Jeff Wise is my wife’s cousin’s husband (making him my cousin-in-law?), but more importantly, he is the author of Exteme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, recently published by Palgrave MacMillan.
Aside from being family, Jeff is a science writer, outdoor adventurer, and pilot of airplanes and gliders. A contributing editor at Popular Mechanics and Travel + Leisure, he has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Details, Popular Science, Men’s Journal and many others. In the course of his journalism career he has surfed in Alaska, scuba dived the South China Sea, piloted a WWII fighter plane and mushed a dog team in Montana. He also has a blog, fittingly entitled Extreme Fear, where he continues to explore this unusual subject.
After his son Rem’s recent first birthday party, Jeff took the time to chat with us about extreme fear — the book and the phenomena.
Damned Connecticut: What’s more terrifying — jumping out of a plane or trying to finish your book by deadline with a newborn in the house?
Jeff Wise: It’s very different kind of stress. You know, one of the major points that the researcher I worked with made was that we’ve really evolved to deal with the short-term immediate stress, like jumping out of an airplane. We’re very good at that. It’s intensely terrifying in that specific moment, but then you have this afterglow of . . . it’s called parasympathetic rebound where the stress goes away, it’s gone, and you just have this wonderful feeling of relaxation, which is maybe why people skydive in the first place.
With the book, it was just months and months of “Oh my god, I’m tearing my hair out, I’m not getting enough sleep, I’m grinding my teeth.” All that sort of awful long-term stress that really doesn’t have much of a positive thing. And even when I was done and filed it, it was never a clean break.
Once I filed it, I felt a surge of relief for five minutes, then my editor wrote back and was like, “Okay, but what about the notes?” And then I had to go back through every chapter and had to find where I put my notes for each assertion I made.
So I think the short answer is skydiving is a lot more pleasant than writing a book on deadline.
Damned Connecticut: I think you addressed it in the book, but what was your inspiration to write this book?
Jeff Wise: It was kind of long in gestating in that my career, by fits and starts, got more and more into kind of soft adventure, so I found myself doing these things. One of these real moments of clarity was standing on top of a bungee bridge and just feeling this overwhelming force that was coming from some brain center that I had no access to. It’s amazing the power that parts of your brain can have, and I thought, “Where is this coming from, how does it work and what can I do about it, if anything?”
Damned Connecticut: I think it’s interesting that extreme fear is something that everyone deals with at some point, but I was surprised — as you point out in the book — how little research is actually done about it.
Jeff Wise: Yeah, in terms of everyday fear . . . It’s hard, and there’s a bunch of reasons for that. There’s a guy named Joseph LeDoux at New York University, and he’s kind of the “fear guy,” and he’s done a lot of work elucidating the role of the amygdala, which is sort of a deep-brain center and serves as the switchbox for the fear response, and in the late 90s, he did a lot of his research.
The military has done a lot of research in how people respond to acute fear, and they have a massive program that’s underway right now to help people become more resilient to stress from things like combat so that there’s less psychological casualties. In fact, it’s almost the major threat to the military right now — psychological casualties.
But yeah, in terms of everyday life, there hasn’t been that many studies. It’s sort of an elusive topic. One of the points that I make is that it’s hard to create intense fear in the lab. There have been a couple of skydiving studies, like the one in which I took part. There’s a time perception study that I talk about in the book where a researcher dropped his subjects from 150 feet up — in this Texas amusement park experience, I guess you can call it. Just 150 feet of freefall and he had them look at these wristwatches as they were falling to see if they could perceive changes of time. But apart from that, you just can’t put someone in a lab and put a bear in there with them or something. It’s a little unethical.
I do mention in the book that in the 1950s there were far fewer ethical restrictions on what experimenters could do and the Army did a thing where they took people up in an airplane, turned off one of the engines and said, “By the way, we’re going to crash. Please fill out this insurance form so that your heirs can get their compensation.” And then they gave them what was ostensibly this life insurance form but really was a psychological test in disguise, which was this obtusely written, supposed insurance form.
Damned Connecticut: I remember reading that in the book and saying, “How horrible is that?”
Jeff Wise: I know! There are all these famous, horrible studies that they did in the 1950s and 1960s.
Damned Connecticut: You were just talking a little about time dilation, and you do a bit of mythbusting in this book, which I think is kind of cool. And you talk about the myths of time dilation and super human strength during moments of extreme fear.
Jeff Wise: Yeah, I did a blog post on superhuman strength on Psychology Today, and somebody wrote in, “This isn’t science. You don’t lift the whole weight of the car, you only lift a part of the weight of the car.” Whatever. People sort of got upset about it.
But yeah, there are so many wives’ tales about fear, like “A mother lifted a car off her kid.” But it turns out if you look for these stories, you won’t really find them. You will find things that are similar, like a grown man, who used to lift weights in college, lifts a car up off a kid, for a few inches.
There’s some truth to it — yes, fear does give us some incredible extra strength that we normally don’t access, but we’re not the Incredible Hulk. We’re not magic. It’s the strength that’s inherent in us, but we usually have this automatic governor that prevents us from using it for whatever reason. It’s kind of an interesting question: Why can’t we just turn on the tap and go 100 percent whenever we want? It’s kind of a profound question.
One of the sort of legendary things about fear is, like in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, for instance, it all goes into slow motion — and this is kind of a new trope in motion pictures, where like Keanu Reeves, they’re shooting bullets at him and it’s so slows down that you can actually see the bullets coming at him. So there’s this idea that time slows down when you’re in an intensely fearful situation, and peoples’ experience bears this out. “The car was skidding, and it was like in slow motion.”
David Eagleman, really an interesting guy from Baylor University College of Medicine, who after I talked to him, came out with this fascinating book of poetic essays of what the afterlife might be like, called Sum: Forty Tales from the After Lives. He got rave reviews for it, and it’s like this book of poetry. Anyway, he did this really fascinating study that has gotten a lot of play, where he asked, “When you are perceiving time [during a moment of extreme fear], are you actually perceiving more?” When you make a slow motion movie, the way you make it is that you run the film through the camera much faster, so you take 100 frames per second as opposed to 20, or whatever it is. And then when you play it, because there’s more information, it appears to play slower.
So what his question was, “Is that what the brain is doing? Is the brain sampling information faster when it is in danger, or is something else happening?” The long and short of it is that the brain doesn’t sample information faster, but it remembers more of what it gets. And since we tend to judge time by how much stuff happens in a given period, the psychological effect is that it feels like the time went slower. So the amount of stuff that normally happens in a minute can happen in 10 seconds in your memory.
The interesting thing about this is that when you talk to people about it, they say that at the time it happened, it felt as though time was going slower. So the paradox is that it didn’t actually go slower at the time, but when they remember that incident, the memory of the incident felt slower. I’m sort of saying this in a convoluted way. But the upshot is that our experience of the now is something that we actually construct afterward. Things don’t happen simultaneously. It takes longer to process vision than smell, for instance. So what we think is happening right now is a bunch of stuff happening in random times and put together after the fact. It’s kind of a profound insight into the nature of consciousness.
Damned Connecticut: I was thinking of it in terms of Fortean-type phenomena — I wonder if sometimes that kind of event, and how it affects our memories and experiences, has an effect on when someone thinks they see a ghost or they think they see a UFO. Maybe their memories are affected by the fear, or how their brain is processing it.
Jeff Wise: Oh, absolutely. It all gets down to filtering. Some people have put forward the claim that attention, which is such a crucial part of consciousness, where you focus, what you’re looking at, what you’re thinking about — where is that spotlight of your consciousness? And that is a matter of biasing, meaning that you turn up the knob on one thing and turn the knob down on something else.
There have been studies that have to do with different people’s inherent level of signal-to-noise ratio. So, for instance, let’s say you’re on guard duty, and you’re expecting an attack. It’s the middle of the night, and you’re staring out into the darkness, and you’re waiting for the enemy to come. You’re filled with fear, and what fear does, it’s like turning up the squelch on your CB radio, so any noise that comes across, you’re going to interpret as a signal. So people are like, “I saw the enemy, so I started shooting at him!” And it turns out that there was no enemy there. But because their brain has that squelch knob turned up, they’re ready to see a signal in the noise.
On a non-fear related topic: Some people just walk around with their signal-to-noise ratio just turned up, so they see patterns in a random signal, if that makes any sense. Their brain is just inehrently looking for something. Like people who see Mary in a piece of toast, you’re pulling out information, you’re seeing a signal in the noise. Let’s say that a cloud is noise — if you see a sheep in the cloud, you’re actually projecting information into the noise.
The world is full of random coincidence, and if you can see a pattern in that random coincidence — “Oh my god, you have the same birthday as my cousin. What a small world!” You know what I’m saying? If you perceive lots of patterns in an otherwise random world, you might be more willing to be religious because you might see an architect of order in what an atheist might see as a sea of random. I think they’ve done studies where they’ve found some metric for measuring people’s signal-to-noise ratio processing bias and correlated that to religiosity or spirituality, which I really think ties into Forteana.
Damned Connecticut: You are talking about how we try to look for patterns out of noise — I think about driving along a highway on a dark night and seeing what you at first think is someone standing on the side of the road, but then you’re brain gets to the next level, and you realize it’s just a tree or a bush.
Jeff Wise: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing about fear that’s interesting is that our brain has multiple redundant levels of threat detection. So the most primitive ones are the crudest and the fastest. So if you’re walking through the forest and you hear a twig snap, it’s just the fact that there’s a noise — you don’t know anything about it, all you know is instant information. But then, as you have more time, you can say, “Oh, it’s only a twig.”
But a very rough match — the things you’re talking about like a figure by the side of the road or something that looks like a bear . . . I go for a jog upstate and someone has put a cutout shaped like a bear in their yard. And you come around the corner, and you see this bear, and you jump! And then you look again, and it’s like, “Oh, it just a cutout of a bear.” But at the crudest level, it’s a bear. At a more subtle level, it’s a cutout of a bear. So the cruder level of threat detection triggers, but your slower and more sophisticated level of threat detection kicks in and shuts it down. But at the lowest level, it’s set very crudely, so anything can register as a “hit.”
Damned Connecticut: Are familiar with Gavin de Becker and his books like The Gift of Fear? In one of the books, he made a real interesting point talking about the primative levels of awareness and our instinct, and sometimes we sense danger, but we shut it off. I think you talk about this in the book a little — we see something is wrong, but we override it and tell ourselves it’s okay.
Jeff Wise: Yes. We can override it without even being aware that we’re overriding it. Like when we see a face. Any time we see a new face, we [have a reaction of fear]. In neurological terms, it’s like novelty equals danger. We’re not even necessarily conscious of that because our higher levels of alarm processing shuts it down before it even reaches consciousness. De Becker’s point basically is that we really shouldn’t shut it down, we should listen to that voice. He was writing at a time when crime was very high. I feel like we’ve entered a level of sociological complacency, which is appropriate. Part of the message of that book is that it’s not bad to be afraid, you just want to have your fear response be appropriate to the actual threat, and not to let your imagination run out of control and magnify the threat beyond what it really is. Or conversely, you don’t want to be really brave in a situation that’s really dangerous.
I got an e-mail from somebody who read my book and said, “Hey look, I’m going to Afghanistan and I can’t sleep. I know my chances of being killed are really small, but I can’t sleep well, I can’t eat well, etc.” And I wrote back — one of the points in the book is that there’s two things we have to worry about when we’re afraid: the thing that is threatening us and our own fear response. So I said, “The thing that is threatening you is real — you’re going off to a war zone. It’s completely appropriate that you can’t sleep at night. You’re brain is trying to tell you something.”
I think that’s what Gavin de Becker is all about. Don’t try to be brave and shut down what that part of your brain is trying to tell you — it’s vital information. We have this incredibly sophisticated danger-response system that’s there to protect us, and sometimes it’s not attuned to the modern world but that doesn’t mean we should try to shut it down.
Damned Connecticut: It’s right around the anniversary of the crash landing in the Hudson, and in the book, you talk about Capt. Sullenberger and how he was able to act calmly despite his fear. He even admitted that was afraid. But by the same token, it wasn’t a random event the way he responded — you talk about how some people are maybe better geared to respond, possibly through preparation and other factors.
Jeff Wise: Preparation in his case was a major factor. He had thousands and thousands of hours as a pilot. He was a safety expert — what he did in his off time was go around to aviation conferences and talk about aviation safety. One of the things you really can’t do in an emergency is think up something that you’ve never thought of before, and he didn’t have to because he had probably been over similar situations in his head over and over again. And he was a glider pilot, so he had actually landed aircraft thousands of times probably without engines. So he didn’t have to come up with a new solution, it was in his expertise.
That’s pretty much what the second-to-last chapter is about: Answering the riddle of how can you react creatively in a crisis. And the answer is you have such a deep level of understanding of the situation that your unconscious mind is actually able to come up with a creative solution. We don’t tend to think of our subconscious as being creative — we tend to think of our conscious mind as the thing that comes up with creative novelties, but that’s actually not the case.
Damned Connecticut: You also talk about how some people are just naturally predisposed or equipped to deal better with exteme fear in some situations. Why is that?
Jeff Wise: Yeah, is there a nature/nurture kind of thing, or does upbringing have a role? I talk about Audie Murphy, the most-decorated soldier of World War II, who is incredibly brave in one situation and kind of a coward in another. The first being physical danger, and the other being social fear. I think the big conflicting evidence is to what extent being somewhat resilient to fear in one kind of situation carries over to being reslient in another. For instance, if you’re a firefighter and you deal with the threat of being burned up alive, does that help you deal with armed gunmen better?
I think that the consensus is that it probably does. In World War I, the recruiting officers were always looking for lumberjacks and men like that because these were guys who dealt with life-threatening situations before, so it wasn’t entirely new to them.
Damned Connecticut: Fear is something that everyone — everyone — has to deal with, but do you think we’re taught to properly respond to it on any level or at any point?
Jeff Wise: I don’t think many people set out to consciously train themselves to deal with fear better. If anything, I feel that New Yorkers especially take pride in being neurotic and somewhat susceptible to stress — there’s a certain perverse pride in being like, “I’m so stressed out!”
I think we should [be better prepared]. To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail, so thinking about fear a lot, I think we should deal with fear better. People have their priorities. But if you want to live a life that’s less bounded by fear, which I think is the case for most of us, you should take an approach where you actively try to confront your fears every day. It can be little things like taking the bus, if you’ve never taken the bus before, you know, just to accustom yourself to novelty.
We are creatures of habit. We instinctively seek out the comfortable, the easy. We avoid the awkward and the nerve-wracking. But if we push ourselves, even a tiny little bit every day, I think we can get in the habit of pushing back against our fears.
I mention a guy in the book — I had to use a pseudonym for him — a friend of a friend of mine who is a special forces trainer, a real interesting guy, and he was talking about when he was a kid, that was sort of his personality: he felt frightened of rock climbing, so he took up rock climbing as a hobby. He still feels fear when he gets on the wall, but there’s a fine line between anxiety and excitement, which gets back to the skydiving thing. The thing that terrifies you can also exhilirate you.
Damned Connecticut: In your situation, you understand that there’s a whole lot of science going on in your body as you’re standing at the edge of the plane–
Jeff Wise: And that doesn’t do you any good! To intellectually know what’s happening with your brain doesn’t do you a lick of good. These unconscious, automatic centers … I’ve figured this out especially since my son was born — we tend to think of our consciousness, our intellect, that sort of Mr. Spock part of us as the main point of human existence, and really the essence of what we are. But it’s not. It’s a tiny little sideshow.
Ninety-nine percent of what goes on in our brain is this powerful, emotional, primal, largely subconscious, largely automatic stuff. We’re just along for the ride. We’re like a tick riding on the back of a horse or something! I’ve been sort of anticipating someone saying, “So are you really brave?” and the answer is, “No!” Knowing how fear works by itself does nothing to make you a more courageous person. But it can hopefully show you the way to start creating the habits of courage, which will eventually take effect.
That’s sort of the conundrum: How can this weak little impotent thing that our conscious mind is have any impact on this incredibly robust and powerful and unstoppable fear center that takes over when it senses danger? And the answer is: By preparation, really. By careful, long-term preparation. Because the automatic brain learns very slowly, but when it reacts, it reacts very quickly.
Damned Connecticut: You talk about this subject — and to sort of tie it in — I think of that old Yogi Berra quote: “Baseball is 99 percent mental and the other half is physical.” And in the book, you talk about choking in sports being the same kind of thing, as well as stage fright. But it is the struggle against your own mind most times.
Jeff Wise: For a book that’s ostensibly about a guy who’s about to be in a plane crash and a woman who is going to be eaten by a bear, I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the aspect of social fear. I think one of the reasons is because it’s interesting and it takes so much explanation, is because it’s enticingly and confusingly paradoxical. It’s really a situation where our fear centers run a riot and run out of control with very little danger ostensibly at hand, and you get in these paradoxical loops where you really do become your own worst enemy. So this is a place where clearly all we have to fear is fear itself, unlike the case where you’re being attacked by a bear, where you have a great deal else to fear beyond fear itself.
But in choking and in various other areas of performance anxiety, like shy bladder syndrome and so forth, it’s like the moment you become aware that your brain could betray you — BOOM! It’s like you’re plugged into this feedback loop. It’s like the microphone at the wedding that goes “SKREEEE!” and it’s screeching and there’s nothing you can do except run. So that’s a really interesting section there.
Damned Connecticut: I could see also, that in terms of the book, it’s important to have the example of extreme fear in situations like plane crashes, but it doesn’t mean that other types of fears, like social fears, can’t be as horrible.
Jeff Wise: They are as horrible! They are exactly as horrible. And some people get very little sympathy. It’s like, “It’s all in your head.” It is all in your head. But the fact that it is all in your head doesn’t do you any good.
We have this weird and sort of horrible prejudice in this country against psychological conditions. We have this Descartian illusion that we’re in charge of our brains, and therefore, it’s just a matter of, “Hey, suck it up! It’s in your head, so therefore, deal with it.” We think we have control of what’s in our head. Big, big mistake. Completely untrue.
Yes, the fact that your fear is completely self-generated, doesn’t make it any less horrible. It’s just as bad as being eaten by a bear. I mean, it might be physically less painful, but you still feel like you’re going to die. People literally feel like they’re going to die, and it’s horrible enough that they then have this fear of it coming back, which again, is this self-fulfilling kind of thing.
Damned Connecticut: There’s one chapter in the book where you talk to a woman who has extreme panic attacks, which I thought was fascinating. I think everyone, at one point, has had — maybe not to that extreme — those moments where they felt that extreme duress.
Jeff Wise: Yeah, I’ve twice in my life had periods where I felt social anxiety. I think I mention them in the book. They were panic attacks triggered by social situations, not social anxiety per se, but it’s awful. You want to throw up, you want to pass out. It’s a terrible, terrible feeling.
I liked the story [in the book] because the woman was a very normal, high-functioning person who in all other aspect was able to see herself with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor, but she literally could not accept what was happening was in her head. She was someone who believed, as most of us do, that “I’m in charge. I’m in control.” So when her body started to seize up, she said, “This must be a heart attack. It must be a physical condition.” We are perfectly happy accepting that our bodies are not within our control, but we expect our brains to be in control.
— Again, the book is Exteme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, and of course, we highly recommend it.
Thanks again to Jeff for taking the time to chat with us!