The Jeff Wise Blog

Are We Living in a Low-Budget Marine-Themed Horror Movie?

Sea-dwelling animals are running suspiciously amok. There was, of course, the horrible case of the homicidal orca. (Who, it turned out, had already been involved in the death of two other trainers. Maybe it’s time to go back to calling them “killer whales” again, like in the good old days?)

Then there’s the news that the plexiglass tunnel running through the shark tank in Dubai has sprung a leak. Reportedly the tank contained not just a couple, not a few dozen, but hundreds of the deadly fish. And given the state of affairs in Dubai, they probably haven’t been fed in a while.

To round out the trifecta, it turns out that two sea otters aboard a Continental flight escaped from their cage and roamed free inside the plane, causing a flight delay.

Is global warming not only causing the oceans to rise, but to go crazy? Better to be safe than sorry: I’m heading down to the Red Lobster and get myself a seafood platter. It’s us or them.

Filed under: Animal attack

New York City: It’s a Jungle Out There

More things to be afraid of in NYC! Back in the day, the gritty streets of Manhattan were feared as the haunt of muggers, rapists, drug addicts, and the like. Now, with crime rates down, a different kind of predator is stirring alarm. Earlier this month, officials at Columbia University sent an email warning to students after three wild coyotes were seen on campus on a Sunday morning. Now video footage has surfaced, shot by blogger Urban Hawks, of what appears to be a juvenile on the frozen surface of The Pond. Urban Hawks writes:

The Pond is steps away from The Plaza Hotel, Bergdorf Goodman and the flagship NYC Apple store.  To the west of The Pond is Hallett Nature Sanctuary.  This is an area free of the presence of dogs and humans. It would be a perfect place for the Coyote to sleep during the day and was the favorite spot of the 2006 Coyote, Hal. As luck would have it, I had chosen the right spot and time.  The Coyote came out onto the ice four times.  It played with a bottle, went after some ducks, and eventually disappeared.  It seemed quite shy, hiding in the sanctuary between forays onto the ice.

How afraid should urbanites be? Not very, at least for themselves. Attacks on humans are very rare. Pets, however, are a different matter, as cats and small dogs can make a tasty treat for a coyote.

Filed under: Animal attack

Tracy Morgan on Fear

The immortal Tracy Morgan has the following to say about living the courageous life in the March issue of Esquire:

Don’t you think I’m scared? Every day, motherfucker. But I got to do my job. You got to be scared. ‘Cause if you ain’t scared, you got no need for guts… It take guts just to come ou your door — you don’t know what the fuck gonna happen out there, man… but you gotta go. Control that shit… If you hate your job, motherfucker, just quit. You hate your spouse? Leave. Leave. Stop being scared.

Filed under: Mastering Fear

The Psychological Hazards of Speed Skating

Apolo Anton Ohno’s win in the 1000-meter short-track speed skating race on Saturday was all the more dramatic for the fact that he very nearly fell and lost it completely. “It feels amazing, especially in a sport as volatile as short track speed skating,” he said afterward.

Indeed, speed-skating is a sport notoriously vulnerable to catastrophe. The sudden and dramatic loss of ability, known as choking, haunts every sport. Golfers dread “the yips,” the abrupt inability to sink even the easiest putt. Archers are haunted by “target panic.” But no one is as vulnerable as speed skaters. With a handful of events left to go, there’s still plenty of opportunities for skaters to suffer wrenching denouements. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Practicing What I Preach: Grappling With Fear at the Podium

Since the book came out, people have asked me: so, having written this book about fear, you must be really brave. My answer to that is: no, unfortunately understanding fear in a rational, logical way does absolutely nothing to help you maintain control over the powerful, ancient fear centers that lie deep in our brain.

This truth was brought home to me vividly yesterday as I stood up to give a talk at the Googleplex, Google’s corporate office in Mountain View, California.  They videotaped it, and I understand that they’re going to post it on Youtube.

After reading what happened next, you may not want to watch it. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Delicious Agony: The Neuroscience of Watching Johnny Weir

Last week’s luge tragedy highlighted the treachery of snow and ice for athletes at Winter Olympics: no performance on a frozen surface is ever more than a few milliseconds or a fraction of an inch away from catastrophe. But as they say in software, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The ever-present potential for disaster is the essence of the games’ entertainment value.

No one understands this better than figure-skating star Johnny Weir. Since he stormed into the sport’s top ranks by winning the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the flamboyant performer has dazzled fans with a recklessness that reliably delivers either transcendence or catastrophe. “The most important thing,” Weir has said, “is to not be afraid to fall.” That do-or-die attitude has paid off with the fans and media. Few other athletes can boast the kind of celebrity that Weir has achieved, even before the Sundance Channel debuted its eight-part documentary miniseries about him in January.

And it’s no wonder: neuroscience suggests that circuits within our limbic system — the ancient region deep within our brain that governs emotions — are primed to respond to this kind of volatility. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Extreme Fear At an Early Hour


Here’s me on New York City’s WCBS last Saturday at 6.40am, for Extreme Fear‘s TV debut. Click the image above to go to the station’s video player (I’ve only figured out how to embed YouTube video so far). Thanks for having me, guys! This is what I look like before I’ve had my first cup of coffee.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

Things to Be Afraid Of, New York City Edition

It’s funny, the sorts of things that people are afraid of: clowns, bugs, the number 13. But what’s just as funny is all the things that people aren’t afraid of that can actually kill them.

The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about New York City’s recently released mortality statistics, which runs down in some detail what citydwellers die of.

Some are claimed by the sea: In 2007, four people were killed in watercraft accidents, including two men who died when their fishing boat struck a cable stretched between a tugboat and a barge near Coney Island. Fourteen more drowned that year. Some fall victim to the weather: 10 died of exposure to excessive natural heat in 2008; 11 others died of exposure to the cold…

The number of ways to go is almost limitless. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Phobias

Fear of the Road, Pt 2

Via Boing Boing: a bus driver falls asleep on a busy road, and astounding mayhem ensues.

The end titles sum it up: “The guard only needs a second, But get hurt is an influence lifetime.”

Filed under: Threats

Did Fear Contribute to Olympic Luger’s Death?

News today via ESPN’s website today that Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died on the track at the Vancouver Olympics, had concerns about the course and voiced them to his father the day before his fatal accident:

The athlete killed on the luge track Friday told his father a day before he died in a training run that he was “scared of one of the turns,” David Kumaritashvili told The Wall Street Journal.

The fact that Kumaritashvili was dreading the very run that killed him adds a poignant touch to an already tragic story, but it also suggests an insight into his death. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

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