The Jeff Wise Blog

MIND TRAPS: The fatal mistake of hanging on too long

Most of the mistakes that we make in life are survivable. We suffer our punishment, painful as it may be, and then move on. But there is a different category of mistake that exacts a penalty of another error. The small miscalculations, seemingly insignificant errors of judgment that can snowball into a life-threatening crisis. These mental traps can occur in all sorts of situations, but many a great majority can be lumped into just a handful of categories. Here, I’d like to consider one of the most pernicious: hanging on too long.

When a ground crew is getting ready to launch a hot-air balloon, they have to hold on to the basket to prevent it from taking flight prematurely. They grasp the edge of the basket with both hands and plant a foot on a hold near the base. Only, ever, one. The one sacred unbreakable rule of balloon ground handling is: always keep one foot on the ground.

Why?, I asked the ground handler who first revealed this wisdom to me.

“It’s a mental thing,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Survival

Beguiled by Hollywood, Drawn to a Death in the Wilderness

In 1992, hunters traveling through the backcountry near Denali National Park made a gruesome discovery: inside an abandoned schoolbus that had been left in the backcountry as an emergency shelter they found the emaciated corpse of a young man. Further investigation revealed that the body belonged to Christopher McCandless, a 22-year-old wanderer who had styled himself “Alexander Supertramp.” Lost in the wilderness, McCandless had apparently been unable fend for himself and died of starvation.

To Alaskans, the gruesome find was sad but not surprising: another greenhorn had come to the north country without the necessary respect for the dangers of the outdoors and had paid the ultimate price. But Outside magazine writer Jon Krakauer looked into the story and was able to piece together a nobler tale. Delving into McCandless’s history, he found a troubled soul caught up in the romance of the road, a young man too unseasoned to understand his own limitations. He turned his research into a book, Into the Wild. When Sean Penn made a movie of Krakauer’s book, the McCandless story became even more gauzy: here was a man, not fatally compromised by overconfidence, but tragically gifted with an uncompromising commitment to living life in the fullest.

Many Alaskans rankled at what they saw as Krakauer and Penn’s glorifying of recklessness. But what particularly disturbed them was that after the book came out, Into the Wild fans began trekking into the backcountry to find the bus where McCandless died. Their numbers greatly increased after the movie was released in 2007. Far from learning from McCandless’ mistakes, they were re-enacting them. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Survival

How to Hunt Like a Caveman

A mist hangs in the forested valley as dawn approaches. Somewhere a lone bird calls. I sit on my haunches, listening. There are wild pigs in this forest, somewhere. Daylight might draw them up through this thicket to the ridgeline behind me. My quarry is a razor-tusked beast that can weigh several hundred pounds and is famous for exacting violent revenge on hunters. I check my weapons—a wooden bow and a single stone-tipped arrow—and find myself wondering: Is this really a great idea?

So begins my latest “I’ll Try Anything” column in Popular Mechanics, about my time stone-age hunting with Santa Cruz wilderness expert Cliff Hodges. You can read the full story here.

Filed under: Survival

Surrounded by Wildfire, Should You Run or Fight?

This gripping video (via Gawker) depicts a group of young Russian men attempting to drive through one of the wildfires currently raging across their country. Fortunately, they survived — though, it seems, just barely, thanks to a timely decision on the driver’s part.

If you found yourself in that situation, how would you react? If unexpectedly found yourself in a life-or-death crisis and had to make a decision that would either save your life or end it, how can you ensure that you would make the right one?

That was not a rhetorical question for people in the state of Victoria, Australia, during February and March, 2009. For five weeks catastrophic brush fires swept across the state amid record-breaking temperatures and drought. Government policy held that when fire threatened a neighborhood, homeowners were to make a choice: either stay and fight to save their houses, or evacuate early. They were explicitly instructed not to wait until the flames were close. Trying to run from a wildfire is the surest way to die in it.

The choice given to the people made sense in strictly rational terms. But can people be expected to make rational decisions when they’re surrounded by 1200 degree flames raging four stories high? Shortly after the Victoria fire’s most lethal day, I talked to a survivor and heard his incredible story, which I included in Extreme Fear. Here’s an excerpt: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Survival

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, , ,

“All I Could Do Was Pray”

Praying HandsIt’s a horrific story: a man looks on as the car carrying his wife and son sinks beneath the surface of a flood-swollen river. He jumps into the water and is able to pull his wife free but can’t reach his son. What to do — keep struggling and try to reach his son, or use his energy to ensure his wife”s survival? A recent AP story described the dilemma:

[New Zealander Stacy] Horton said he arrived at the crash scene less than two minutes after the accident to hear his wife screaming in the darkness and to see his son’s friend and the family dog scrambling up the bank. His son Silva was trapped inside the submerged station wagon.

He tried to dive down to the vehicle, which was nose down but with the tail lights burning more than 3 feet (1 meter) below the surface, he told the Dominion Post newspaper.

“I tried to get down and get him but I couldn’t – it was just too deep. And Vanessa was going under,” Horton told the newspaper.

“I made a call to pull my wife to safety. I looked back and I could see the tail lights but it was too far and I couldn’t get him,” he said.

“Instead of going down and risking my life as well as my wife and son’s, I chose to take V(anessa) back and sat on the shore praying. It was all I could do,” a distraught Horton said.

Recourse to prayer is a common theme in stories of life-or-death peril. Time and again, people struggling to survive find that they’ve run out of options and turn to hope of divine intervention. But is praying something that can actually help to materially improve one’s odds?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation, Survival

Everything’s Normal, pt 2

Another perspective on getting swept away unexpectedly.

The incident took place last April in Haines, Alaska. The helmet-cam belongs to Chris Cardello. According to Freeskier magazine, Cardello was wearing a device called an Avalung that allowed up to breathe while trapped in the concrete-like snowpack:

Chris described it like this: “When the slide propagated, I tried to remain as composed as possible and make sure my AvaLung was in. As I was getting buried and the slide slowed, I threw one hand up and with my other hand I grasped the AvaLung, which had been ripped out of my mouth during the turbulent ride. While I was buried, I tried to be as calm as possible—I knew my hand was exposed so my crew would be digging me out shortly. I was able to breathe through the AvaLung, but it was difficult due to the snow jammed down my throat.”

To me the most interesting thing about this quote is Cardello’s statement that “I tried to be as calm as possible.” How does one do that? Famously, survival experts say that in a life-or-death situation, the most important thing to do is not to panic. This has always struck me as a rather absurd idea, since surely no one chooses to panic. But I think I understand what Cardello meant. Trapped under the snow, his heart racing, the possibility of death very close at hand, he must have felt himself on the edge of losing control. And yet he willed himself to keep it together. He fought back the creeping panic. In neurological terms, his prefrontal cortex maintained dominance over his amygdala. Sounds simple — but it’s a lot easier said than done.

Filed under: Survival, video, , , ,

Everything’s Normal, Then It’s Not

We don’t expect to have our lives upended suddenly and unexpectedly, but that’s how fear often intrudes in our daily lives.

This footage shows a rockslide in Polk County, TN, that was captured by a local news crew filming the cleanup of a previous rockslide. Watching the torrent of boulders and trees reminds me of the avalanche that struck Dave Boon when he was driving with his wife on a highway near Denver. One minute he was chatting with his wife, the next he was hurtling end-over-end down the side of a mountain. Time and again, survivors of disasters report thinking to themselves: “This can’t be real.” Looking at this footage, it’s easy to relate to that sense of disbelief.

Filed under: Survival, video, ,

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