The Jeff Wise Blog

Who’ll Be the Alpha Male? Ask the Hormones

Any time two or more people come together, one of them automatically and subconsciously establishes dominance. That’s the reality of being a mammal. We’re social creatures; a place in the hierarchy is a matter of life and death. We need allies to protect us, to fight with us, to groom us and help us bear and raise children. So our brains contain circuitry that automatically find a place for us in the social structure. Some dominate, others submit.

But how do our brains decide who will come out on top? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Social Fear

For Athletes, New Ways to Fail

When the stakes are high, even world-class athletes can dramatically cave under pressure — the dreaded specter of choking. As I describe in my book, garden-variety choking is a catastrophic result of social fear, which causes all kinds of performers — from athletes to actors, and even ordinary people in the bedroom — to become painfully self-aware in a way that undermines the smooth flow of their well-practiced automaticity.

New studies from Europe, however, points to other ways in which anxiety on the playing field can cause athletes to screw up.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, Mastering Fear, Social Fear, sports, , , ,

The Love Drug’s Dark Side

Everyone loves oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter that functions as the body’s internal “love drug.” It has a reputation as the warmest, fuzziest chemical around. As I’ve written about earlier, oxytocin can moderate feelings of fear in social settings. But it does much more than that. Apart from a rather extensive list of functions in sexual reproduction, childbirth, and breastfeeding, oxytocin affects how mammals behave towards one another. In one famous experiment, for instance, subjects were found to behave more empathically after inhaling a dose of oxytocin-laced nasal drops.

But not all of oxytocin’s effects are so delightful. Experiments with rats have shown that increased levels of oxytocin can lead, in certain circumstances, to heightened aggression. And a recent experiment carried out at the University of Haifa in Israel has found some not-so-pleasant effects in humans as well. Subjects were given doses of nasal spray that contained either oxytocin or a placebo, and asked to play a computer game against a fellow test-subject. Actually, for the sake of experimental consistency, there was no other player — the subjects were playing against a computer. The interesting result was that subjects who had taken oxytocin gloated more when they won, and were more envious when they lost, than controls were.

It seems, explains researcher Simone Shamay-Tsoory, that oxytocin somehow helps to engage a person’s social drive, for better or for worse. “When the person’s association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments,” she says.

Filed under: Social Fear,

Love vs Fear

One of the most powerful anxiolytics — that is, compounds which reduce fear and anxiety –is oxytocin, the hormone of mammalian bonding. Social acts like hugging, touching, and having sex all increase our levels of oxytocin; people who have recently had penetrative sexual intercourse have been found to exhibit less fear in social settings.

Of course, the ultimate oxytocin-generating experience is giving birth to and nursing an infant, and nothing is more fearless than a mother protecting her child. Having become a father a year ago, I can understand what the woman on this train platform must have been going through as she realized what was about to happen.

I wonder if oxytocin might take its effect, at least in part, by somehow affecting the way that our brains process “self” and “other” — bringing those we love and feel affection over the boundary and making them, in effect, part of ourselves. About six years ago I remember being repulsed by the sight of my sister casually picking a piece of half-chewed banana off her baby daughter’s bib and popping it into her mouth.  Since my son was born, I find myself doing this sort of thing all the time. Eating my son’s half-eaten food isn’t like eating someone else’s chewed-up,  spit-covered gunk, it’s like eating my own.

The only problem with my theory is that watching your baby roll under a train wouldn’t be as bad as going under a train yourself; it would be worse.

Filed under: Social Fear, ,

The Agony of Social Fear

Being looked at by strangers is a primal trigger of anxiety and stress. The essence of courage is persevering in the face of intense fear. Therefore, this young man deserves the Medal of Honor.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave — or using dialup, or both — you’ve probably already seen this clip. But I post it again to pose the philosophical question: how can watching someone in the grip of intense terror be so damned funny?

Filed under: Social Fear, ,

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