The Jeff Wise Blog

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.

There are roughly 6,000 codes used to define deaths by accident, reflecting all types of violence and disorder. People are run over by cars, buses or taxis. There are dozens of codes to define deaths from drug consumption. Some die from the smoke and flames of fires, or they fall at construction sites or in their own backyards. Others are hit by trains, drown at beaches or crash their bicycles.

The main argument of the article is that, while homicides have declined markedly in recent years, the accident rate has remained more or less the same. Of course, the average person is still far more concerned about violent crime than, say, watercraft accidents and the like. One of the basic truths about the human fear response is that it doesn’t respond to statistics; the subconscious processing centers in our limbic system respond in a very crude way to environmental  cues, are often laid down at a very early age, and are difficult to retrain. It’s easy for the amygdala to understand a threat like a thug lurking in a darkened doorway. But it has a hard time generating an emotional response to an abstract concept, such as secondhand smoke, or to some of the arcane accident categories from the International Classification of Diseases that Gawker ran in an amusing post:

V35 Occupant of three-wheeled motor vehicle injured in collision with railway train or railway vehicle
V96.0 Balloon accident injuring occupant
V96.8 Other nonpowered-aircraft accidents injuring occupant (Kite carrying a person)
W52 Crushed, pushed or stepped on by crowd or human stampede
W53 Bitten by rat
W56 Bitten or struck by marine animal
X24 Contact with centipedes and venomous millipedes (tropical)
X51 Prolonged stay in weightless environment (includes: weightlessness in spacecraft (simulator))

I don’t think that anyone has ever died from being weightless, and I personally don’t know of anyone being runover by a train while riding a tricycle, but it may be useful to know that such hazards exist. From now on, I’m certainly going to avoid contact with venomous millipedes.

Filed under: Phobias

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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

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