One of the main counterintuitive takeaways of the book is the idea that fear, though generally considered a negative emotion, can both feel good and be good for you. Now comes a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry that points to the harm that can result from an inadequate fear response: The researchers found a link between fearlessness and future criminality in children as young as three years old.
Remarkable news on the memory-erasure front. A team led by Elizabeth Phelps at New York University has published a report in Nature this week about a technique for wiping out unpleasant associations by taking advantage of a psychological process known as reconsolidation. A good deal of research has gone on lately into the erasure of unpleasant memories, with the goal of treating people suffering from anxiety and PTSD, but so far the focus has been on using drugs, as I’ve described earlier.
This kind of emotional memory is processed in the amygdala, a crucial hub for coordinating the brain’s response to danger. Fear memories can be problematic because, unlike the conscious, “explicit” memories that are formed via the hippocampus — things like the name of a friend, or the number of pints in a gallon — they do not fade with time in the same way. As I write in Chapter 10 of Extreme Fear:
The amygdala’s memory system retains frightening associations permanently. If you’ve been bitten by white dog, your amygdala will never forget. But the memory can get overlaid by a positive or neutral association. If you later buy a friendly white dog, say, and spend day after day associating your pet with harmless fun, in time your fear of white dogs will be overlaid by a suppressing response generated by the medial prefrontal cortex. Your amygdala isn’t forgetting that white dogs are dangerous, but you’ve laid a new memory on top of it, like a linoleum floor over a trap door. The old unconscious fear connection remains, encoded subconsciously in the amygdala. Under stress, the buried fear can spontaneously reemerge.
In her study, Phelps explored the effect on extinction of reconsolidation, an intriguing effect in which a memory that has been recalled into consciousness becomes temporarily malleable and subject to change. Previous experimenters have administered drugs, such as the beta-blocker propranalol, during the reconsolidation phase, and found that this can help erase painful memories. Phelps’ experiment was designed to see whether a similar effect could be obtained without the use of drugs. And the surprising answer was yes.
News today of the terrible nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, in which at least 109 people died in a blaze caused by stage pyrotechnics setting fire to inflammable decorations. From the AP report:
Video recorded by a clubgoer and shown on Russian television showed partygoers dancing, before sparks from pyrotechnic fountains on stage ignited the club’s ceiling around midnight. Witness Svetlana Kuvshinova told The Associated Press that the blaze swiftly consumed twigs decorating the ceiling. Russian clubs and restaurants often cover ceilings with plastic insulation and a layer of willow twigs to create a rustic look…
The video showed people reluctantly heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling. Within seconds they started rushing away in panic as flames begin to spread faster.
“There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out,” said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. “They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn’t see anything.”
The catastrophe is eerily similar (as the AP story notes) to the Station nightclub fire that took place in Rhode Island in 2001, and which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book. In both cases, revelers milled about as the flames spread, then moved en masse towards the front door, where their bodies jammed the exits so that no one could escape. Those who didn’t die of smoke inhalation were crushed to death by the pressure of those pushing from behind.
In both cases, many or all of the patrons of the club would have survived had they left the club in an orderly fashion. Instead, it seems, they panicked and died — a case of fear provoking irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Or is it? Continue reading Are People Irrational in a Disaster?
It’s a horrific story: a man looks on as the car carrying his wife and son sinks beneath the surface of a flood-swollen river. He jumps into the water and is able to pull his wife free but can’t reach his son. What to do — keep struggling and try to reach his son, or use his energy to ensure his wife”s survival? A recent AP story described the dilemma:
[New Zealander Stacy] Horton said he arrived at the crash scene less than two minutes after the accident to hear his wife screaming in the darkness and to see his son’s friend and the family dog scrambling up the bank. His son Silva was trapped inside the submerged station wagon.
He tried to dive down to the vehicle, which was nose down but with the tail lights burning more than 3 feet (1 meter) below the surface, he told the Dominion Post newspaper.
“I tried to get down and get him but I couldn’t – it was just too deep. And Vanessa was going under,” Horton told the newspaper.
“I made a call to pull my wife to safety. I looked back and I could see the tail lights but it was too far and I couldn’t get him,” he said.
“Instead of going down and risking my life as well as my wife and son’s, I chose to take V(anessa) back and sat on the shore praying. It was all I could do,” a distraught Horton said.
Recourse to prayer is a common theme in stories of life-or-death peril. Time and again, people struggling to survive find that they’ve run out of options and turn to hope of divine intervention. But is praying something that can actually help to materially improve one’s odds?
This footage was taken from inside the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose. In June, 1996, he was flying back to his base from a training mission when his engine failed with a loud bang. Here’s what happened next:
At the time of the accident, Rose was at an altitude of 13,000 feet, and above a layer of thick clouds. Immediately he turned in the direction of the nearest airstrip, at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base. But where was it? With the help of his fellow pilots in the squadron he found his way through the clouds and broke out into clear air at 7,000 feet. From there, it was just a question of keeping his wits while nursing his damaged aircraft onto the runway.
What’s particularly interesting to me is the sound of Rose’s breathing, clearly audible on the tape’s audio track. While it sounds heavy — clearly the breathing of a man under stress — it’s not excessively fast. He was not on the verge of hyperventilation. If he had been, he might well have lost control and panicked.
The connection between breathing and self-control has been recognized for centuries, but only recently has a scientific connection between the two been identified. Continue reading How Breathing Can Lead to Panic
On August 8, 2009, a light airplane collided with a helicopter carrying tourists near the Statue of Liberty. Both aircraft crashed, and nine people were killed. The catastrophe was witnessed firsthand by hundreds, if not thousands, of onlookers, and it became a major news story, much like the earlier fatal crash of Cory Lidle, which I wrote about for Popular Mechanics. In both cases, public alarm and outrage led to calls for flight rules to be tightened. City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, went so far as to demand that tourist helicopters be banned from Manhattan.
The FAA said they would study the problem — and two days ago, they finally began implementing the new rules for the flight-seeing route over the Hudson River. The biggest change? Now, pilots passing through the area have to stay between 1,000 and 1,300 feet, and local traffic (such as tourist helicopters) have to stay below 1,000 feet.
At first glance, it seems like the FAA has responded to the public’s concerns by implementing a substantive initiative. But has anything really changed? As someone who loves flying over the river, and hopes to continue doing so, I have to say that the answer is no. And that’s a good thing. Continue reading Panic Over the Hudson
Is this some kind of an omen? I just learned that NASA is getting ready to launch their latest space telescope, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which will head out into the cosmos on Wednesday, December 9. Yes, WISE is ready for launch, just one day after Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger takes off from bookstores everywhere. To Infinity and Beyond!
Flights in several major hubs across the nation were heavily delayed early this morning by a glitch in an FAA computer system that helps manage air traffic. The snafu resulted in no accidents, but it raises an obvious question: could future such problems put passengers in danger?
The short answer, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price, is no. “Radar coverage and communication with aircraft were never affected,” he told me. “So it’s not a safety problem at all.”
What happened was that the system that automatically generates flight plans crashed, forcing FAA personnel to input the data manually, and thereby slowing down the whole system. Flight plans are electronic documents that tell air traffic controllers where each aircraft is going, when, and by what route, and are required for all commercial flights. If an airliner’s crew can’t be issued a flight plan, it simply has to sit on the ground.
Though no lives were at stake, it’s troubling that the problem occurred at all. A very similar glitch struck the system responsible, the National Data Interchange Network, in June 2007, and another occurred in August 2008. After that episode, the FAA declared that it would fix the problem for good, CNET reported:
FAA representatives said that by September, it plans to add more computer memory to its data communications network known as National Data Interchange Network (NADIN). And by early next year, the FAA plans to completely upgrade the decades-old data communication network with new hardware and software. “The big difference is that (the new system) has a lot more memory, so what happened yesterday could never happen again,” said FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere.
Obviously that didn’t happen. At the moment, the FAA still hasn’t said what has caused the problem, and reports have conflicted which of the two NADIN centers failed. Presumably, in the aftermath, they’ll promise that the system will be upgraded, and that the problem won’t repeat again in the future. Hopefully, this time they’ll mean it.
If you’ve been unusually stressed out in 2009, here’s something else to fret about: Anxiety is not only an unpleasant emotional condition, it’s physically harmful. Chronic elevation of the stress hormone cortisol weakens the immune system, disrupts the memory, and damages the cardiovascular system. Thanks to anxiety your life will not only be more miserable, but shorter.
That’s the case for most of us, at any rate. But a recent study carried out by researchers at King’s College London found out that among people suffering depression, those who suffer from anxiety as well actually have a longer life expectancy. “‘One of the main messages from this research is that a little anxiety may be good for you,” observed team leader Dr Robert Stewart.
In terms of the relationship between mortality and anxiety with depression as a risk factor, the research suggests that help-seeking behaviour may explain the pattern of outcomes. People with depression may not seek help or may fail to receive help when they do seek it, whereas the opposite may be true for people with anxiety.
To put it another way, anxiety can do you a lot of good when there really is something for you to be anxious about. Which is, I suppose, why evolution has bequeathed us with anxiety in the first place. Whatever its downsides, anxiety focuses our attention and motivates us to take action. If you’ve got a serious medical issue, and depression is demotivating you from doing anything about it, then a case of gnawing nerves is just what you need.