The Jeff Wise Blog

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

7 Essential Steps to Mastering Temptation

We Americans are out of control. We want to lose weight, but we can’t stop eating. (Since 1980 the obesity rate in the United States has doubled; two-thirds of the population is now overweight.) We want to save, but we can’t stop spending. (The average American household owes more in debt than it earns in a year, and still keeps spending more than it takes in.) We want to be healthy, but we can’t stop smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. (One in ten Americans has an addiction disorder.) We can’t even control our attention. (We’re multitasking like never before, constantly switching our focus from Blackberries to iPhones, to email and texts and the internet.)

These behavioral problems aren’t just vexing and embarrassing. They’re killing us.  Smoking and obesity are the top two causes of preventable death in the United States. More than half of people who die between the ages of 15 to 64 do as a result of unhealthy decisions, compared to just 5 percent a century ago. And impulse control takes a toll across all age groups. Children born today might be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. They will also face greatly diminished economic prospects, as runaway spending in both private and public spheres contributes to an unprecedented and increasingly unsustainable debt load.

Self-control is one of the hardest things to achieve in modern life, but in the course of my research I’ve come across seven key tools that can help us to resist temptation. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

Save a Plastic Bag, Help Destroy the World

I was at the supermarket the other day and my curiosity was tweaked by a sign near the checkout counter: “Save a Plastic Bag, Help Save the World.” The idea, of course, is that if we throw away fewer plastic bags, nature will benefit. Many such small virtuous actions can, in congregate, impart an enormous benefit.

Also underlying the slogan is another idea, which is generally unexpressed explicitly yet a part of our collective folk psychology, that good behavior leads to a virtuous circle: doing one good deed puts us in a beneficial mindset that leads us to do more good deeds. Just yesterday I saw a TV idea that neatly summed up this idea. On a split screen, it showed a woman taking two different paths in the course of her day. On the left side, she had an unhealthy breakfast, and proceeded to make more unhealthy eating choices throughout the day, had no energy, came home from work exhausted, watched TV, and was basically a loser. On the other side of the screen, she started out her day with the advertiser’s nutritious snack bar, proceeded to eat healthily throughout the day, exercised, and went out after work and had fun with her awesome friends. The difference in the two outcomes was all down to that single, simple decision at breakfast: to be a winner, or a slob?

Unfortunately, as psychological research has shown, human behavior doesn’t work like that at all. On the contrary: single, small acts of virtuous behavior actually predispose us to behave worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

Fat, Drunk, and Broke? Don’t Blame the Caveman

Spare a thought for the most abused demographic in the US today: the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer. These plucky ancestors, who scurried across the earth from two million to 12,000 years ago, have lately taken responsibility and blame for seemingly every aspect of modern life.

Cavemen-bashers would have us believe that because our brains evolved in a world where hunting and gathering were requisite skills, not juggling frequent flier points or angling for a promotion, we’re ill equipped to deal with modern life. We want to be good, but our brains are forever subconsciously pulling us back to our cavemen ways. Marital fidelity? Not in our genes. Peaceful co-existence? Not adaptive for life on the savannah.

Lately, Pleistocene hunter gatherers seem to be getting an especially harsh ragging on behalf of the obesity epidemic. If the last time you stepped on your bathroom scale it broke, the common wisdom seems to be, just blame the atlatl-wielders.

In the May/June issue of Psychology Today, Leyla Muedin argues in “The Way We Were” (p. 51) that “our bodies are best adapted to what our Paleolithic ancestors ate.” Back in the good old days, she writes, “over the course of a year, you might eat 100 different types of fruit and vegetables… but you wouldn’t drink any milk or consume any dairy products.” She quotes S. Boyd Easton, an anthropologist at Emory University,who wrote in a recent editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that “the dietary and lifestyle difference between then and now account for most of our chronic diseases and cancer.”

How is this absurd? Let me count the ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

Can You Lose Weight By Thinking Really Hard?

The human brain is a gas-guzzler of an organ, accounting for some 20 percent of  the body’s total metabolic activity. The high cost of keeping a big brain functioning is presumed by many to be the reason why our big noggins took so long to evolve, and why no other organism has bothered to cram such a big brain in such a relatively small body.

What was a hurdle in evolutionary terms could, however, prove to be a blessing for the obesity-challenged. Because if normal everyday thinking burns up 20 percent of  our total calories, just imagine how thinking really hard — doing math homework, say, or trying to figure out the plot of Lost — could melt the pounds away! Right? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

Figure Out a Problem, And Make it Impossible to Solve

Today is a beautiful day for a run in New York’s Central Park — sunny and cool, with the trees wearing the first pale-green lushness of early spring. My wife and I were jogging around the park, pushing our 1.5-yr-old in a jogging stroller, and lamenting the difficulty we’ve been having getting our weight down, even though we’ve been exercising a good deal more now that the weather has gotten nice.

Sandra, it turned out, had just been reading an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about just this very topic. Gretchen Reynolds delves into the issue of exercise and weight loss, and the discouraging research that has found that, for women especially, exercising more makes you hungrier, so you eat more and wind up counteracting the calorie-burning you’ve been doing. Writes Reynolds:

In practical terms, the results are scientific proof that life is unfair. Female bodies, inspired almost certainly “by a biological need to maintain energy stores for reproduction,” Braun says, fight hard to hold on to every ounce of fat. Exercise for many women (and for some men) increases the desire to eat.

Upon hearing this information, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I was pleased to have an explanation for this annoying phenomenon. On the other hand, I thought: is the urge to find explanations for our behavior ultimately self-defeating? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

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