The Jeff Wise Blog

How Dogs Read Our Minds

I’m currently in northernmost Quebec, in the Inuit village of Puvirnituq. The seemingly endless expanse of snow and ice, the biting subzero temperatures and the howling wind, powerfully drive home the resourcefulness of the Inuit, who for over a thousand years thrived in this unforgiving landscape with only stone-age technology. But what powerful technology it was: fire, seal-skin anoraks, snow-carving knives for making igloos, and above all, dogs. Yesterday afternoon I went for a dog-sled ride with expert musher Jean-Marie Novalinga, whose team pulled us across a flat, wind-scoured landscape. Unlike dog teams in Alaska, those in this part of the Arctic are harnessed in a loose fan formation, as if one were being pulled by a feral pack of dogs. One there in the empty expanse, man and dog working together, the partnership feels like a very primal relationship indeed.

It is, at heart, both a practical relationship and a deeply emotional one. “You have to feel connection to your dogs,” Novalinga said. “It’s the only way to work together.”

Anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows what he means by connection. Humans and dogs have a way of intuiting one another’s emotions – of feeling like we know what the other is feeling — that is unique among all the species on earth. But how they can achieve it is something of a biological puzzle. After all, dogs and humans are not particularly closely related species. Our last common ancestor lived far back during the age of dinosaurs. Dogs are more closely related to whales than they are to us. We are more closely related to mice than to dogs. So why should we feel such a powerful and unique bond? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Wilderness Skills

Interview: Fear, Death and The Psychology of Fight Club

I recently did a fun interview with Joshua Chaplinsky over at The Cult, the Chuck Palahniuk web site. Our conversation ranged over the mechanisms of fear, the meaning of death, how I wound up writing about adventure science. Chaplinsky begins by writing:

Fear is the mind-killer; it is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Whether you are a soldier on the battlefield or a housewife cornered by a cockroach, it is a formidable foe. It can heighten your senses, providing a performance enhancing jolt of adrenaline, yet it can also cause your body to completely shut down on itself. They say only the strong survive, but the many x-factors associated with the fear response pose a danger to even the most well prepared individual. Despite this, good old fashioned knowledge is still your best defense in a dangerous situation. And nobody is more aware of that fact than science writer/outdoor adventurer Jeff Wise.

You can read the whole piece here.

Filed under: Books

Could a Sendai-sized Earthquake Hit the US?

The massive tremors and ensuing tsunami that devastated Japan earlier this month was an order of magnitude more destructive than anything that has hit the continental Unites States in historical times. But seismologists say that a similar event could well strike here. In fact, it’s only a matter of time. And compared to Japan, we’re far less prepared to deal with the consequences.

The danger zone is not California. While Los Angeles and San Francisco suffer frequent damaging quakes, they owe their seismic woes to a relatively shallow phenomenon called a slip-strike fault, caused by two tectonic plates sliding against each other. Sendai was a result of something far more dangerous: a so-called subduction zone, a deep-lying discontinuity caused by one plate slowly burying itself under another.

In both cases, earthquakes are caused by the slow building of pressure as the two plates move relative to one another, but remained locked together at the fault line. The strain increases steadily until the fault gives way, releasing the energy in the form of an earthquake. While strike-slip faults are relatively shallow, a subduction fault is deeper and can release a lot more energy. “One of the signatures of this type of fault,” says Mike Blanpied, associate director of the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, “is that they sit quietly until they create a giant quake.”And by giant, he means monster. The Sendai event contained more than 30 times the energy of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Only one such region lies within the Lower 48. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: disaster, , , ,

The Ecology of Misinformation

It’s the paradox of the internet age: never before has so much information been available so effortlessly, so quickly — and never before has so much of it been completely erroneous. How do we decide what is true? Who do we trust to verify the information that we consume?

Here I would like to offer a small case study from my own experience.

I first came across the above video clip on Tuesday on Kottke.org. Soon after, I stumbled across it again on NASA’s excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day site. Clearly, it had gone viral in a big way. The clip is described as an animation based on thousands of photos taken by the Cassini space probe stitched together to form a movie of the spacecraft’s visit to Saturn. What’s really remarkable about it is that it is pointedly not a computer animation. As the credits at the beginning clearly state, “no CGI, no 3D models.” Or, as Kottke put it, “There is no 3-D CGI involved in this amazing Saturn fly-by video.”

I watched the clip and immediately became suspicious. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Culture, , , ,

Is Your Mind Controlled by Parasites?

You’re having a bad day. You snap at your spouse, act short with your colleagues, and cut off other drivers on your commute home. Are you the victim of a bad mood? Or is your problem that your brain is infected with behavior-modifying parasites?

It’s a disgusting prospect, but a brain infection might well be the cause.

There’s something innately repellent about parasites – organisms that invade their hosts and feast upon their bodies from within. But in the gallery of biological horrors a special place has to be reserved for that bizarre and horrid class of parasites which hijack not only their hosts’ bodies but their brains as well, causing them to engage in behavior that suits the purposes of the invading organism.

Thousands of such parasites are known to science, Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Threats, , , , , , ,

The Neuro-Nonsense of Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has been a box-office smash, a critical darling, and the recipient of four Academy Awards. But does it make any sense? More specifically, is it based on a conception of the human mind that bears any semblance to reality?

Some very intelligent people think so. Yesterday, geek haven io9 ran a piece entitled “Rise of the Neurothriller” that says of films such as Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that their “genius lies in their ability to extrapolate what the world will be like when brain-tweaking comes in the form a gadget you can pick up at Best Buy.” The New Scientist’s blog CultureLab offers a similarly breathless endorsement of the film’s technology, which apparently is just around the corner.

Well, actually, it’s not. To put it in Wolfgang Pauli’s memorable phrasing, the mental universe of Inception isn’t even wrong. From a scientific and a philosophical point of view, Inception doesn’t make any sense at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Culture

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