The Jeff Wise Blog

Is Your Mind Controlled by Parasites?

You’re having a bad day. You snap at your spouse, act short with your colleagues, and cut off other drivers on your commute home. Are you the victim of a bad mood? Or is your problem that your brain is infected with behavior-modifying parasites?

It’s a disgusting prospect, but a brain infection might well be the cause.

There’s something innately repellent about parasites – organisms that invade their hosts and feast upon their bodies from within. But in the gallery of biological horrors a special place has to be reserved for that bizarre and horrid class of parasites which hijack not only their hosts’ bodies but their brains as well, causing them to engage in behavior that suits the purposes of the invading organism.

Thousands of such parasites are known to science, Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Threats, , , , , , ,

How Psychopaths Choose Their Victims

Recently my journalistic career brought me in contact with a man who, when I first met him, seemed to be the very embodiment of a charming and well-heeled gentleman. He is a natural raconteur, good-looking, athletic, intellectually curious, financially successful, and wittily self-deprecating. What few people know about him is that he has left behind a trail of emotional destruction, having spent decades abusing vulnerable individuals for his own twisted purposes.

Psychopaths, or sociopaths as some prefer to call them, are well known figures in our culture. We’re fascinated by their predatory relationship with the rest of humanity. Their chilling alien-ness makes them convenient villains in books, film, and television. When we encounter them in real life, we think: There really are monsters roaming the world. But as my own recent experience has taught me, the crimes of the psychopath are not merely a function of the perpetrator. We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as the psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Threats

The Women Most Likely to Be Stalked

A career as a female TV news anchor isn’t all glamor. Away from the glare of the studio lights, the job is plagued by a little-known but particularly unpleasant occupational hazard: stalkers. In newsrooms across the country, the problem is endemic. “Everyone has a crazy guy,” says broadcaster Amy Jacobson. “It’s expected.”

Though no statistics exist on the scope of the problem, experts who study stalking confirm that female anchors and reporters can expect to be targeted sooner or later. “One in eight American women will get stalked in her lifetime,” says stalking consultant Dr. Park Dietz. “But for a female news readers, it’s virtually a certainty. At any given time, she might be stalked by several at once and not even know about it.” Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Threats

Can Animals Detect Earthquakes?

Over at the always-excellent Discover magazine blog 80 Beats, a fascinating post from a couple of days ago on a topic that has fascinated natural historians for several thousand years now: can animals’ strange behavior provide forewarning that an earthquake is about to strike?

I’ve been reporting a story about earthquake prediction for Parade magazine lately, and spent a day talking with some of the nation’s leading seismologists at Caltech. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the difficulty of the scientists working toward that holy grail of earthquake research, figuring out how to predict the behavior of faults that lie invisible deep beneath the surface of the earth (and which may be fundamentally chaotic in their nature anyway).

All the more intriguing, then, to hear that biologist Rachel Grant, while studying the mating behavior of toads in Italy, may have stumbled upon the first scientific evidence of animals being able to foresee what seismologists could not:

Her team was studying common toads in Italy in April 2009 when the amphibians began to disappear from the study site. This didn’t make much sense to her, the toads abandoning a breeding site in the midst of breeding season. So the researchers tracked them. They found that 96 percent of males — who vastly outnumber females at breeding spots — abandoned the site, 46 miles (74 kilometers) from the quake’s epicenter, five days before it struck on April 6, 2009. The number of toads at the site fell to zero three days before the quake. Grant says her initial reaction to the mass toad dispersal was annoyance—their flight was holding up her research. However, when they began to return the day after the earthquake, things began to make more sense.

It’s an amazing story, a seemingly irrefutable case of cause and effect. But I’m still not buying it. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Threats

Fear of the Road, Pt 2

Via Boing Boing: a bus driver falls asleep on a busy road, and astounding mayhem ensues.

The end titles sum it up: “The guard only needs a second, But get hurt is an influence lifetime.”

Filed under: Threats

Flu: The Season of Fear has Passed

According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Centers for Disease Control has declared that the threat of a swine flu epidemic has passed. Despite widespread fears that the H1N1 strain of influenza virus would exact an epic toll, the flu came and went without ever achieving epidemic status.

Only 161 new infections were reported to CDC-monitored labs last week, compared to 11,470 at the epidemic’s mid-October peak. Only one state (Alabama) still reports “widespread activity.” Deaths and hospitalizations were 14 and 374, respectively, compared to 189 and 4,970 a week at the peak. To put that in perspective, the CDC estimates that an average of 257 Americans normally die of seasonal flu every day during the season, or about 36,000 a year.

The most remarkable aspect of the story, according to writer Michael Fumento, is that the spread of the swine fly this winter may have actually reduced overall deaths from influenza. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy, Threats

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, , ,

Feeling Anxious? Congratulations!

Anxious, depressed, or both?If you’ve been unusually stressed out in 2009, here’s something else to fret about: Anxiety is not only an unpleasant emotional condition, it’s physically harmful. Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol weakens the immune system, disrupts the memory, and damages the cardiovascular system. Thanks to anxiety your life will not only be more miserable, but shorter.

That’s the case for most of us, at any rate. But a recent study carried out by researchers at King’s College London found out that among people suffering depression, those who suffer from anxiety as well actually have a longer life expectancy. “‘One of the main messages from this research is that a little anxiety may be good for you,” observed team leader Dr Robert Stewart.

In terms of the relationship between mortality and anxiety with depression as a risk factor, the research suggests that help-seeking behaviour may explain the pattern of outcomes. People with depression may not seek help or may fail to receive help when they do seek it, whereas the opposite may be true for people with anxiety.

To put it another way, anxiety can do you a lot of good when there really is something for you to be anxious about. Which is, I suppose, why evolution has bequeathed us with anxiety in the first place. Whatever its downsides, anxiety focuses our attention and motivates us to take action. If you’ve got a serious medical issue, and depression is demotivating you from doing anything about it, then a case of gnawing nerves is just what you need.

Filed under: Anxiety, Threats, , , ,

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, , , ,

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