The Jeff Wise Blog

I Feel Like I’m Floating on Air

Last week I got a lesson in piloting a C-Quester submarine in Aruba, a thrilling experience. I was struck by how similar it feels to flying a Zeppelin, which I wrote about for the July issue of Popular Mechanics. In both cases, you’re zooming along in a horizontal plane, while trying to maintain your altitude (or depth) by countering buoyancy effects with vertical thrusters. In both cases, you have to anticipate your correction well before it takes effect — there’s a huge lag time.

And in both cases, you’re bound to have a thrill of a lifetime. If you have a chance to try either one, I’d strongly suggest you take it.

Filed under: Recreation

Fat, Drunk, and Broke? Don’t Blame the Caveman

Spare a thought for the most abused demographic in the US today: the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer. These plucky ancestors, who scurried across the earth from two million to 12,000 years ago, have lately taken responsibility and blame for seemingly every aspect of modern life.

Cavemen-bashers would have us believe that because our brains evolved in a world where hunting and gathering were requisite skills, not juggling frequent flier points or angling for a promotion, we’re ill equipped to deal with modern life. We want to be good, but our brains are forever subconsciously pulling us back to our cavemen ways. Marital fidelity? Not in our genes. Peaceful co-existence? Not adaptive for life on the savannah.

Lately, Pleistocene hunter gatherers seem to be getting an especially harsh ragging on behalf of the obesity epidemic. If the last time you stepped on your bathroom scale it broke, the common wisdom seems to be, just blame the atlatl-wielders.

In the May/June issue of Psychology Today, Leyla Muedin argues in “The Way We Were” (p. 51) that “our bodies are best adapted to what our Paleolithic ancestors ate.” Back in the good old days, she writes, “over the course of a year, you might eat 100 different types of fruit and vegetables… but you wouldn’t drink any milk or consume any dairy products.” She quotes S. Boyd Easton, an anthropologist at Emory University,who wrote in a recent editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that “the dietary and lifestyle difference between then and now account for most of our chronic diseases and cancer.”

How is this absurd? Let me count the ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

What Makes Sports Fans Happiest: Fear and Despair

Everyone knows that the US Soccer team is all but certain to go down in flames sometime between now and the finals of the FIFA World Cup on July 11. And for American fans, that could be wonderful thing, researchers say.

A recent study by a team at Ohio State University looked at 113 college football fans  as they watched a game between their school’s team and that of an arch rival. The subjects were asked to watch a particularly crucial game and then log their emotional state during commercial breaks. They also logged  their perception of their teams’ chance of victory. It turned out that fans who thought the game was the most enjoyable were those who were convinced at some point during the game that their team would lose – but then watched as the team turned around and managed to win. From the press release:

The results showed how important negative emotions were to enjoyment of the game.  “When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable.  But enjoyment doesn’t always mean positive emotions,” [said study co-author Prabu] David. “Sometimes enjoyment is derived by having the negative emotion, and then juxtaposing that with the positive emotion.”

… “You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state,” [study co-author Silvia] Knobloch Westerwick said. “If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state.”

In a sense this study (which seems to me far from rigorous) offers up a pretty unsurprising conclusion: ask any screenwriter about how to craft a gripping plotline, and they’ll tell you that the hero must find herself in the grip of a seemingly inextricable problem at the end of Act Two.

But this study’s results also serve as a reminder of a larger, and very important point: that the pursuit of unalloyed pleasure is a doomed undertaking. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Coming Up for Air

I’m heading home this afternoon from Aruba, where I spent the last two days diving in the C-Quester 3, the first operational sub built by the Dutch company UBoat Worx. It’s really a blast! Last night we motored over in it from the marina to a seaside restaurant, where we had dinner and enjoyed the sunset. I’ll be posting more about this in the future, including some cool video that we shot.

Filed under: Recreation

Can You Lose Weight By Thinking Really Hard?

The human brain is a gas-guzzler of an organ, accounting for some 20 percent of  the body’s total metabolic activity. The high cost of keeping a big brain functioning is presumed by many to be the reason why our big noggins took so long to evolve, and why no other organism has bothered to cram such a big brain in such a relatively small body.

What was a hurdle in evolutionary terms could, however, prove to be a blessing for the obesity-challenged. Because if normal everyday thinking burns up 20 percent of  our total calories, just imagine how thinking really hard — doing math homework, say, or trying to figure out the plot of Lost — could melt the pounds away! Right? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

This is a Serious Blog

But I just couldn’t resist. Thanks to

Filed under: Animal attack

Abby Sunderland and Tragedy’s Perverse Incentive

Last week the world held its breath, wondering if 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland had lost her life in the southern ocean. Luckily, she had not, and was plucked from her stricken sailboat two days after its mast was knocked off by a storm. But in the wake of her  rescue relief quickly turned to outrage at Sunderland’s parents (who earlier this year had signed a reality-show deal) for allowing a legal minor to risk her life in such a dangerous undertaking. It all seemed too dismayingly similar: Bad parenting plus fame-seeking equals a call out to search-and rescue teams. Call it Balloon Boy 2010.

If one were to find a bright spot in this lamentable interlude would be that the tsunami or criticism might force other parents of would-be circumnavigators, and the children themselves, come to their senses, and so prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

But I suspect that the reverse will be true. Tragedy, and near-tragedy like Sunderland’s, have a way of teaching some people exactly the opposite of the right lesson. Perversely, disaster can glamorize insane recklessness. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Ultimate Daredevil’s Guide to Conquering Fear

No one alive has done more hair-raising crazy stunts than Travis Pastrana. The first person to ever pull a double-backflip on a motorcycle, he has also jumped out of an airplane without a parachute (video here) and back-flipped a child’s Big Wheel off a huge jump called a megaramp (video here). But contrary to common belief, Pastrana is not immune to fear — in fact, almost every night he wakes up in the grip of night terrors. So how does he keep cool when his life is on the line? Here are some tips.

Be Prepared. “The scariest thing for me is when I go into something unprepared. When I jumped a Big Wheel on the megaramp, that was scary. I didn’t know if it was going to blow up on the takeoff. It’s not made to be going 55 mph and withstanding four g’s.”

Use Your Fear. “When I’m not nervous, I’m not 100 percent focused on something. When I jumped out of the plane without a parachute, the part that scared me the most was that I wasn’t scared enough. I had to deliberately re-set my mind: ‘Okay, Travis, you have the rest of your life to find those other jumpers and make this work.’”

Trust Your Crew. “The hardest part about putting the jump together was finding people that were a) good enough and b) willing to risk being involved with a stunt like this. But once I found a good crew, we all trusted each other. The guys that I was jumping with had 10,000 jumps apiece.”

Commit Yourself. “Before I did the double backflip, I was scared all day. I didn’t know if I would decide to do it or not. And then the second I was on the jump, and I knew that I was going to do it, the fear just went away. It was like, ‘Well, okay, it’s inevitably going to happen — let’s try to make it work.’”

Pastrana shared these tips with me as I was interviewing him for an article in Red Bulletin, which you can check out here.

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Filed under: Mastering Fear

The Science of Sports: Is There Such a Thing as a Clutch Performer?

In Slate today, writer Alan Siegal poses the burning question:  “Is Kobe Bryant really the best clutch player in the NBA?” That is to say, does Bryant possess that ineffable quality, so highly prized among athletes, of being able to respond to the highest degree of pressure by pulling out the stops and performing at an even higher level of performance than usual? Which, as Siegel acknowledges, raises a corollary question: does such a quality even exist? A growing consensus among sports statisticians is that the answer is no, as attempts to identify clutch players based on their average performance under certain high-stress conditions (the last shot of a game, say) have so far come to naught. Writes Siegal,

The topic of “clutch” is a contentious one in sports. In baseball, the debate over clutch hitting has raged for decades, with sabermetricians arguing there’s no evidence it’s an actual skill and wizened baseball men claiming they’ve seen it with their own two eyes. In basketball, a sport that’s been slower to embrace modern statistics, the fight over clutchness is in its relative infancy. Perhaps Kobe Bryant, then, will become the NBA’s Derek Jeter: a player whom the media and the fans perceive as clutch despite a lack of statistical evidence to prove the case.

The piece goes on to describe various attempts to identify various statistical grapplings with the data before coming to the conclusion that, no, Bryant is not a masterful performer in the clutch, if indeed anyone is. But as the saying goes, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So allow me to address the topic from a different perspective: is clutch performance biologically plausible? That is, could the human brain could be capable of responding to intense pressure by performing outstandingly? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Who’s Fairer, Chimpanzees or Mortgage Bankers?

In this corner, Pan trogolodytes, or common chimpanzee. In the other, the average American mortgage banker. Which has a more highly evolved sense of fairness? Thanks to a combination of psychological experimentation and economic happenstance, the truth can now be known.

In effect, both chimpanzees and bankers have been made to take to a test called “The Ultimatum Game.” Commonly conducted in behavioral economics research, the procedure involves giving the first of two players a certain sum of money to divide. This person can keep as much of it as he wants, and pass the rest along to the second player. The second player can either accept what the first player offers or cancel the whole deal, in which case neither player gets anything.

In strictly rational economic terms, the second player should be willing to accept any amount of money that the first player offers. Even one penny, after all, is better than zero. But human beings are not strictly rational. Millions of years of evolution as social animals has left us with a deeply ingrained expectations of fairness. So most people react to an offer of one cent with indignation and reject the deal as unfair.  Realizing this, most first players tend to offer splits that are at least moderately fair — 60/40, say.

Neither bankers nor chimpanzees conform to this rule of thumb, however. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized

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