The Jeff Wise Blog

Hunting With Home-Made Weapons

Recently I traveled to Santa Cruz, California, to write about a wilderness-skills enthusiast who hunts big game using home-made weapons of stone and wood. It wasn’t until I was crouched in the undergrowth of the Santa Cruz mountains, waiting for a 300-pound boar to come strolling within bowshot, that I realized how incredibly dangerous an undertaking this could be. That doesn’t daunt my guide, 30-year-old Cliff Hodges, who has killed a 450-pound black bear with a stone-tipped arrow. I’ll post more about this when the article is published in Popular Mechanics. In the meantime, here’s a short video I made about Hodges, with the help of my 13-year-old niece (and video wunderkind) Anna Emy. Thanks, Anna!

Filed under: Wilderness Skills

Readers Write: How Fear Saved My Life

Since I’ve started blogging, I’ve been amazed not just by how it lets me reach out to all sorts of people all over the world, but even more so by the ability of these readers to reach back and share their experiences. Their real-life stories not only make for gripping reading, but offer vivid insight into the mechanisms of fear.

A few days ago I got an email from Tom Bittner of Ellsworth, MN, who wrote about how he found himself acting to save himself before he even consciously realized he was in danger.

A few years ago I was at an old folks meeting hall, looking in the furnace room for stuff that might be sold at their auction that day,  when the wooden floor collapsed. There was no noise, no sense of danger, no indication that anything was about to happen — it just went. Instantly I threw out my arms and did an iron cross pose catching my self from falling down an old indoor well. Hanging there,  it was then that “Oh, s**t”  kicked in and I was able to figure out how to maneuver to remove myself from the situation. The two things I find most intriguing are, first, the throwing of arms to stop the immediate drop without any thought — where does that come from? And second, while hanging there my thoughts went to the fact I could not hear the falling wood hit the bottom of the well. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Extreme Fear

How to Thrive Under Stress

The year 1975 holds a lofty place in the annals of stress research. That was when the Federal government decided to deregulate the telephone business, which at the time was a monopoly held by AT&T. Recognizing the opportunity to observe the effects of mass stress, Salvatore Maddi, a professor of psychology at UC Irvine, began a 12-year project to track the fate of 450 managers at a Chicago subsidiary. What he found upended basic ideas about human psychology and paved the way for a whole new perspective on stress.

When the breakup took place in 1981, half of the company’s employees were laid off. For two-thirds of them, the transition was traumatic. Many were unable to cope. They died of heart attacks and of strokes, engaged in violence, got divorced, and had mental health issues. But the other third didn’t fall apart. Their lives actually improved. Their health got better, their careers soared, and their relationships blossomed.

The finding was revolutionary. “The general idea at the time was that you should stay away from stress because it can kill you,” Maddi recalls. “But it turned out that some people thrive on it.”

What made these people different? Sifting through his data, Maddi discerned a trend. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Stress

An Ultramarathoner’s 5 Secrets of Toughness

It’s four o’clock in the morning,  the temperature ten degrees below freezing in the pitch-black Georgia forest. Troy Espiritu has been running for 20 hours, and he’s so exhausted that he’s hallucinating that the trees around him are falling inward. Is he lost? There’s no way to know. He keeps running, one foot in front of the other. It’s at least another five miles to the next checkpoint. Nausea twists his throat. He stumbles, falls to his knees, and retches a watery bile onto the frozen ground. As the spasms subside, he huddles on the ground, trembling. I’ve just got to get to that tree over there, he tells himself. He pushes himself to his feet, stumbles a couple of yards. He’s moving again. He’s running.

Espiritu is an ordinary guy, a 39-year-old podiatrist with a wife and four kids. Four years ago he was just another casual runner, jogging a few miles a couple of times a month. He’d heard of ultramarathon races, and he thought that the guys who ran them were insane, not his type at all. Man, he thought, there is just no way I would ever do that.

Then he became one of them.

How can a person learn to become tough? People have wondered that since the dawn of time, but only recently have psychologists begun to come up with detailed answers. One of the most important insights is that there is not one variety of toughness, but many. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Resilience

Great, My Plane’s Crashing. Now What?

Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias. Like almost everyone, I suffer from a touch of it. Even though I know logically that I’m safer in a commercial airliner than I am in my own bathtub, I still feel a twist in my stomach when the plane hits a sudden jolt of turbulence. Hearing the news about yesterday’s crash in Libya, which killed everyone aboard except a single Dutch boy, is unlikely to soothe anyone’s nerves.

I’m sure that the next time I get jittery in flight, I’ll think about that boy and wonder: what could I do if this plane started to go down? If there’s only going to be one survivor, how can I increase the chances that it’s going to be me?

Everyone always tells you that the first rule of thumb is: Don’t Panic. As I explain in Extreme Fear, I find that advice ridiculous. When we’re in mortal danger, it’s simply impossible to shut down one’s panic response by sheer force of will. So here’s my alternative piece of advice: Take Action. That is, adopt a positive, pro-active frame of mind. Assume that you’re going to survive. (If you’re wrong, who cares?) Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

No, You Did Not Have a Bad Day. THIS Guy Had a Bad Day

In a life-or-death situation, human beings are capable of incredible feats of bravery and self-control. One of the most remarkable ever recorded is the that of Leonid Rogozov, the medic at a Soviet Antarctic research station who was forced to remove his own appendix. I write about the incident at some length in Extreme Fear; to my delight, I’ve discovered that Rogozov’s son has recently published a paper providing even more details on the case. The more I learn, the more incredible it seems. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Pain

The Neurobiology of Market Madness

We were supposed to be living in a rational world. According to neoclassical economics, people are “rational agents” who logically assess their own best interests and then act accordingly. Like cogs in a Swiss watch, their behavior can be predicted and modeled.

Thanks to the world’s ongoing economic paroxysms that view has largely gone out the window.  Since 2007, everyone – investors, consumers, management— has seemingly jumped from panic to euphoria and now back to panic again.  The economy not as a mathematical system so much as a collective madness.

John Coates is a uniquely well positioned to understand what’s going on. He spent 12 years as a trader in London and New York, working first for Goldman Sachs and then Deutsche Bank. What he saw in real life was totally at odds with economic theory. “It was the dot com bubble,” he recalls. “People had classic, clinical symptoms of mania. They were delusional, euphoric, over-confident — you couldn’t get them to shut up.”

Most traders worth their salt would have figured out how to turn this insight into a a play that would make them a killing on the market. But Coates wasn’t that guy. Instead of stoking his greed, it fueled his curiosity. He wondered: how does what physically goes on inside the brain and body affect the market’s ups and downs? So Coates ditched Wall Street, went back to school, and wound up a research professor in Cambridge University’s neuroscience department. Then, armed with scientific apparatus, he went back to the trading floor. He measured the hormone levels of professional traders as they went about their business, buying and selling. And what he found gave him a surprising insight. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Business,

Near Death Experiences: Science and Skepticism

In response to my recent post about near-death experiences (NDEs),  several readers wrote in and described their own brushes with the beyond. Writes Tamara,

I started to panic but no one could hear me, I couldn’t breath, I could barely move. Then I got real calm and reached under me and pulled the plug out without even thinking about it. It was like I was watching myself from outside of my body. My body rolled itself over so I was face up. Then my vision shot out of the bathtub and it was as if I was shooting through the sky, I was running through the grass in our backyard and then back to the sky and then I was in space and the stars were shooting past me.

So here’s the question du jour: was Tamara’s experience an untimely glimpse into the world that awaits us beyond death? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Research,

No, Sullenberger Did Not Screw Up

“Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger has been so lionized since his remarkable feat of airmanship last year that it was inevitable that some kind of backlash must somehow emerge. Today it seems that that chink in his facade has appeared.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the NTSB’s final report on the incident will include the fact that pilots who run through the accident in simulators have been able to return the stricken jet safely to LaGuardia:

…tucked inside thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits are hints that, in hindsight, the celebrated pilot could have made it back to La Guardia Airport. Pilots who used simulators to recreate the accident—including suddenly losing both engines after sucking in birds at 2,500 feet—repeatedly managed to safely land their virtual airliners at La Guardia.

The story immediately goes on to emphasize that officials are not slighting Sullenberger’s feat by suggesting that he should have turned back to the airport:

The results haven’t changed the conclusions of National Transportation Safety Board investigators or outside aviation-safety experts, who unanimously agree that Mr. Sullenberger made the right call to put his crippled jet down in the river. Neither he nor his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, had any assurance that the Airbus A320—which suddenly turned into a 70-ton glider—would be able to clear Manhattan’s skyline had they tried to return to the Queens airport they left minutes before.

And yet the fact that Sullenberger could have returned the plane to the airport must add a hint of tarnish to his reputation. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

Top 10 Secrets of Effective Liars

As I’ve written earlier, human beings have an innate skill at dishonesty. And with good reason: being able to manipulate the expectations of those around us is a key survival trait for social animals like ourselves. Indeed, a 1999 study by psychologist Robert Feldman at the University of Massachusetts showed that the most popular kids were also the most effective liars. Just because our aptitude is hardwired doesn’t mean it can’t improve with practice and skill. Here are ten techniques that top-notch liars use to maximize their effectiveness. (By the way, this information is offered as a way to help detect deceit in others, not to practice it yourself. Honestly!) Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

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