The Jeff Wise Blog

Do Crime Victims Deserve Some Blame?

Recently I wrote about a study which found that men with psychopathic tendencies are better than average at picking out vulnerable targets: people with the non-verbal cues that signal social submissiveness. Based on these findings, I wrote that “We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as the psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims.”

This suggestion drew a heated response from readers. Some accused me of “blaming the victim.” One of the most pointed critiques came from blogger Donna Anderson, who directed me to her own website on the topic of psychopathy, There Anderson points out that, for one thing, I was mistaken in writing that a psychopaths prefer to prey on the weak. In a post entitled “Blame the victim fallacies” she writes that, on the contrary, many psychopaths who prey on women pick out victims who are outgoing, assertive, and confident.

Personally, I don’t think anyone who watched me walk down the street would tag me as timid or vulnerable. I’m an athlete, and my stride is confident. But I was victimized by a psychopath, who took $227,000 from me, and cheated on me incessantly. And the guy started setting his hooks via e-mail, before he ever saw me walk. Maybe projecting dominance would work to avoid muggers. But it’s not going to stop victimization by a card-carrying psychopath intent on finding a resourceful new supply.

I am entirely willing to cede this point — the study that I was referring to focused on muggings, not the sort of predatory romantic relationship that Anderson primarily writes about. But what about the more damning suggestion: was I implying that a psychopath’s victims bear some blame for being targeted? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Crime

The Strange Lives of Women With No Fear

For a woman with profound brain damage, SM seems rather unremarkable. Her IQ tests normal; she speaks like an average person, and her memory and perception show no sign of dysfunction. But the 44-year-old woman does have one very specific, very unusual, and for neuroscientists, a very interesting impairment: she has no amygdala, the part of the brain that’s the central switching box for analyzing external threats. SM has no fear.

SM’s story received a great deal of attention lately thanks to a paper describing her condition that was published in the journal Current Biology. (Neurophilosopy did a particularly incisive and digestible rundown of the paper’s findings.) The authors introduced SM, whose amygdalae were destroyed by a genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease, to a variety of situations that a normal person might well find fear-inducing. They took her to an exotic animal shop where she handled snakes and looked at tarantulas; they took her to a “haunted house” attraction; showed her clips of movies like “The Blair Witch Project”; and told her that Sarah Palin had been appointed to the Supreme Court. (OK, not the last one). In each case, she showed no signs of fear, and reported feeling no anxiety. In fact, while scampering through the haunted house she was so delighted and curious that she scared one of the “monsters” by trying to poke its mask.

For most of us, fear seems like a negative emotion, one that stresses us out and inhibits us from trying things that might make our life more rewarding. But as the Current Biology paper makes clear, SM’s fearlessness has cost her a great deal. On the most obvious level, it has left her vulnerable to all kinds of dangers. She lives in a dangerous part of a big city, and several times she has walked obliviously into potentially violent encounters. One time, she was held up at gunpoint; another time, a drug addict accosted her and held a knife to her throat. Intriguingly, though she did not feel scared during those encounters, she did report feeling angry and upset afterward. Her emotional deficit is quite specific.

But in a sense SM’s fearlessness is not the worst part of losing her amygdalae. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

Today’s Fake Terror Threat: “FAA loses track of 119,000 aircraft”

How to take a really boring story about a bureaucratic procedural revision and turn it into a hot national news story? Spray on a coating of terrorism. While you’re at it, add a dash of drug-war hysteria.

Okay, to get the boring part out of the way: The Federal Aviation Administration has been wanting to update the way it registers airplanes for years. Ever since forever, plane owners only had to register their aircraft once, when they bought it, and they had to pay a nominal fee. Now the FAA wants owners to renew every couple years, like car owners do. Naturally plane owners are going to have to shell out more money. This is the way of the world.

This is not something very many people should care about, even pilots like me. The only ones who are going to get shellacked are people like Brian Boland, a balloon maker who lives in rural Vermont. He makes a lot of balloons for his own amusement; he’s got over a hundred of them, packed into bags in his loft. Every time he built a new one, he’d send the government a few bucks, and they’d issue him a registration certificate. Now, under the new rules, he’ll be on the hook for thousands of dollars just to register a bunch of balloons he hardly ever flies. He’s not a rich man; he’s going to have to cancel all those registrations. The days when he could pull out any balloon he wanted and take it for a ride are over.

A small loss in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but what does humanity get in return, apart from increased government revenue? The latest spin is that the new registrations are going to protect us from the darkest forces on the planet.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

The Dark Psychology of the World’s Most Dangerous Sport

Fear shuts down thought. Under conditions of intense fear, the amygdala activates the locus ceruleus, which releases high levels of noradrenaline in the prefrontal cortex. This works to deactivate the whole of the lateral prefrontal cortex. In essence, the fear system pulls the plug on all our higher-level cognitive processes. The time to make a plan is not when you wake up inside a burning building.

Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time appreciating before the fact how non-negotiable this effect will be. That failure can result in tragic consequences – especially when it comes to one particular recreational activity that demands self-reliance in a potentially fatal environment. What is it? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

Glee’s Walking Machine: Fact and Fiction

As a loyal devotee of Glee, I was stunned to see the the ReWalk exoskeleton featured in last night’s climactic scene. I won’t get into the plot details, but basically the ReWalk functions as a Christmas miracle, letting Artie walk again, albeit in a limited way.

Even more surprising than the inclusion of this rather arcane technology is the fact that the show’s description of if was entirely accurate. (This is, after all, a rather fantastical show.) They got the name right, and the fact that it’s been developed in Israel. And, true to life, the machine doesn’t let Artie just hop around. In order to use it, he has to press an arm-mounted keypad, and then take tentative steps one at a time. But by golly, he’s actually up and moving!

The most unrealistic aspect of the presentation was that, a) you can’t just buy a ReWalk yet; to use one you’d need to be enrolled in a clinical trial, of which there’s only one in the US, near Philadelphia b) it takes a fair bit of training to master.

UPDATE: With just a few days of shopping left before Christmas, word comes that ReWalk has been approved for sale by the FDA. Not for home use, as seen in Glee, but for use by patients in clinics and hospitals. “The ReWalk system will be available for sale as of January, for institutional use only,” says Heather Newcomb, Director of Communications at the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network near Philadelpha. “The cost will be around $85,000.” So even though no one will be finding one under their Christmas tree, a lot more people with spinal-cord injury will have a chance to ambulate again.

Here’s some video I took in January of one of the patients in the clinical trial, a man named Floyd Morrow:

And here’s a link to the story I wrote in Parade.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Black Friday: The Stampede

Crazy video, via Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, of Xmas shoppers trampling each other to get at Black Friday bargains at 4am.

Not a proud moment for humanity. But as I’ve written before, this kind of crowd dynamic isn’t unique to the US; in 19th century Russia 1389 people died at a coronation ceremony for Tsar Alexander II of Russia when a rumor circulated through the crowd that souvenirs were in short supply, causing people to rush forward en masse.

Filed under: disaster

An Accident Strikes, and the World Becomes Smaller

There’s a wonderfully insightful piece in the New York Times today by science writer Gina Kolata, who describes a cycling accident in which she ran into another rider, fell off her bike, and broke her collar bone. The injury was not crippling – she managed to ride another 90 miles that same day – but the psychological ramifications were long-lasting, as the accident made her realize how vulnerable she really was when riding a bicycle. All at once, an activity that had long given her joy became a source of fear. An important part of her life was shut off.

As I’ve written before, the two main tools that we possess to control fear are information and a sense of control. In Kolata’s case, she realized that the sense of control that she had once felt while riding her bike was illusory. Stripped of her sense of control, she was helpless against her fear. She just couldn’t get back on the bike, at least for a while.

“Control makes a big difference in whether we take risks,” [Carnegie Mellon] professor of economics] Dr. Loewenstein said. “With biking, you feel in control until you have an accident. Then all of a sudden you realize you are not in control. That can have a dramatic effect — you can shift abruptly from excessive daring to exaggerated caution.”

I’m currently working on a story for Psychology Today about why some people are mentally tougher in the face of crisis than others, and what the rest of us can learn from them. A major lesson I’ve taken away from my research is that the way we choose to think about our struggles is a critical factor in resilience. Those who bounce back easiest are those who can think of a negative outcome as a challenge rather than a defeat, and recognize in each setback an opportunity to grow and test themselves.

In Kolata’s case, she was not able to take such an upbeat stance. She had come to feel that when she was on a bicycle, something bad could happen to her at any time, and there was nothing she could do about it. Yet at the same time she continued to run, even though that activity poses an even greater risk of injury. Why? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

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