Right Wingers and the Reptile Brain

If you happen to be of the left-leaning persuasion, I imagine that you will find the results of this recent study quite satisfying. Researchers in the UK asked test subjects about their political leanings, and then scanned their brains. Guess what? They found that liberals tended to have more volume in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), a region associated with, among other things, decision making. Conservatives, on the other hand, showed more heft in the amygdala, the region associated with emotional memory and in particular with the processing of fear. Writes Time magazine:

These structural differences, the authors suggest, support previous reports of differences in personality: liberals tend to be better at managing conflicting information, while conservatives are thought to be better at recognizing threats, researchers said. “Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” said [lead researcher Ryota] Kanai in a press release. “Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”

If you wear Tevas and clothes made out of organically grown hemp, this will seem intuitively obvious. After all, liberals arrive at their views through logical reasoning, while conservatives operate on a purely emotion-driven level, like reptiles. Right?

 Not so fast. Continue reading Right Wingers and the Reptile Brain

How Fear Destroyed a Career

Up until three weeks ago, Tom Durkin was hard at work, studying for the upcoming running of the Kentucky Derby. For a decade he had been the voice of “the greatest two minutes in sports,” calling out the position of the horses as they round the turns and approach the finish line. To prepare, he spent weeks memorizing the horses and their liveries and studied videos of other races around the country. But as the big day drew near, his anxiety began to soar. He was assaulted by waves of panic that sent his heart racing. It was not a new feeling; Durkin had been battling performance anxiety for years. This time, however, he realized that he was up against an emotional turmoil he could not handle. And so, the New York Times reports, he called up race officials and tendered his resignation. An impressive career, cut short.

Reading the story, I felt compassion for Durkin, who had fallen victim to one of fear’s most agonizing and intractable manifestations. And I wondered how many other careers have been cut short, or held back, by runaway fear. You don’t have to be a performer to suffer from performance anxiety – anyone who has to give talks before an audience, or even speak up at meetings, is at risk of a debilitating attack of stage fright. Continue reading How Fear Destroyed a Career

The Mystery of Clutch Performance

A few days ago I was contacted by Mike Sielski, a Wall Street Journal reporter working on an article about New York Rangers hockey player Chris Drury. Drury hasn’t been having a very good season, but in the past he was legendary for his ability to pull of amazing feats of athleticism just when his team needed it — when the pressure was highest. Writes Sielski, in his piece which just went up today:

In Game 5 of the ’07 Eastern Conference semifinals, as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Drury scored a tying goal with less than eight seconds left in regulation against the Rangers, lifting a rebound over goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Buffalo won the game in overtime and the series in six games, and Lundqvist still remembers shattering his stick to pieces by slamming it against a wall after Drury’s goal.

Sielski had called me to ask how it might be possible, in psychological terms, to account for such phenomenal feats of skill. I pointed out to him that my book Extreme Fear is pretty much geared to answering that question — the book is framed around the mystery of how aerobatic pilot Neil Williams managed to figure out how to save his life when his plane’s wing started to fall off at low altitude. The conclusion I reached in writing the book, I told Sielski, is that a person who is highly skilled in a particular domain can tap the automatic part of their brain to an astonishing degree even when under the sort of life-or-death pressure that shuts down the conscious mind. As Sielski quotes me in the article:

In stressful situations, certain individuals with expertise in a given field—an elite ice hockey player, for example—”can make connections automatically and quickly and effortlessly in a way that might seem impossible,” Jeff Wise, author of the book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” said in a phone interview. “They’re seeing the opportunity, the chance. They’re able to play the odds in a way a less sophisticated person wouldn’t. There is a kind of athletic intelligence that can emerge most powerfully in a clutch moment.”

As a reporter myself, I fully understand the understand the necessity of keeping quotes short and to the point, so I never expected Sielski to include the caveats that I expressed over the phone Continue reading The Mystery of Clutch Performance

Dude, Your Jetpack’s Here


Just spent the morning doing something I’ve  been wanting to try for years: Fly a jetpack. JetLev, the unit’s manufacturer, just completed the first production model and let me be the first media to experience it first-hand. Instead of a rocket expelling hot gas, you’ve got twin nozzles shooting out high volumes of water at low pressure. You’re tethered to the surface by a 33-foot-long flexible hose. It’s a total hoot. Note that I’d only been flying this contraption for a few minutes when the video was taken. I got better — a little — after logging about 30 minutes total flying time; I was able to go higher and keep the thing under better control; the demo pilots can pull off some really impressive flying. I’ll be writing about the experience soon for Popular Mechanics.

How Dogs Read Our Minds

I’m currently in northernmost Quebec, in the Inuit village of Puvirnituq. The seemingly endless expanse of snow and ice, the biting subzero temperatures and the howling wind, powerfully drive home the resourcefulness of the Inuit, who for over a thousand years thrived in this unforgiving landscape with only stone-age technology. But what powerful technology it was: fire, seal-skin anoraks, snow-carving knives for making igloos, and above all, dogs. Yesterday afternoon I went for a dog-sled ride with expert musher Jean-Marie Novalinga, whose team pulled us across a flat, wind-scoured landscape. Unlike dog teams in Alaska, those in this part of the Arctic are harnessed in a loose fan formation, as if one were being pulled by a feral pack of dogs. One there in the empty expanse, man and dog working together, the partnership feels like a very primal relationship indeed.

It is, at heart, both a practical relationship and a deeply emotional one. “You have to feel connection to your dogs,” Novalinga said. “It’s the only way to work together.”

Anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows what he means by connection. Humans and dogs have a way of intuiting one another’s emotions – of feeling like we know what the other is feeling — that is unique among all the species on earth. But how they can achieve it is something of a biological puzzle. After all, dogs and humans are not particularly closely related species. Our last common ancestor lived far back during the age of dinosaurs. Dogs are more closely related to whales than they are to us. We are more closely related to mice than to dogs. So why should we feel such a powerful and unique bond? Continue reading How Dogs Read Our Minds

Interview: Fear, Death and The Psychology of Fight Club

I recently did a fun interview with Joshua Chaplinsky over at The Cult, the Chuck Palahniuk web site. Our conversation ranged over the mechanisms of fear, the meaning of death, how I wound up writing about adventure science. Chaplinsky begins by writing:

Fear is the mind-killer; it is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Whether you are a soldier on the battlefield or a housewife cornered by a cockroach, it is a formidable foe. It can heighten your senses, providing a performance enhancing jolt of adrenaline, yet it can also cause your body to completely shut down on itself. They say only the strong survive, but the many x-factors associated with the fear response pose a danger to even the most well prepared individual. Despite this, good old fashioned knowledge is still your best defense in a dangerous situation. And nobody is more aware of that fact than science writer/outdoor adventurer Jeff Wise.

You can read the whole piece here.

Could a Sendai-sized Earthquake Hit the US?

The massive tremors and ensuing tsunami that devastated Japan earlier this month was an order of magnitude more destructive than anything that has hit the continental Unites States in historical times. But seismologists say that a similar event could well strike here. In fact, it’s only a matter of time. And compared to Japan, we’re far less prepared to deal with the consequences.

The danger zone is not California. While Los Angeles and San Francisco suffer frequent damaging quakes, they owe their seismic woes to a relatively shallow phenomenon called a slip-strike fault, caused by two tectonic plates sliding against each other. Sendai was a result of something far more dangerous: a so-called subduction zone, a deep-lying discontinuity caused by one plate slowly burying itself under another.

In both cases, earthquakes are caused by the slow building of pressure as the two plates move relative to one another, but remained locked together at the fault line. The strain increases steadily until the fault gives way, releasing the energy in the form of an earthquake. While strike-slip faults are relatively shallow, a subduction fault is deeper and can release a lot more energy. “One of the signatures of this type of fault,” says Mike Blanpied, associate director of the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, “is that they sit quietly until they create a giant quake.”And by giant, he means monster. The Sendai event contained more than 30 times the energy of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Only one such region lies within the Lower 48. Continue reading Could a Sendai-sized Earthquake Hit the US?

The Ecology of Misinformation

It’s the paradox of the internet age: never before has so much information been available so effortlessly, so quickly — and never before has so much of it been completely erroneous. How do we decide what is true? Who do we trust to verify the information that we consume?

Here I would like to offer a small case study from my own experience.

I first came across the above video clip on Tuesday on Kottke.org. Soon after, I stumbled across it again on NASA’s excellent Astronomy Picture of the Day site. Clearly, it had gone viral in a big way. The clip is described as an animation based on thousands of photos taken by the Cassini space probe stitched together to form a movie of the spacecraft’s visit to Saturn. What’s really remarkable about it is that it is pointedly not a computer animation. As the credits at the beginning clearly state, “no CGI, no 3D models.” Or, as Kottke put it, “There is no 3-D CGI involved in this amazing Saturn fly-by video.”

I watched the clip and immediately became suspicious. Continue reading The Ecology of Misinformation

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, Continue reading Is Your Mind Controlled by Parasites?

The Neuro-Nonsense of Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has been a box-office smash, a critical darling, and the recipient of four Academy Awards. But does it make any sense? More specifically, is it based on a conception of the human mind that bears any semblance to reality?

Some very intelligent people think so. Yesterday, geek haven io9 ran a piece entitled “Rise of the Neurothriller” that says of films such as Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that their “genius lies in their ability to extrapolate what the world will be like when brain-tweaking comes in the form a gadget you can pick up at Best Buy.” The New Scientist’s blog CultureLab offers a similarly breathless endorsement of the film’s technology, which apparently is just around the corner.

Well, actually, it’s not. To put it in Wolfgang Pauli’s memorable phrasing, the mental universe of Inception isn’t even wrong. From a scientific and a philosophical point of view, Inception doesn’t make any sense at all. Continue reading The Neuro-Nonsense of Inception