slowly replacing the organ with its own body, so that the fish winds up with a fully functioning artifical tongue made out of parasite. For a more in-depth explanation, see this nice article at

Filed under: Phobias

Flu: The Season of Fear has Passed

According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Centers for Disease Control has declared that the threat of a swine flu epidemic has passed. Despite widespread fears that the H1N1 strain of influenza virus would exact an epic toll, the flu came and went without ever achieving epidemic status.

Only 161 new infections were reported to CDC-monitored labs last week, compared to 11,470 at the epidemic’s mid-October peak. Only one state (Alabama) still reports “widespread activity.” Deaths and hospitalizations were 14 and 374, respectively, compared to 189 and 4,970 a week at the peak. To put that in perspective, the CDC estimates that an average of 257 Americans normally die of seasonal flu every day during the season, or about 36,000 a year.

The most remarkable aspect of the story, according to writer Michael Fumento, is that the spread of the swine fly this winter may have actually reduced overall deaths from influenza. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy, Threats

Interviews with the Author

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