The Jeff Wise Blog

Nine Secrets of Courage From Extreme Fear

Courage: it’s not just for heroes. Fear is an emotion we all deal with, and how we handle it determines what kind of life we’ll lead — whether shackled by anxiety and dread, or empowered to conquer new challenges. Yet we spend most of our time trying to avoid fear, so we muddle along, rarely getting much better at the art of mastering it. That’s a shame, because with a little effort we can find the courage to push beyond your comfort zone and tackle new worlds.

In my book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger — out this month in paperback — I explore the neurological underpinnings of the brain’s fear response to better understand how to take charge of this formidable emotion, shedding light on the science with stories of people who have faced terrible threats and managed to come through intact.

Can we learn from such brave souls and train ourselves to be more courageous? The evidence says yes. Here are nine techniques for steeling yourself for the challenges ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Controlling the Flow of Time

When I conduct an interview for a story, I record it on a digital recorder and transcribe it using transcription software connected to a foot pedal. The program interface has a slider that changes the rate of playback without altering the pitch, so I can whiz through the boring or irrelevant bits and slow down to hear the important stuff. Often I think: Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a similar slider in our brains, so that we travel at Mach speed through the drudgery and stretch out the champagne-in-the-hot-tub moments indefinitely?

Well, in a way, we do have just such mental machinery. And if we’re clever, we can consciously manipulate it to make time go slower or faster at will. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

Snowfall as a Way to Visualize Death

Looking out my window last night at this winter’s umpteenth flurry, something about the fading light and the softness of the oblivion as the little flakes settled into the sidewalk and instantly melted turned my thoughts to mortality. I wondered, how does this snowfall compare to the overall death rate of the human race?

With a little searching around, I found an estimate of the overall death rate of the world’s human population: 155,000 a day, or 6548 per hour. I guesstimated that about 2 flakes were falling per square foot per second, or about 120 per minute, or 7200 per hour.

That means that as I look out my window, I can imagine that for every flake settling onto a flagstone in my back garden, some person somewhere is passing away.

Filed under: Mortality

Why Would You Jump Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane?

One of my constant themes is that our fears, left unchallenged, hedge in our lives and prevent us from becoming the fullest expressions of ourselves. But what if we go the other way entirely, and not only embrace the things we fear, but fear itself?

I recently got a note from a reader, Jason Tyne, who wrote: “Since reading your book, I continue to be fascinated by the idea of fear but at least I have some perspective on it. Recently (and inspired by your book) I took my own jump out of an airplane and it was amazing…in fact I just blogged that it was my number one recommendation for EVERYONE to do in 2011.” I followed the link to Jason’s website and found a very entertaining account of an experience very much like what I had when I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. It really is bizarre, if you’ve never done anything like this before, how an alternate personality or parallel mind seems to wake from its slumber and start wrestling with you for control of your body. As Jason puts it, “I was sane all the way up to the moment that I stepped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet; it was the very next moment that I lost my mind.” He describes his inner dialogue like this: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

MIND TRAPS: How Smart People Went so Wrong on Autism

The great irony of the internet is that while it opens each individual to a universe of information, it also unleashes a flood of misinformation. For every groundbreaking new scientific finding which gets disseminated, there’s a bogus diet theory, an unfounded medical scare, a viral hoax. When it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff, we’re largely on our own.

The perils of getting sucked into internet nonsense were vividly illustrated by erstwhile Playboy model Jenny McCarthy, whose long journey down a particularly tortuous rabbit hole of misinformation began with a Google search of the word “autism.” She told Oprah Winfrey how the process began after she diagnosed her young son as having the condition:

McCarthy: First thing I did-Google. I put in autism. And I started my research.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: I’m telling you.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: The University of Google is where I got my degree from…. And I put in autism and something came up that changed my life that led me on this road to recovery, which said autism-it was in the corner of the screen-is reversible and treatable. And I said, What?! That has to be an ad for a hocus pocus thing, because if autism is reversible and treatable, well, then it would be on Oprah.

The above dialogue is from the new book The Panic Virus, by Seth Mnookin, who goes on to describe the course of action that McCarthy took in response to her remarkable discovery: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Policy

Has Psychology Killed Philosophy? A Chat with Sean D. Kelly, Co-author of All Things Shining

How can we lead meaningful lives in an age when the broad culture no longer embraces a single vision of religious truth? In a remarkable new book, All Things Shining, philosophy professors Sean D. Kelly of Harvard and Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley undertake a rollicking survey of three millennia of Western thought, contrasting the ways that Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Melville, and others found meaning in their worlds. The main challenge we face today, they write, is to find a convincing response to nihilism, a position that they identifying particularly in the writings of David Foster Wallace.

What’s particularly fascinating about Kelly is that he began his academic career not in philosophy but in computer science and artificial intelligence.The deep problems that arose in trying to understand the nature of consciousness led him to philosophy. But he remains deeply steeped in the scientific perspective, and I was curious to ask him about how the practice of philosophy – mankind’s attempts to understand what it means to exist – has been affected by, or perhaps even superseded by, rapid scientific progress in understanding how our brains work.

What is nihilism?

It’s the feeling that nothing in the world matters any more than anything else.  Nietzsche’s analysis was that people once found meaning in their belief in the Judeo-Christian God, but that in the post-medieval world belief wasn’t sufficient anymore to give people the sense that things really mattered.  The basic philosophical issue underlying the book, then, is: how are you supposed to live your life in order to make it possible that things matter again?

Is nihilism an intellectual problem, or an emotional one?

Some people really suffer from the feeling that nothing seems to matter any more than anything else. David Foster Wallace called it a ‘stomach-level sadness.’ I think that’s  a pretty good description of it.

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, seems to have been obsessed with philosophy, and had some strange ideas about meaning. Was he a nihilist? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books

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

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 »

Filed under: Uncategorized

Do Crime Victims Deserve Some Blame?

Recently I wrote about a study which found that men with psychopathic tendencies are better than average at picking out vulnerable targets: people with the non-verbal cues that signal social submissiveness. Based on these findings, I wrote that “We are not all equally likely to fall prey. Just as the psychopaths are a special breed, so too are their victims.”

This suggestion drew a heated response from readers. Some accused me of “blaming the victim.” One of the most pointed critiques came from blogger Donna Anderson, who directed me to her own website on the topic of psychopathy, There Anderson points out that, for one thing, I was mistaken in writing that a psychopaths prefer to prey on the weak. In a post entitled “Blame the victim fallacies” she writes that, on the contrary, many psychopaths who prey on women pick out victims who are outgoing, assertive, and confident.

Personally, I don’t think anyone who watched me walk down the street would tag me as timid or vulnerable. I’m an athlete, and my stride is confident. But I was victimized by a psychopath, who took $227,000 from me, and cheated on me incessantly. And the guy started setting his hooks via e-mail, before he ever saw me walk. Maybe projecting dominance would work to avoid muggers. But it’s not going to stop victimization by a card-carrying psychopath intent on finding a resourceful new supply.

I am entirely willing to cede this point — the study that I was referring to focused on muggings, not the sort of predatory romantic relationship that Anderson primarily writes about. But what about the more damning suggestion: was I implying that a psychopath’s victims bear some blame for being targeted? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Crime

The Strange Lives of Women With No Fear

For a woman with profound brain damage, SM seems rather unremarkable. Her IQ tests normal; she speaks like an average person, and her memory and perception show no sign of dysfunction. But the 44-year-old woman does have one very specific, very unusual, and for neuroscientists, a very interesting impairment: she has no amygdala, the part of the brain that’s the central switching box for analyzing external threats. SM has no fear.

SM’s story received a great deal of attention lately thanks to a paper describing her condition that was published in the journal Current Biology. (Neurophilosopy did a particularly incisive and digestible rundown of the paper’s findings.) The authors introduced SM, whose amygdalae were destroyed by a genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease, to a variety of situations that a normal person might well find fear-inducing. They took her to an exotic animal shop where she handled snakes and looked at tarantulas; they took her to a “haunted house” attraction; showed her clips of movies like “The Blair Witch Project”; and told her that Sarah Palin had been appointed to the Supreme Court. (OK, not the last one). In each case, she showed no signs of fear, and reported feeling no anxiety. In fact, while scampering through the haunted house she was so delighted and curious that she scared one of the “monsters” by trying to poke its mask.

For most of us, fear seems like a negative emotion, one that stresses us out and inhibits us from trying things that might make our life more rewarding. But as the Current Biology paper makes clear, SM’s fearlessness has cost her a great deal. On the most obvious level, it has left her vulnerable to all kinds of dangers. She lives in a dangerous part of a big city, and several times she has walked obliviously into potentially violent encounters. One time, she was held up at gunpoint; another time, a drug addict accosted her and held a knife to her throat. Intriguingly, though she did not feel scared during those encounters, she did report feeling angry and upset afterward. Her emotional deficit is quite specific.

But in a sense SM’s fearlessness is not the worst part of losing her amygdalae. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Self Control

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