The Jeff Wise Blog

Readers Write: “How Fear Stopped Time”

Recently, I wrote about how extreme fear distorts our perception of time, causing it to seemingly move in slow motion. In response, a number of readers wrote in with fascinating stories of their own, many of which offer intriguing insights into the phenomenon.

One comment came from a reader who experienced time dilation not in a life-threatening crisis, but in the adrenaline-charged milieu of the boxing ring:

I box at a local gym, nothing big.  But the guys there a really good some go pro.  Watching them from outside the ring they just look lightning fast.  But in the ring with them time does seem to slow down.  I can see punches coming a lot “slower” than when I’m not in there getting  punched in the face.  I have time to react and counter. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Extreme Fear

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 a New York Woman Died of Fear

People who have suffered panic attacks — and I’m one — know that fear can be so intense that you feel like you’re going to die. Your pulse races, your heart pounds, you find it hard to breathe. You might even pass out. But you can fear become so intense that it actually kills you?

This past Friday Danielle Goldberg, a 26-year-old Staten Island woman, was riding in her building’s elevator up to her sixth floor apartment just before noon when her neighborhood suffered a blackout. For half an hour, she was trapped inside the small space, in the darkness, alone. In an effort to stifle a growing panic attack she used her cell phone to call her mother, but it was no use. By the time rescue workers freed her half an hour later, she was unconscious. She died in the hospital a short time later. At first glance,  the cause of her death seems clear: pure fright.

But the truth is a bit more complicated. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Extreme Fear

Das Buch ist in deutscher Sprache!

According to Google Translate, that’s German for “The book is in German.” By which I mean that I just learned that the German edition of Extreme Fear will be on shelves April 26. Unglaublich!

Interestingly, the Amazon page indicates that book was translated “from the American” by Stefanie Schaeffler. Hopefully the original is intelligible to English-speakers as well.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

How the Brain Stops Time

One of the strangest side-effects of intense fear is time dilation, the apparent slowing-down of time. It’s a common trope in movies and TV shows, like the memorable scene from The Matrix in which time slows down so dramatically that bullets fired at the hero seem to move at a walking pace. In real life, our perceptions aren’t keyed up quite that dramatically, but survivors of life-and-death situations often report that things seem to take longer to happen, objects  fall more slowly, and they’re capable of complex thoughts in what would normally be the blink of an eye.

Now a research team from Israel reports that not only does time slow down, but that it slows down more for some than for others. Anxious people, they found, experience greater time dilation in response to the same threat stimuli.

An intriguing result, and one that raises a more fundamental question: how, exactly, does the brain carry out this remarkable feat? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Extreme Fear

Extreme Fear At an Early Hour


Here’s me on New York City’s WCBS last Saturday at 6.40am, for Extreme Fear‘s TV debut. Click the image above to go to the station’s video player (I’ve only figured out how to embed YouTube video so far). Thanks for having me, guys! This is what I look like before I’ve had my first cup of coffee.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

“Damned Connecticut” Delves into Extreme Fear

I’ve been off the grid for the last few days, reporting a story about antivirus guru and larger-than-life character John McAfee, who I’m writing a profile about for Fast Company magazine. McAfee embodies the fear-embracing mindset — given the time and the means to do pretty much whatever he wants, he chooses to push the envelope. When I first met him in the New Mexico desert, he was flying ultralight airplanes at low altitude; since then he’s moved to Central America and is trying to develop a way to use medicinal plants to fight bacterial infection.

In the meantime, the intriguing website Damned Connecticut has posted a interview that Ray Bendici did with me about how fear works in the brain. I think Ray did a really nice job of honing in on some of the more intriguing aspects of the topic.

The picture, by the way, shows one of McAfee’s workers holding a scorpion that we found scurrying around a patch of jungle where McAfee is trying to grow his newly discovered plants. Though the sting is said to be incredibly painful, the fellow showed very little fear. As for me, I was happy to keep my distance.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

A Nod from The New Scientist

One of my favorite magazines, The New Scientist, has a capsule review of Extreme Fear in its latest edition. Writes reviewer Alison Motluk:

CAN understanding how fear works make it easier to manage? Jeff Wise, an outdoor adventurer and science writer, believes it can. He uses stories of real people – like Sue Yellowtail, who found herself alone with a hungry mountain lion, and Ian Thomas, who defended his house against a raging forest fire – to explore how we react to terrifying situations. Juxtaposed with these tales are explanations of what is going on in our brains and bodies when we are afraid.

Read the rest here.

Filed under: Extreme Fear

Readers Driven to Panic

Is it possible for a mere book to hijack the amygdala, sending readers into paroxysms of madness? According to some photographic evidence arriving here at Extreme Fear headquarters, the answer is yes. Correspondent J.K. Lee gave copies to some relatives, who suffered the acute reaction depicted here.

Filed under: Extreme Fear,

Superhuman? No, Just Very Frightened

The AP just reported a story that vividly illustrates the incredible capacity of the human brain and body to perform under intense pressure. A Kansas man named Nick Harris was driving his 8-year-old daughter to school last week when he saw a car back up and run over a neighbor’s 6-year-old daughter.  “I didn’t even think. I ran over there as fast as I could, grabbed the rear end of the car and lifted and pushed as hard as I could to get the tire off the child,” Harris said.

The story continues:

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Extreme Fear, Survival, Threats, , ,

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