The Jeff Wise Blog

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

Getting Lost, and Loving It

The most exciting thing about travel for me is the delicious sense of disorientation, that Alice-in-Wonderland sense that even the smallest, most mundane details of life have been switched around. For me, getting lost in a strange place isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. I like the sense of being totally cut off from the predictable world of my everyday life, immersed in the strangeness of the new. In the current issue of Travel + Leisure magazine, I have a short article talking about how traveling without navigational aids can boost your awareness of the world around you.

As it happens, a friend of mine, the travel writer Matt Gross, has been thinking along the same lines. Matt spent years traveling around the world writing the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. Now he’s started a new column called “Getting Lost,” in which he describes his attempts to deliberately disorient himself in places around the world that he has never visited before. Given our mutual interest in the topic, we decided to interview each other. My answers to Matt’s questions can be found over at his website, The Minor Glories.

Most of us try hard not to get lost. Where did you get the idea to deliberately throw yourself into the experience? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

The Scary Science of Halloween Haunting

To quote Glee‘s Sue Sylvester: “It’s time to get back to the real meaning of Halloween. Fear.”

This is the time of year when all of us — rich and poor, young and old, living and undead — can put aside our differences and celebrate the sheer joy of having the wits scared out of us. Most of the time, we do our best to avoid fear, so it’s nice that once a year society can acknowledge the pleasure of terror. Of course, for the scientifically minded, this inevitably raises the question: just how scary is scary?

Two years ago, Michigan cardiologist Nathan Foster decided to find out. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

The Exact Opposite of a Prius

Here’s another video from last Saturday night in Morocco, Indiana. Al Zukakas of Chicago takes his “Hot Blade” jet dragster to 269 mph in the quarter mile. The speed is impressive, but what really gets the crowd going is the sheer power of the sound, heat, and flame coming out of that big turbine. You can feel the thumping in your bones.

Filed under: Recreation

Unsafe At Any Speed

A late night last night. I was on assignment for Popular Mechanics, covering the debut of Paul Stender’s latest jet-powered contraption. Paul is best known as the guy who invented the jet-powered outhouse and the jet-powered schoolbus, but he’s done quite a few other vehicles as well — in fact, every winter he tends to brew up at least one new example of vehicular insanity in his Brownsville, IN, workshop in preparation for the upcoming drag-race and airshow season. Seen here is the “Urban Legend,” a ’67 Impala that’s been outfitted with a jet engine on its roof that Paul estimates will boost the car’s top speed from about 130 to about 250 mph. Note that he doesn’t achieve anything like that in this clip; the car, still a work in progress, suffered some major problems with the afterburner. Hopefully Paul will get the kinks worked out and will return to Morocco in September for a full-power run that hopefully the chest-pounding noise and fire of a full jet-car experience. I’ll be writing about the project in more detail in an upcoming issue of Popular Mechanics.

Filed under: Recreation

When Summer Fun Turns Deadly Serious

I was in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado yesterday, whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River with a highly experienced outfitter called KODI Rafting. We were to start the day with a seven-mile run down the Numbers rapids, a continuous stretch of Class III and Class IV whitewater that takes about two hours to complete. It’s a challenging stretch of water that demands an aggressive approach. People can and do get hurt.

As we rode to the put-in on a former schoolbus, the head guide gave us a run-down of what to do if we fell out of the boat: one, immediately swim for the boat and try to get back in. Two, if you get separated from the boat, lift your feet up and point them downstream so that you can ward off rocks. And so on. It was all very solid and reasonable advice. But having spent the last few years studying the human fear response, I found myself wondering: if any of us novice rafters winds up in the drink, are we going to remember any of this advice amid our rising panic? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

Montana Ranching: The Uncensored Story

The New York Times is running a story tomorrow that I wrote about hardcore vacation ranches out West, where guests take part in running real working cattle ranch. (It’s already available online, though.) Unfortunately, they had to cut out some of the more vivid scenes from the piece. “We’re a family newspaper,” my editor said. I didn’t think that what they took out was all that gruesome, but in my estimation it went a long way toward establishing just how hardcore these experiences are. This isn’t a Disney Channel version of cattle ranching; animals get castrated, have their ovaries pulled out, get tags punched into their ears, and all the rest.

At any rate, in the interest of full and complete reporting, I’m putting the full version online below, so those of a more hardy disposition can learn what these ranches are all about. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

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

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

“I Didn’t Jump, I Was Pushed”

South African student parachutist Lareece Butler was on a training jump on Monday when, according to the UK Telegraph, her chute got tangled and she plummeted to earth at high speed. She wound up with a concussion, a broken leg, and a busted pelvis. Doctors called her survival “a miracle.” That’s bad enough, but in the aftermath the woman’s aunt told the paper that Butler hadn’t jumped out of the plane at all. She’d been pushed. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

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