The Jeff Wise Blog

Near Death Experiences: Science and Skepticism

In response to my recent post about near-death experiences (NDEs),  several readers wrote in and described their own brushes with the beyond. Writes Tamara,

I started to panic but no one could hear me, I couldn’t breath, I could barely move. Then I got real calm and reached under me and pulled the plug out without even thinking about it. It was like I was watching myself from outside of my body. My body rolled itself over so I was face up. Then my vision shot out of the bathtub and it was as if I was shooting through the sky, I was running through the grass in our backyard and then back to the sky and then I was in space and the stars were shooting past me.

So here’s the question du jour: was Tamara’s experience an untimely glimpse into the world that awaits us beyond death? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Research,

“Go Toward the Light”: The Science of Near-Death Experiences

Modern medicine has proven so adept at saving victims of cardiac arrest that a good number of people are walking around today who at one time or another were considered clinically dead. While this is a good thing in and of itself, it has the side benefit of having generated numerous reports of the shadowy psychological condition that people experience when they’re close to “the other side.” So consistent are these reports — combining the sensation of floating, seeing oneself from an outside perspective, and moving through a tunnel towards light — that they have earned an official moniker, “Near Death Experiences,” or NDEs.

Just what is behind these eerily similar reports? To those of a certain mindset, they are a  supernatural phenomenon, an early glimpse of the afterlife that awaits. To those of a more materialist persuasion, these sensations must be generated by some common brain architecture that gets activated under intense stress. As it happens, this latter view has just received some intriguing scientific backing, in the form of a paper in the latest issue of the journal Critical Care. A key component of NDEs, it appears, is carbon dioxide in the blood. Yes, the same thing that makes Cokes fizzy also makes your life flash in front of your eyes. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Research

Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen: Why Won’t She Leave Him?

The facts are straightforward: on Christmas Day, Charlie Sheen’s wife, Brooke Mueller, called 911, frantic that a switchblade-armed Sheen had threatened her. Police arrested Sheen, then released him after he posted an $8500 bond.

And then, yesterday, their lawyer told US Weekly that the couple were happily back together: “They’re very much in love, and they want to try to work it out. I think they had a really bad day, which is probably an understatement, but they need their privacy and they need some time.”

Three letters: WTF?

But as baffling as the story seems to be, science can offer an explanation.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Research, , , ,

Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem

The aughts been a good decade for Malcolm Gladwell. The  reigning king of urban intellectuals has never not had a book among the New York Times’s top 10 bestsellers since his first book, Tipping Point, debuted in 2000. (Currently, he has four.) With so much success, of course, invariably come brickbats. The latest volley of slings and arrows has arrived from the direction of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor who, reviewing Gladwell’s book What the Dog Saw in the New York Times Book Review last month, declared that the author “unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and… occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

As someone who has just published a somewhat Gladwellian tome myself, I have a somewhat different perspective. The problem, I’ve discovered, isn’t just that Gladwell is wrong. It’s that his formulations are so darn sticky. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy, Research, , , , , , ,

Toddlers Headed to Jail

One of the main counterintuitive takeaways of the book is the idea that fear, though generally considered a negative emotion, can both feel good and be good for you. Now comes a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that points to the harm that can result from an inadequate fear response: The researchers found a link between fearlessness and future criminality in children as young as three years old.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Extreme Fear, Fearlessness, Research, ,

Erasing Fear Memories – Without Drugs

Remarkable news on the memory-erasure front. A team led by Elizabeth Phelps at New York University has published a report in Nature this week about a technique for wiping out unpleasant associations by taking advantage of a psychological process known as reconsolidation. A good deal of research has gone on lately into the erasure of unpleasant memories, with the goal of treating people suffering from anxiety and PTSD, but so far the focus has been on using drugs, as I’ve described earlier.

This kind of emotional memory is processed in the amygdala, a crucial hub for coordinating the brain’s response to danger. Fear memories can be problematic because, unlike the conscious, “explicit” memories that are formed via the hippocampus — things like the name of a friend, or the number of pints in a gallon — they do not fade with time in the same way. As I write in Chapter 10 of Extreme Fear:

The amygdala’s memory system retains frightening associations permanently. If you’ve been bitten by white dog, your amygdala will never forget. But the memory can get overlaid by a positive or neutral association. If you later buy a friendly white dog, say, and spend day after day associating your pet with harmless fun, in time your fear of white dogs will be overlaid by a suppressing response generated by the medial prefrontal cortex. Your amygdala isn’t forgetting that white dogs are dangerous, but you’ve laid a new memory on top of it, like a linoleum floor over a trap door. The old unconscious fear connection remains, encoded subconsciously in the amygdala. Under stress, the buried fear can spontaneously reemerge.

In her study, Phelps explored the effect on extinction of  reconsolidation, an intriguing effect in which a memory that has been recalled into consciousness becomes temporarily malleable and subject to change. Previous experimenters have administered drugs, such as the beta-blocker propranalol, during the reconsolidation phase, and found that this can help erase painful memories. Phelps’ experiment was designed to see whether a similar effect could be obtained without the use of drugs. And the surprising answer was yes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Research, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

How Breathing Can Lead to Panic

This footage was taken from inside the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose. In June, 1996, he was flying back to his base from a training mission when his engine failed with a loud bang. Here’s what happened next:

At the time of the accident, Rose was at an altitude of 13,000 feet, and above a layer of thick clouds. Immediately he turned in the direction of the nearest airstrip, at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. But where was it? With the help of his fellow pilots in the squadron he found his way through the clouds and broke out into clear air at 7,000 feet. From there, it was just a question of keeping his wits while nursing his damaged aircraft onto the runway.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the sound of Rose’s breathing, clearly audible on the tape’s audio track.  While it sounds heavy — clearly the breathing of a man under stress — it’s not excessively fast. He was not on the verge of hyperventilation. If he had been, he might well have lost control and panicked.

The connection between breathing and self-control has been recognized for centuries, but only recently has a scientific connection between the two been identified. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, Aviation, Mastering Fear, Research, video, , , , ,

Can Handwashing Save Us?

flu particlesThe nation is suffering from a shortage of swine flu vaccine, leaving millions at risk of infection from a potentially deadly pandemic. Fortunately, the experts agree that there’s a simple and effective precaution that we can all take to help keep us healthy: wash our hands. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from USA Today’s article “Stay safe from swine flu with 3 simple steps.

Studies prove that hand-washing dramatically reduces the spread of infection and is even a lifesaver. Even before the outbreak of swine flu, the World Health Organization reported that regular hand-washing — after using the toilet and before eating — could save more lives than any other medical intervention…

The Centers for Disease Control seconds the motion on its swine-flu advice page:

Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Here’s the medical-advice web site Suite 101:

Handwashing is the single most important measure to prevent the spread of infections, including swine flu.

And so on. There’s just one problem, however. There’s no scientific evidence that this advice has any scientific foundation. In fact, a recent Canadian study found that handwashing did nothing to prevent flu transmission. “Most transmissions of flu virus are through respiratory secretions — coughing and sneezing,” says my brother-in-law John Emy, who practices internal medicine here in New York. Essentially, clouds of fine particles laden with virus waft thru the air, get inhaled, and infect a new host. The hands have nothing to do with it.

Why, then do medical authorities continue to recommend handwashing as a preventative measure?

Well, one could argue that when it comes to swine flu, handwashing is at worst harmless. And it has indeed been demonstrated to help prevent transmission of other diseases, so it’s a worthwhile habit to get into. And in the short term it will at least give healthy worried folks something to do. As I write in Chapter 11 of Extreme Fear, taking constructive action in the face of danger helps to reduce fear. So if the public believes that washing their hands will help them survive the coming flu season, perhaps that’s a good thing in itself.

Let’s not get lulled into complacency, however. As the New Scientist points out in its excellent article on the topic, handwashing is just one of several ineffective measures that the general public believes can keep them safe. Getting plenty of rest, drinking lots of fluids, and eating organic foods are all things that will, in fact, do nothing to prevent swine flu transmission. They’re just comfort blankets, and the downside of comfort blankets is that they can demotivate you from taking constructive action. The reality is that only vaccination offers demonstrated protection the flu. As soon as you can, get that shot.

Filed under: Policy, Research, Threats, , , ,

A Drug for Forgetting Fear?

PillsThe human brain is very good at forgetting, a fact that I was recently reminded of when my bank asked me to choose from a series of “security questions” as part of an account upgrade. What was the name of my third-grade teacher? What was the name of the street my school was on? What city was my mother born in? I was astonished at how little of this kind of thing remained in my memory bank.

Forgetting this kind of explicit memory comes easily, but there’s another kind of memory we’re not so good at erasing. Memories of fearful experiences seem to stay with us forever. To the extent that their impact fades over time, it’s not because we forget them, but that our brains gradually suppress them. They’re forgotten, but not gone. And they can cause problems for people suffering from emotional trauma, when buried memories come roaring back to inflict pain all over again.

It would be better if the brain were able to forget some kinds of fearful memories just it can things like names and phone numbers – and a recently published paper presents evidence that might just be possible. Researcher Nadine Gogolla and colleagues demonstrated that as the brain of a baby mouse matures, its ability to form permanent fear memories develops at the same time as a net-like structure forms in the amygdala, where emotions are processed and fear-related memories are stored. Made of proteins called chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans, this “neural net” structures seem to prevent memories from being erased. When they’re disrupted by a drug, mice are more likely to lose those memories.

The finding points the way to a possible therapy for human fears: a drug that would alter the formation or functioning of the “neural net” and thereby allow people to shed troubling and disturbing memories. It’s still a long way off, but the research indicates that it could at least be possible.

Filed under: Mastering Fear, Research, , , ,

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