The Jeff Wise Blog

Guest Post: Raising a Potential Psychopath

The following is a guest post written by Dr. Liane Leedom, a contributor to the Lovefraud Blog. Dr. Leedom is a psychiatrist who was conned into marriage with a sociopath. She had a child with him, who carries a genetic risk of developing the personality disorder. Dr. Leedom is author of Just Like His Father? A Guide to Overcoming Your Child’s Genetic Connection to Antisocial Behavior, Addiction and ADHD, available at the Lovefraud Store. The article drew 139 comments on Lovefraud. The original post and comments are here.

If you read the stories of victims of sociopaths, many common themes are apparent. One of these is the victim complains that he/she is riddled with anxiety while the sociopath goes on with life effortlessly. From the point of view of a victim, then, it is hard to see fear as a gift. Many say they wish the sociopath suffered some anxiety over the mess they made of their lives. The worst sociopaths even go to prison multiple times but only view this fate as “an occupational hazard.”

Over the past 100 years, clinicians and scientists have written about the lack of fear in sociopaths. Many have speculated that lack of anxiety or fearlessness is one of the causes of psychopathy. In fact, one researcher was able to show that the level of anxiety shown by children in the first two years of life predicted conscience at age 6. Low-fear kids had less of a conscience. In these low fear kids, only empathy predicts conscience.

If like me you are raising a fearless child whose other parent is a sociopath, you have to understand this risk factor for the disorder. Fearless kids require specialized parenting that focuses on developing empathy. They have to be super empathetic to make up for their deficit in guilt, anxiety, and fear. There is much evidence that the development of empathy can be enhanced by the right parenting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Glee’s Walking Machine: Fact and Fiction

As a loyal devotee of Glee, I was stunned to see the the ReWalk exoskeleton featured in last night’s climactic scene. I won’t get into the plot details, but basically the ReWalk functions as a Christmas miracle, letting Artie walk again, albeit in a limited way.

Even more surprising than the inclusion of this rather arcane technology is the fact that the show’s description of if was entirely accurate. (This is, after all, a rather fantastical show.) They got the name right, and the fact that it’s been developed in Israel. And, true to life, the machine doesn’t let Artie just hop around. In order to use it, he has to press an arm-mounted keypad, and then take tentative steps one at a time. But by golly, he’s actually up and moving!

The most unrealistic aspect of the presentation was that, a) you can’t just buy a ReWalk yet; to use one you’d need to be enrolled in a clinical trial, of which there’s only one in the US, near Philadelphia b) it takes a fair bit of training to master.

UPDATE: With just a few days of shopping left before Christmas, word comes that ReWalk has been approved for sale by the FDA. Not for home use, as seen in Glee, but for use by patients in clinics and hospitals. “The ReWalk system will be available for sale as of January, for institutional use only,” says Heather Newcomb, Director of Communications at the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network near Philadelpha. “The cost will be around $85,000.” So even though no one will be finding one under their Christmas tree, a lot more people with spinal-cord injury will have a chance to ambulate again.

Here’s some video I took in January of one of the patients in the clinical trial, a man named Floyd Morrow:

And here’s a link to the story I wrote in Parade.

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At Play in Ted Stevens Crash, A Familiar Culprit

The news out of Alaska over the last few days, about the air crash near Dillingham that killed former senator Ted Stevens, is sad but not entirely surprising. Flying bush planes in the north country is by far the most dangerous kind of aviation in the United States. The details of the crash have yet to emerge, but one thing is clear: the flight ended amid weather conditions that were marginal at best, with low clouds and rain obscuring rough terrain. These are all elements in a type of dangerous flying that has killed many, many Alaskan pilots over the years: scud running.

Scud running, simply put, is flying by visual flight rules through weather conditions that could close in around you at any time. A few years ago, I traveled to Alaska to spend a week with a legendary bush pilot named John Graybill. Every other bush pilot I spoke to was in awe of John’s stick-and-rudder skill. At the time, in 2000, he was 70 years old, and had survived no fewer than five potentially fatal crashes. He was quite blunt in assessing the reason for his repeated survival: he was, he said, simply very lucky.

Scud running is particularly dangerous in Alaska because it is so common. In the Lower 48, most pilots fly to destinations that have sophisticated radar navigation systems. In Alaska, a good percentage of flights are bound for airstrips that are little more than patches of dirt, or a strip of sand or quiet patch of river. The only way to get is by eyeballing it. So if you fly into a cloud, and find yourself unable to see the ground, you’re really screwed. Once you’re disoriented, you could easily fly into a mountain, or a tree, or what have you.

The problem is that flying in the Alaskan bush inevitably involves some kind of scud running. For one thing, you never know when the weather might change on you halfway through the flight. For another, bush pilots inevitably feel pressure from clients or their bosses to take their load where it needs to go. Ceiling low? Pass obscured by clouds? You’ll be able to pick your way through. With enough experience, pilots may begin to feel they have an intuitive understanding of when such gambits will work and when they won’t. In reality, they’re counting on luck, as Graybill said. Every flight into marginal weather conditions is a game of Russian Roulette.

Graybill told me that when he first arrived in Alaska in the 1950s, he took advice from an old-timer, Glenn Gregory, who drummed into him the first rule of bush flying: “He told me, ‘Don’t lose ground contact flying in Alaska. Don’t do it.’ I had grounds to remember those words later on.”

Later Graybill told me the full story, which provided a vivid understanding of how a pilot can be lured into scud running, and why it can be so dangerous: Read the rest of this entry »

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Abby Sunderland and Tragedy’s Perverse Incentive

Last week the world held its breath, wondering if 16-year-old sailor Abby Sunderland had lost her life in the southern ocean. Luckily, she had not, and was plucked from her stricken sailboat two days after its mast was knocked off by a storm. But in the wake of her  rescue relief quickly turned to outrage at Sunderland’s parents (who earlier this year had signed a reality-show deal) for allowing a legal minor to risk her life in such a dangerous undertaking. It all seemed too dismayingly similar: Bad parenting plus fame-seeking equals a call out to search-and rescue teams. Call it Balloon Boy 2010.

If one were to find a bright spot in this lamentable interlude would be that the tsunami or criticism might force other parents of would-be circumnavigators, and the children themselves, come to their senses, and so prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

But I suspect that the reverse will be true. Tragedy, and near-tragedy like Sunderland’s, have a way of teaching some people exactly the opposite of the right lesson. Perversely, disaster can glamorize insane recklessness. Read the rest of this entry »

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Who’s Fairer, Chimpanzees or Mortgage Bankers?

In this corner, Pan trogolodytes, or common chimpanzee. In the other, the average American mortgage banker. Which has a more highly evolved sense of fairness? Thanks to a combination of psychological experimentation and economic happenstance, the truth can now be known.

In effect, both chimpanzees and bankers have been made to take to a test called “The Ultimatum Game.” Commonly conducted in behavioral economics research, the procedure involves giving the first of two players a certain sum of money to divide. This person can keep as much of it as he wants, and pass the rest along to the second player. The second player can either accept what the first player offers or cancel the whole deal, in which case neither player gets anything.

In strictly rational economic terms, the second player should be willing to accept any amount of money that the first player offers. Even one penny, after all, is better than zero. But human beings are not strictly rational. Millions of years of evolution as social animals has left us with a deeply ingrained expectations of fairness. So most people react to an offer of one cent with indignation and reject the deal as unfair.  Realizing this, most first players tend to offer splits that are at least moderately fair — 60/40, say.

Neither bankers nor chimpanzees conform to this rule of thumb, however. Read the rest of this entry »

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How To Jump Out of an Airplane Without a Parachute. And Survive.

A fascinating article in the February issue of Popular Mechanics, about people who have fallen from airplanes at altitude and somehow managed to survive. The piece draws heavily from the amazing web site Free Fall Research Page, run by amateur historian Jim Hamilton. Along with the many astounding anecdotes about people surviving multi-mile plummets is a short paragraph about Japanese parachutist Yasuhiro Kubo, who has pioneered the amazingly bonkers pastime of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute:

The sky diver tosses his chute from the plane and then jumps out after it, waiting as long as possible to retrieve it, put it on and pull the ripcord. In 2000, Kubo — starting from 9842 feet — fell for 50 seconds before recovering his gear.

To my chagrin, I was unable to find anything about Kubo on YouTube.  (Come on, people!) Fortunately, there is video documentation of a similar feat performed by noted reckless lunatic and motocross champ Travis Pastrana, who on September 26, 2007 jumped out of an airplane over Puerto Rico without a parachute, or even a shirt, and then managed to link up in flight with a confederate who hooked him into a harness for a safe tandem landing. Here’s the footage:

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Clear Thinking Under Pressure: Second Amendment Version

Intense, life-or-death pressure tends to shut down the frontal cortex, and with it the capacity to think logically and rationally to solve an urgent problem. Some people, though, show the remarkable ability to engage in creative problem-solving when death is just a few seconds away. How do they do it? It’s one of the framing questions of my book, and indeed I begin with the story of Neil Williams, an aerobatic pilot who found a remarkably creative way to save his own life when his wing started to fall off at low altitude, leaving him a few seconds away from a fiery death.

Well, the interwebs today carry the news of yet another creative self-rescue, this time from Northern California. A security guard was driving along the highway when his cell phone rang, startling him. In the first, hapless part of the story, he responded to this intrusion into his thought process by veering off the road, over the guardrail, and into a river. (Was he sleeping, by any chance?) Now for the heroic part. Trapped by the water as his vehicle sank to the bottom, the as-yet-unnamed guard improvised a blunt but effective solution to his imprisonment: he pulled out his gat and blew out a window. Or, as the AP report framed it:

A spokesman for the Roseville Fire Department said the man was traveling northbound on Industrial Avenue in Roseville when the cell phone device activated. The driver was startled and veered off the road through the guardrail. The SUV landed in Pleasant Grove Creek. He used his gun to shoot himself out, then flagged down a passerby.

So there you have it. Americans love their guns, and their guns love them back.

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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 »

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Are People Irrational in a Disaster?

News today of the terrible nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, in which at least 109 people died in a blaze caused by stage pyrotechnics setting fire to inflammable decorations. From the AP report:

Video recorded by a clubgoer and shown on Russian television showed partygoers dancing, before sparks from pyrotechnic fountains on stage ignited the club’s ceiling around midnight. Witness Svetlana Kuvshinova told The Associated Press that the blaze swiftly consumed twigs decorating the ceiling. Russian clubs and restaurants often cover ceilings with plastic insulation and a layer of willow twigs to create a rustic look…

The video showed people reluctantly heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling. Within seconds they started rushing away in panic as flames begin to spread faster.

“There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out,” said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. “They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn’t see anything.”

The catastrophe is eerily similar (as the AP story notes) to the Station nightclub fire that took place in Rhode Island in 2001, and which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book. In both cases, revelers milled about as the flames spread, then moved en masse towards the front door, where their bodies jammed the exits so that no one could escape. Those who didn’t die of smoke inhalation were crushed to death by the pressure of those pushing from behind.

In both cases, many or all of the patrons of the club would have survived had they left the club in an orderly fashion. Instead, it seems, they panicked and died — a case of fear provoking irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Or is it? Read the rest of this entry »

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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