The Jeff Wise Blog

The Hipsterology Debate Ended, Once and For All

The conundrum that has puzzled the greatest minds from Silverlake to Williamsburg: if even hipsters hate hipsters, how could anyone choose to become one? At last, this remarkable video provides the answer.

Filed under: video

Your Most Vivid Memory? Maybe It Never Happened

As I wrote in a recent blog post, moments of extreme emotional intensity can trigger indelibly vivid memories. I cited the case of a reader, Alice from Jupiter, who wrote that she could clearly recall a number of thoughts racing through her head as a fatal accident unfolded. I took her at her word. But how can we be sure that this kind of intense memories is accurate? As reader Sarah writes on her blog at the Pratt Institute,

Did Alice from Jupiter really ask herself all of those questions before the car hit her, or did her mind plant them there as she relived the moment over and over? I would imagine that most New Yorkers also felt a lesser but still extremely high sense of danger and fear after first hearing about 9/11, but even these memories have proven to be susceptible to distortion over time.

The point is well taken. Though memory feels like a straightforward function — something happens, our mind registers and stores it — in fact it’s a dynamic process. Each time we access a piece of information, we’re likely to change it. A memory that seems crystal clear could very well be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Memory

World’s First Ornithopter Just Flew. Or Did It?

Something very cool happened last month. Early in the morning of August 2, a student at the University of Toronto took the control’s of the world’s first successful ornithopter — an aircraft that propels itself by flapping its wings like a bird — and flew for 19 seconds. As a lover of strange aircraft and impossible engineering challenges, I applaud the daring and stick-to-itevness of the University of Toronto team, which spent four years creating an incredibly beautiful machine. Here’s the video:

As is obvious from even a cursory viewing, flapping one’s wings is a very difficult way to generate lift. (That birds are so good at it should only renew our respect for the astonishing engineering feats of natural selection.) So the team deserves heartfelt kudos for managing to keep the craft in the air for even a short span of time. But did they really achieve, as a Canadian newspaper reported, “sustained and continuous flight”? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

It’s Not a Crash If the Plane’s Still in One Piece

I’m in Anchorage airport right now, waiting for my plane to take me home after a week spent reporting a bush flying story for Popular Mechanics. What, you ask, is bush flying? Well, I think this video explains better than any mere words:

I made this yesterday, shooting over the shoulder of veteran bush pilot Terry Holiday as he sets down his Super Cub on a tiny patch of gravel near the Knik Glacier north of Anchorage. As we were coming in, I was thinking: “Where exactly are you planning to put this thing down, Terry?” Yet oddly the experience didn’t feel that scary; Terry has such a natural feel for the airplane that I sensed that it would do exactly what he wanted. Having said that, the take off was even more extraordinary, as we bounced into the air and scrabbled for altitude as Terry guided the plane between a large hillock and the face of a cliff. Alaska — it’s always an adventure.

Filed under: Aviation

The Moment That Lasts Forever

In an instant, your life changes forever. Your car skids off the road. Your plane clips a wing on landing. A motorcycle runs a red light and heads straight at you. For the rest of your time on earth, the sights, smells, and sounds of that instant will be seared in your memory.

In response to my post “How The Brain Stops Time,” more than 100 readers have written to share their experiences of time dilation in the face of intense danger. A closely related corollary is that terrifying memories are burned indelibly in our minds. Long after every other detail of our lives has melted away into the great sea of forgotten things, these moments remain intensely alive.

Reader Alice from Jupiter, Florida writes:

Crossing a street one evening, my sister’s boyfriend picked me up and threw me “fireman” style over his shoulder. I had an injured ankle I remember ‘whining’ about, so he did this in order to assuage – or humor me. My sister, by the way, was trailing a few feet behind us.

Because my rear end was blocking his view from oncoming traffic, he did not see the car coming at us. I did, however, and clearly remember thinking several thoughts: “a car is coming”;”Ted must see this car coming”; “why isn’t he moving faster”; “if he doesn’t, we’ll be hit”; “Oh God, it’s going to hit us.” What seemed an eternity later, the driver did hit us. (She had been drinking and was going pretty fast, I later learned.) I recall a sensation of slowly flying through air and then nothing – until I woke on the pavement with quite a few broken bones. Ted did not survive.

My sister stated later that it happened so quickly, I simply could not have had time to think all the things I did. I clearly remember these thoughts to this day, and have wondered often how it was possible. Why would the brain would manufacture false memories when recalling a fearful event?

With all due respect, I think that Alice’s sister is wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

The Sad Science of Hipsterism

Behold the hipster, the stylishly disaffected breed of twentysomethings whose fog of twee whimsy envelopes Williamsburg and the East Village. Most who encounter the hipster in its natural habitat respond in one of two ways: derision or ridicule.

But science does not cast judgment. Its goal is to explore and explain dispassionately, whether the object of study be the noble eagle or the lowly nematode. So what does science have to tell us about this fascinatingly misunderstood breed, the indigenous North American hipster?

Surprisingly much. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

Aiming for Happiness, and Arriving at Regret

Why is it so hard to be happy? One reason is that we’re bad at predicting how our actions will make us feel. Doing “whatever we want” often winds up making us less happy than some other course of action that at first blush might seem relatively unappealing.

In my case, I think about all those lazy weekends during which I’ve looked forward to lying around, doing nothing — an state of affairs that seemed very appealing when I got up on Saturday morning, but which by twilight on Sunday left me feeling like a pathetic sad potato.

Fortunately, this puzzling and irksome phenomenon has been addressed by science, as described in a blog post by the consistently thought-provoking and entertaining BPS Research Digest. Christopher K. Hsee at the University of Chicago gave his experimental subjects a choice between taking a completed questionnaire to a location 15 minutes away, or delivering it right outside the door and then sitting and waiting for 15 minutes. At the end of each task, they were rewarded with a tasty chocolate snack bar.

Here’s the punchline: the students who walked for 15 minutes reported feeling happier than those who had stayed put. And it wasn’t just because happier people self-selected to take a walk — even when the test subjects were told to wait or walk with no input into the choice, the walkers reported feeling happier.

Hsee concludes from his experiment is that people have an instinct for idleness. Given the choice between doing something that requires effort, and doing something that simply requires us to sit on our duff, most of us are going to choose the duff. What’s fascinating is that the duff-sitters in his experiment made a conscious choice between two potential courses of action, and they chose the one that made them less happy.

How could that be? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

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