On Monday, January 27, 2014, I appeared on Katie Couric’s daytime talk show to discuss how ordinary people can be real-life heroes, a subject I’d covered in a Reader’s Digest cover story.
Extreme Fear Archive
On a cool November afternoon in Fleming Island, Florida, Melissa Hawkinson, then 41, was driving her five-year-old twins home from school when she saw a sudden splash in Doctors Lake just ahead. What was that? she thought. As she drove up to the scene, she saw a half-submerged car sinking about 30 yards offshore. “It was going down pretty quickly,” Hawkinson recalls. She stopped the car near the boat ramp and ran toward the water. This is going to be cold, she thought.
She took off her vest and leather boots, waded into the icy water, and swam out to the car, where she found Cameron Dorsey, five, strapped into his car seat as the swirling waters rose around him.
Hawkinson tried to yank open the door, but it was locked. So she pushed and tugged on the partially open window until she could reach through and unlock the door. She pulled the boy free, swam to shore, and handed him off to bystanders on a dock. The driver, the boy’s suicidal father, swam back to land on his own. Afterward, Hawkinson sat on the shore wrapped in a blanket. “For ten or 15 minutes, I couldn’t stop shaking,” she says.
There’s nothing visibly extraordinary about Melissa Hawkinson, an energetic stay-at-home mom with brown hair and a dimpled smile. Yet something set her apart from the dockside onlookers that day. Why do some people act quickly, willing to take a risk for a stranger? What makes them run toward danger rather than away from it? Hawkinson, the Granite Mountain Hotshots—19 of whom perished this past summer in Arizona—every hero who puts his or her life on the line to save another: What makes them brave?
Moreover, can bravery be learned, or is it a quality with which you are born? The answer is nuanced and complex. Bravery taps the mind, brain, and heart. It issues from instinct, training, and empathy. Today, neurologists, psychologists, and other researchers are studying bravery, trying to unravel the mystery.
Read the rest of my story from the January 2014 edition of Reader’s Digest, available online now.
You know what danger looks like: A whirling saw blade. An enraged pit bull lunging against a chain-link fence. A fallen electrical cable, bare metal sparking on wet pavement: Some kinds of danger are so overt that they seem to radiate a palpable sense of menace. Just to be near them is to be on high alert.
Evidently some dangers aren’t obvious enough, though. Even in an age in which EMTs and emergency room doctors are capable of saving all but the most grievously injured, accidents kill 120,000 Americans a year. It’s the third most common cause of death among American men between the ages of 18 and 65.
It’s tempting to label accident victims as careless or stupid, the losers in life’s ongoing game of Darwinian selection. I would never do that we tell ourselves, when we hear about someone else’s fatal error. Believing that is a way of insulating ourselves from the reality of life’s terrifying fragility. In fact the world is filled with all kinds of dangers, and many of them aren’t as obvious as sparking cables or whirling blades. Perfectly sane and reasonable people fall victim all the time.
What makes some potentially lethal threats sneakier than others? It has to do with the way the brain processes danger.
Primitive circuitry nestled deep within the folds of the cerebral cortex constantly monitor sensory data streaming in from the eyes and ears, looking to match patterns that are known through instinct or learning to be associated with danger. “We interpret external cues through our subconscious fear centers very quickly,” says Harvard University’s David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It Really? That prickly sense of danger we feel, Ropeik says, is actually our subconscious mind alerting us that it’s detected something in the environment fits one of these templates.
The problem is, the subconscious mind lacks subtlety. It can’t parse the meaning of complex or unfamiliar scenarios. If it doesn’t detect its preset triggers, it will hum along quietly in the background as usual. If you’re waiting for alarm bells to sound to alert you to every lurking threat, then, you could walk right into a death trap.
In my cover story for this month’s Popular Mechanics, I look at 20 kinds of hazards, both natural and man-made, that can cut short a life with little warning. The trick to avoiding them, I suggest, is is to move beyond instinct and bring your conscious, rational mind to bear. By learning about about life’s hidden hazards beforehand, you’ll be able steer around danger even without the inner alarm bells going off. And that’s no mean feat. Statistically, one in seven American men will end his life prematurely thanks to an accident. Forewarned, you should be able to stretch those odds considerably.
You can read the whole story here.
UPDATE: I was delighted to hear on Christmas Day that NextIssue chose this story as one of their 32 favorite stories of 2013.
I liked this quote from the recent New York Times article by Ed Caesar on Hervé le Gallou, who died while base jumping last year:
Dave McDonnell, an English friend of Le Gallou’s, said that before he quit base jumping, he used to hear three distinct internal voices at the exit point, which he called “Yes,” “Fear” and “No.”
“If you’re all tuned in, there’s ‘Yes,’ ” he said. “On the mediocre days, there are two other voices. One’s ‘Fear.’ Your body is screaming out at you, ‘Don’t do this,’ because it’s dangerous, unnatural. You’re there to conquer your fear. But there’s another voice that hangs around every now and again, and that’s called ‘No.’ Something’s not right. You can never put your finger on it — it could be something in your pack job, or the weather, or the people you’re jumping with, or your mind-set. It’s just, ‘Walk away, don’t go jumping today.’ The difficulty is trying to discern between ‘Fear’ and ‘No,’ because they’re both telling you the same thing. ‘No’ is your sixth sense that’s trying to save your life.”
In 1921, American naturalist William Beebe was exploring the rain forest in Guyana when he came across an astonishing sight: a vast column of army ants, millions of them, marching relentlessly around the jungle. It wasn’t their number that gobsmacked him, but where they were going: around and around in a huge circle. The circuit was so big—1200 feet across—that it took each ant two and a half hours to complete. And there seemed to be no escape. The ants marched on and one over the course of the next two days, Beebe reported, “with ever increasing numbers of dead bodies littering the route as exhaustion took its toll.”
In the years to come, other naturalists would report witnessing the phenomenon, which came to be called by a variety of names, including “circular mills,” “death circles,” and “ant mills.” (You can see videos here.)
Back in Beebe’s day, such behavior presented a baffling mystery. What, short of some kind of illness or collective madness or illness, could drive the ants to circle and circle until they died? Today, having figured out how ants navigate, we understand how ant mills form, and the phenomenon turns out to be far more interesting than anyone back then could have guessed.
We now know that as ants move around through the ground litter of the forest, they follow a trail of pheromone molecules laid down by those who have gone before. They also leave a trail of their own, to recruit other ants to follow. (If they didn’t, the first ant’s marker would gradually fade, and the trail would die out.) Such a system facilitates rather remarkably complex collective behavior, including sophisticated decision-making, by groups of individuals who are themselves all but brainless. But it can go wrong. When an ant trail by accident crosses itself, the ants following it can become stuck in an endless loop, laying down a stronger and stronger trail that sucks in any other nestmate who happens to come across it.
What does any of this have to do with human psychology? Well, the ant mill is a graphic illustration of a complex system that goes off the rails without any damage or trauma to any of its components. The ants aren’t sick; they aren’t insane. They’re doing exactly what millions of years of evolution have programmed them to do. The problem is that an ant colony at a system-wide level has an error mode which, once entered, cannot be escaped. Read the rest of this entry »
Helen Kim is pioneering a new interview series this coming Monday evening at 6:30 at her studio near Lincoln Center in New York City. Each session will be an hour-long conversation with a different author about his or her work and ideas; I’ll be the first in the series, talking about “Extreme Fear” and other topics. There are still some tickets available, so if you’re interested in attending drop me a line or contact Helen directly at her website.
As a pilot, and as someone with a personal and professional interest in the emotion of fear, I was delighted to read the following in today’s front-page New York Times story about mayor Michael Bloomberg’s obsession with helicopters:
Back in 1976, when Mr. Bloomberg was training to become a pilot, he nearly encountered disaster as he flew alone off the coast of Connecticut.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on in the engine compartment behind me, but I certainly knew I was falling and couldn’t breathe. I was going down,” he wrote in his autobiography. He landed on an island and ultimately put out the helicopter fire himself.
“Was I scared?” he wrote. “Well, there’d been no time for any emotion when I was in the air, and on the ground I was safe. So the answer is no — unless of course you count the internal shaking I couldn’t stop for the rest of the day.”
Funnily enough, a very similar story came up at a talk I gave just two days ago at my flying club in Poughkeepsie. I gave a brief presentation about the different kinds of fear that I’ve encountered as a pilot, and the mechanisms that underlie each. I said that I imagined that every single pilot has felt intense fear at one time or another, and that that was a good thing. Fear focuses our attention on what’s important and helps us to survive.
After the talk some of the guys shared their experiences. I found it particularly interesting that two of them discussed how they felt after unexpectedly losing engine power in the club’s Cessna 152 and having to make an emergency landing. Those stories brought a lump to my throat because apparently they happened quite recently. Last summer I took the plane on a long flight to Indiana and back, a trip of more than 1000 miles all told. I’d always assumed that the chance of losing engine power in a well-maintained, fully certified airplane was essentially zero. There were a few stretches along the way in which an engine-out would have put me in a dire predicament indeed.
At any rate, one of the pilots raised his hands and said that he while he thought there was a lot of sense in the points I’d made about fear, there was one major area where he thought I’d got it wrong: that we all naturally are bound to feel fear at some time or another. He said that he’d had one hair-raising flight that had the potential to go seriously wrong, and he hadn’t felt any fear at all. He just did what he had to do, and then didn’t feel any emotion at all until he was back on the ground.
“And how did you feel then?” I asked.
“Like I was going to keel over,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »
On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar will reach the end of a 394-year cycle called a b’ak’tun. In no sense does that imply that the world is going to end — the Mayan calendar cycle is no more momentous than our own calendar ticking over from 1999 to 2000. But that doesn’t mean catastrophe won’t strike. There are plenty of risks to life on earth, ranging from disasters that threaten millions or billions of people to an all-out “extinction-level event” that wipes out the majority of life on the planet. To understand the infinitesimally small—but nonetheless real—risk of planetary disaster, it helps to travel back in time. Because such events have happened before. And the results weren’t pretty.
To see the evidence, let’s take a trip. Start with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. On the fourth floor, just inside the entrance to the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, you’ll find a chunk of Montana dirt with dark and light bands layered like Neapolitan ice cream. Not very exciting compared to the huge creatures on display nearby. But one thin, grayish-beige layer might explain what exterminated these great beasts: It’s the impact residue of a 6-mile-wide asteroid that struck the Yucatán 65 million years ago. “In its aftermath we see extinctions of everything from single-celled organisms to the largest dinosaurs,” says Mark Norell, chairman of the museum’s paleontology division. Could another one seal our own fate? Or could some other extraterrestrial catastrophe bring us death from above?
Or maybe it could come from below. Twenty-two hundred miles west, in Yellowstone National Park, one of America’s most popular tourist attractions, is another ominous harbinger of destruction. About once every hour, the pool around the Old Faithful geyser explodes in a fountain of spray 145 feet tall. It’s a cool effect, until you consider what powers it: geothermal energy radiating up from a subterranean plug of magma. Every 500,000 years or so, the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts and rains lava and ash for hundreds of miles. An eruption 250 million years ago in Siberia may have released enough carbon into the atmosphere to cause the largest mass extinction in earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic, which wiped out 96 percent of all sea life.
In the cruelest of ironies, the gravest threat to human life on earth may be other life on earth—the microbial kind. Let’s turn our tour of all things apocalyptic to the Netherlands, where virologist Ron Fouchier at the Erasmus Medical Center recently synthesized an airborne version of the H5N1 avian flu. The lethality and frequent mutations of H5N1 make it a serious pandemic threat. The last big influenza pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, is estimated to have killed more than five times as many people as World War I. The possibility of a naturally occurring global outbreak is ever present, but the threat from labs is becoming more frightening. “The cost of synthesizing a new organism goes down every year,” says Dr. Ali Khan, head of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “A bad guy could make his own smallpox.”
Although imminent destruction seems all around us, the probability of extinction in any one year is vanishingly small. Our long-term prognosis, however, is far darker. Very few species survive through the eons like the alligator and the coelacanth. “The safe bet is that we won’t make it, because 99.9 percent of things don’t,” says Timothy Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass., an asteroid- and comet-tracking organization.
We’ve got some time, though. On average, vertebrate species stick around 4 to 6 million years, and modern humans are only about 200,000 years old. And we’re not your typical vertebrates. Our science and technology might ultimately migrate off this little planet altogether. So maybe we’re just getting started.
What are the 12 threats that could end life as we know it? Read the rest of my Pop Mech story here.
The world is full of potential hazards. Unfortunately, the things that we’re afraid of oftentimes aren’t the things that are actually mostly likely to hurt us. Our brains’ admirably lightning-fast danger-detection system evolved in an environment different from the modern world, so it tends to trigger our alarms when the situation isn’t really that grievous. Worse, it can fail to activate when we really are faced with a real-and-present danger, leaving us prone to walk right into potentially harmful situations. That doesn’t mean we’re totally SOL, however. With a little effort we can consciously arm ourselves with rational risk-benefit analysis and try to override our erroneous automatic impulses.
For example? Here are some perceived dangers that get blown out of proportion:
Cell phone radiation. Uncertainty is a powerful trigger of anxiety. When new technologies reach a broad public, they can seem uncomfortably mysterious, and hence ready targets for health-scare furors. Remember Alar, silicone breast implants, electromagnetic fields from power lines? In the case of cell phones, the word “radiation” adds additional emotional baggage. The fact is, numerous studies have failed to turn up any conclusive evidence that cell phone emissions pose health risks, and the physics suggests it’s most likely impossible.
Vaccinations. We tend to be less afraid of things that provide an immediate, palpable benefit. The problem with vaccinations is that we never really know if they’ve helped us or not. What’s more, we’re intuitively suspicious of things we perceive as artificial rather than natural. These biases have helped stoke widespread panic about childhood vaccinations, which in turn expose kids to very real risk. Read the rest of this entry »
Courage: it’s not just for heroes. Fear is an emotion we all deal with, and how we handle it is everything. How we grapple with our anxieties 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 our 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 »