The Jeff Wise Blog

Introduction: The Mystery of Fear

On June 3, 1970, shortly before noon, a British pilot named Neil Williams strapped himself into the harness of his blue-and-white Zlin Akrobat, a rugged but nimble single-engine airplane built in Czechoslovakia. The World Aerobatic Championship was coming up, and Williams planned to prepare himself by running through the sequence of maneuvers that he’d be flying in competition.

With a lantern jaw, deep-set eyes, and shock of dark hair swept back from a high forehead, Williams looked every bit a casting director’s idea of a daredevil pilot — and in his case, looks did not deceive. Williams was a veteran flyer with a vast and varied store of experience under his belt. In the course of his career he had flown more than 150 different kinds of airplanes and accumulated more than 6,000 hours in flight time. A retired Royal Air Force test pilot, and four-time winner of the UK aerobatic championships, he was, at 36, already regarded as one of the greatest all-around pilots that Britain had ever produced. But his skills had never been tested as they were about to be.

Rafts of fair-weather clouds drifted over the Royal Air Force base at Hullavington, England, as Williams lined up on the runway, opened the throttle, and roared into the air at full power. The wind aloft was gentle, and as Williams climbed he noted with satisfaction that there was no detectable turbulence — that meant he’d be able to carve his maneuvers all the more precisely.

Williams ran his sequence twice through without incident, then brought the Zlin back to level flight and prepared to practice his routine one final time. After only a few minutes in the air, he was already near his limit for fatigue. Competitive aerobatics is a uniquely demanding undertaking. As a mental discipline, it requires exacting attention to detail, the ability to think quickly and three-dimensionally, and to maintain one’s poise while rapidly moving through maneuvers that turn the plane upside down, or cause it to fall backwards, or spin like a top. As a physical discipline, it requires grit and superb fitness as the airplane’s abrupt changes of direction slam the pilot from one side of the cockpit to the other, with centrifugal forces at times pressing on the body with nine times its actual weight and at other times leaving him hanging upside-down from his harness straps. A four-minute aerobatic routine is enough to leave a pilot drained and soaked in sweat.

Midway through the third run-through of his routine, Williams was coming over the top of a loop, a high arcing figure in which his plane carved through the air like a high fly ball. As it reached the top, Williams was upside-down in his seat, the checkered farmland of southwest England arrayed above his head, the cloud-dappled sky under his seat. The plane continued its arc downward past its apex, and the horizon sank toward the bottom of his windscreen until all he could see in front of him was ground. His descent grew steeper and steeper until he was staring straight down.

Barreling earthward through 1500 feet, Williams hauled the stick toward his chest in order to pull the Zlin back to level flight. He clenched his abdominal muscles in anticipation of the resulting g forces, as gravity combined with the centrifugal force of the plane’s curving path would press him into his seat with five times his normal weight. Only by grunting and clenching his leg and stomach muscles could he prevent the blood from rushing out of his head and causing him to black out.

The plane was just coming level with the ground, 1000 feet up, when —BANG! A jolt shook the airplane. The Zlin started rolling left — all except the left wing, which stayed oddly level with the horizon. Williams instantly intuited what had happened: the force of the pull-out had broken the internal spar that gave the wing most of its strength. If that were the case, then the whole wing was about to fall off. He pushed the stick all the way to the right, but the plane kept rolling left. The ground was just 300 feet below and rising fast.

For most pilots, that would have been the end. But in the few seconds he had left before his plane cratered, Williams had an insight. He remembered the story of a Bulgarian pilot who had suffered a malfunction in a similar model of Zlin years before. The circumstances in that case had been different –- the Bulgarian had been flying inverted when a failure of a bolt in one of the wings had caused the plane to unexpectedly flip right-side up. But a detail of the story stuck out: once the Bulgarians plane was right-side up, the wing had snapped back into place. Maybe Williams’ situation was analogous, but reversed. If he went from right-side up to upside down, his wing might snap back in place, too.

In less time than it takes to form a complete thought, Williams threw the stick hard to the left until the Zlin was fully inverted, then pushed the stick forward. His face swelled and turned red as gravity and centrifugal force drained blood from his body into head. WHUMP! With a satisfying thump the wing settled backed into place. By now Williams was almost in the treetops, and for a moment he was sure he was going to crash. Then the plane began to climb.

Hanging in his harness, Williams coaxed the stricken craft skyward, eking out precious altitude foot by foot. He didn’t have much time: his engine, he knew, would only run for eight minutes upside-down. He weighed his options. Without a parachute, his options were stark. Should he try to crash land upside-down in trees? Find a lake to ditch in?

Just then the engine sputtered and died. A new potentially fatal disaster. Williams scanned the cockpit and quickly found the problem: in the initial jolt, he had accidentally hit the knob which shuts off the fuel supply to the engine. He flipped it back to the “on” position. After a few coughs, the engine came back to life.

Williams was running short on time. He decided his best chance for survival was to crash-land at the airfield. He guided the Zlin home and set up his landing approach upside-down. As the end of the runway passed above his head, he pushed the stick hard to the right and rolled the plane rightside up. Again the left wing folded up, and the plane careened sideways as it touched down. Williams curled into a ball until the plane  stopped moving, then broke open the damaged canopy and leapt free. The plane was a wreck, but he had survived without a scratch.

HOW WILLIAMS MANAGED to survive the catastrophic failure of his wing at low altitude is a mystery. In aeronautical terms, to be sure, the question of staying in the air was simply a matter of physics. But the psychology of what happened is another matter. By conventional understanding, Williams should have died that day. Under such intense pressure, with fatal impact a few seconds away, the surge of hormones should have been so intense, the neurons of his fear circuitry so overloaded, that Williams should have been barely able to function, let alone to come up with a creative solution in the blink of an eye.

Something extraordinary must have been going on in his brain. Some mechanism in his psychological tool kit must have somehow protected him from panic and perhaps even given him an extra dose of mental power to get him through the crisis. Whatever he possessed, it was a rare talent. Rare, but not unique. The annals of human achievement are peppered with stories of people who managed to survive lethal danger by thinking on their feet. How do they do it? What makes them different? And, most importantly, what can the rest of us learn from them?

I first became interested in the subject of extreme fear when the focus of my career as a magazine journalist gradually shifted toward adventure travel. One adrenaline-cranking assignment led to another, increasing each time in danger and intensity. A heli-fishing article in British Columbia led to a fly-in fishing camp in Alaska, which led to a Alaskan bush-flying story, which led, eventually, to my getting my pilot’s license. Then I got my glider license, which led to a story about flying powered hang-gliders low over the New Mexico desert, which led to another that involved aerobatics in a World War II fighter. Along the way, I swam down whitewater rivers, slept in snow caves, rode in home-made submarines, and rappeled down cliffs. The more I was willing to take on extreme adventure, the more editors called on me for that sort of assignment.

As my work life took me ever more frequently into heart-in-my-throat situations, I kept finding myself at the limits of what I could handle. One day I wound up at a bungee operation near Nanaimo, British Columbia. The jump-off point was a bridge 150 feet above a rocky, deeply shadowed gorged. As I watched, an enthusiastic daredevil spread his arms and swan dived into the abyss. Even though I knew rationally that I wouldn’t be hurt physically, I felt sure that I couldn’t leap into that great void without something inside my mind snapping. But I had a job to do, so I put down my money. The feeling of dread grew ever more intense as I walked out onto the bridge, and then onto the jumping platform, and then sat as the operator strapped the bungee cord around my ankles. The looming loss of control was palpable, and terrifying — more terrifying, at that moment, than the physical act of jumping. I was more afraid, I realized, of what was going to happen in my mind than what was going to happen to my body. I had the overwhelming feeling that some strange, intense kind of madness was struggling to take over my mind. What, I wondered, inside my brain was creating this sensation?

When I got home I began researching the science of the fear response, and found that the field was in the midst of a golden age. New tools were coming on line that revealed the workings of the brain in unprecedented detail. One of the most important was Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or fMRI, a technique that allows researchers to directly visualize mental activity as it takes place deep within the brain.

As it turned out, of all the human emotions, fear is the one that has been studied in the greatest detail. As emotions go, it’s perfectly suited for investigation. Conceptually, it’s uncomplicated: a system that detects danger and responds so as to maximize an organism’s probability of survival — a system, in other words, of coordinated defense. Ancient in origins and ubiquitous in daily experience, fear can easily be generated in a laboratory setting in both human and animal subjects.

Fear can manifest in many ways, but they all rely on the same underlying neurological system, a collection of processing centers that range from simple structures that first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago to sophisticated regions of the brain that evolved quite recently. These centers work together to coordinate our conscious and unconscious responses to perceived danger.

Understanding how fear is generated in the brain is relevant not just for those who regularly risk their lives, but for all of us. We all have to deal with threats of one sort or another in our lives. Whether it’s a meeting with an angry client, finding yourself at the top of a triple-black-diamond ski run, or asking your girlfriend to marry you, there are going to be times when you’re heart is going to be pounding, your mouth is dry, and your hands shaking.

In an ideal world, our nervous system would respond with perfect efficiency every time we’re under pressure, jumping instantly into high gear whenever danger looms and lying dormant the rest of the time. But it doesn’t work like that: often, the response initiated by our fear centers is just as dangerous as the threat that spurred it in the first place—if not more so.

People in the grip of true terror can feel utterly hijacked. Soldiers throw down their guns and run away. Pilots lose control and crash their planes. In such cases the grip of fear feels like possession by some implacable alien force. Indeed, the word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, whom the classical Greeks believed could overtake travelers in lonely spots and send them suddenly running in blind terror. To the ancient mind, possession by a malign deity seemed the only plausible explanation for such a phenomenon.

Few of us, hopefully, will have to endure such extreme fear. But even mild stress can affect our performance, as anyone who has ever stammered and sweated through a job interview can attest. When we’re gripped by fear, we generally have two problems to deal with: the thing that we’re worried about, and the fear that goes along with it. Or to look at it another way: If we can learn to deal with our fear, we’ve instantly cut in half the number of things we have to worry about.

The good news is that we can do just that. By better understanding how our fear response works means, we can take more effective steps to counter it. And that’s exactly what Extreme Fear is all about, helping you better manage your response to pressure by better understanding the underlying why and hows.

In the course of the book, we’ll first talk about how the mind and body respond to being in fearful situations, in ways that are both helpful and unhelpful. Next, we’ll look in greater detail at three major categories of high-stress situations. Then we’re going to look at the major strategies available to us for coping with dangerous, fearful, and high-pressure situations. And finally, we’re going to round out the book’s journey by trying to come to a more sophisticated understanding of the role fear plays in our lives, and how we can seek to make the most of it.

Fear isn’t all bad. Just as it can be the most intensely awful experience, it can also leave us feeling more exhilaratingly alive than ever before. By taking steps to prepare ourselves, we can do more than just hope for the best. Combining the latest research findings with time-proven techniques, we can train ourselves not only to hold up under pressure, but excel.

8 Responses

  1. […] The Riddle of Creativity in the Face of Danger One of the most troubling aspects of intense fear is that it powerfully suppresses the parts of the brain that deal with complex problem-solving and self-control. That can make it hard to get ourselves out of trouble. On rare occasion, however, we fear stories of men and women who are somehow able to extricate themselves from life-or-death predicaments through remarkable feats of inventiveness. One of the most remarkable cases I came across while reporting the book was the story of aerobatic Neil Williams, and how he found a creative solution when one of the wings started to come off his plane. I liked it so much that I used it as the core of the book’s introduction, which you can read in its entirety here. […]

  2. James says:

    I read your article on experiment of time dilation, and I figured I’d put down an experience I had when I was younger as you had asked if we had something to tell.

    I was thirteen years old and my family and I were on our way to see my aunt in Lake Charles, Louisiana. We got to the Texas/Louisiana border when we were hit by a large truck that ran a red light. I don’t know if time really had slowed down, but it seemed like it had been much longer than it was. I remember things going quiet, not sure if the impact had something to do with it, maybe the intensity of the crash somehow numbed my sense of hearing, I don’t know. It felt like hours before the police and rescue units had gotten to us.

  3. tany says:

    I read your article about time dilation and talking to my brother he has this ability in a great scale.

    5 years a go my brother had a near to dead experience in which he saved his and other person life, he remembers everything moving in slow motion and his brain was thinking on hundred posibilities of reaction.

    Since then, in dangerous situations he experiences the same slow motion experience but afterwords he is very tired and almost faint, even he can perceive instants before that something is wrong or something is gonna happend. Is this a normal condition of fear?

  4. James says:

    I have had 5-7 near death experiences and I mean near death. One was in my twin engine airplane nearly hitting a mountain in the clouds, another was a shooting where I was shot 6 times and lived (Nov. 2008), another stepping in front of a bus in New Zealand looking the wrong direction, another 2 months ago captaining my sailboat off the coast of Cuba and another airplane crashing miracley on the railroad tracks in the mountains of Oregon. My problem now is I am afraid of everything now. I have fear of the danger and unknown everywhere I go. I am looking to Fear books for some understanding. I have never been afraid in my life so I thought but now I am obsessed by it.

  5. laura says:

    Hi I have had six years of living with the attentions of a stalker. This easter he came to the house very early with a gun. my husband bravely managed to shut the front door on him (he’d rung the bell) he then went to the back of the house and began to force his way in with a hammer. Here in the UK the police can’t help until an armed unit arrives. It took seventeen minutes and by that time he had broken in, come through the house looking for us and had started to break into the bedroom upstairs where we were barricaded. Time slowed down to a crawl. Interestingly it remained much slowed down for a couple of days – after our escape (another thing – it’s really easy to jump from a high window if you have to) everything seemed so very slow. Also colours were incedibly bright and vivid. Both my husband and I experienced this for at least 48 hours after the attack.

  6. Matt Williams says:

    Between the ages of 28 and 31 I had a series of experiences where it seemed I was actually trapped in time….time had ceased and “eternity” was now present….it seemed that time was actually not the foundation of things, but in fact, a layer on top that now had been stripped away leaving me in a absolutely anguished state…because I was still a “time” being now existing as a bubble in a vast timeless state……hell……

  7. Val says:

    I was attending a Leafs hockey game one Saturday night in Toronto, late 70s. (You may know it as “Hockey Night in Canada.) We were sitting up in the stands, the blue section, just to the left of the goalie. A player attempted a slap shot. “Time” immediately slowed down as I watched the puck slowly jettison towards my head. I was able to inch slightly to the left where the puck breezed my hair and hit the bar behind me. It was a surreal experience.

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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

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