Clear Thinking Under Pressure: Second Amendment Version

Intense, life-or-death pressure tends to shut down the frontal cortex, and with it the capacity to think logically and rationally to solve an urgent problem. Some people, though, show the remarkable ability to engage in creative problem-solving when death is just a few seconds away. How do they do it? It’s one of the framing questions of my book, and indeed I begin with the story of Neil Williams, an aerobatic pilot who found a remarkably creative way to save his own life when his wing started to fall off at low altitude, leaving him a few seconds away from a fiery death.

Well, the interwebs today carry the news of yet another creative self-rescue, this time from Northern California. A security guard was driving along the highway when his cell phone rang, startling him. In the first, hapless part of the story, he responded to this intrusion into his thought process by veering off the road, over the guardrail, and into a river. (Was he sleeping, by any chance?) Now for the heroic part. Trapped by the water as his vehicle sank to the bottom, the as-yet-unnamed guard improvised a blunt but effective solution to his imprisonment: he pulled out his gat and blew out a window. Or, as the AP report framed it:

A spokesman for the Roseville Fire Department said the man was traveling northbound on Industrial Avenue in Roseville when the cell phone device activated. The driver was startled and veered off the road through the guardrail. The SUV landed in Pleasant Grove Creek. He used his gun to shoot himself out, then flagged down a passerby.

So there you have it. Americans love their guns, and their guns love them back.

Stuff of Nightmares, Pt. 1: Parasitic Tongue

This little beastie is an 1-inch-long isopod called Cymothoa exigua. Its unique lifestyle involves fastening itself to the inside of a fish’s mouth and then gradually devouring the tongue, slowly replacing the organ with its own body, so that the fish winds up with a fully functioning artifical tongue made out of parasite. For a more in-depth explanation, see this nice article at

Flu: The Season of Fear has Passed

According to today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the Centers for Disease Control has declared that the threat of a swine flu epidemic has passed. Despite widespread fears that the H1N1 strain of influenza virus would exact an epic toll, the flu came and went without ever achieving epidemic status.

Only 161 new infections were reported to CDC-monitored labs last week, compared to 11,470 at the epidemic’s mid-October peak. Only one state (Alabama) still reports “widespread activity.” Deaths and hospitalizations were 14 and 374, respectively, compared to 189 and 4,970 a week at the peak. To put that in perspective, the CDC estimates that an average of 257 Americans normally die of seasonal flu every day during the season, or about 36,000 a year.

The most remarkable aspect of the story, according to writer Michael Fumento, is that the spread of the swine fly this winter may have actually reduced overall deaths from influenza. Continue reading Flu: The Season of Fear has Passed

Death on a Sled

Horrifying news this weekend from Vermont, where two adults and a three-year-old girl died when snowmobiles they were riding on broke through the ice on a frozen lake. From the AP report:

The snowmobiles were carrying six people on Lake Dunmore when the accident occurred about 100 yards from shore at about noon Saturday. Five people went into the water and were later pulled out by rescue crews. A 4-year-old was pushed to safety before the snowmobile he was riding went through the ice. Kevin Flynn, 50, Carrie Flynn, 24, both of Whiting, and 3-year-old Bryanna Popp, of Brandon, were pronounced dead at Porter Hospital in nearby Middlebury.

The article notes that three other adults have died in Vermont in snowmobile accidents within the span of the last month. While that string of fatalities might be down to a statistical anomaly, or just bad luck, there’s no denying that snowmobilers face an outsized risk of fatality.  Last winter in Michigan, for instance, 1 out of every 10,000 registered snowmobilers had a fatal accident. That’s a rate 25 times higher than for skiing and snowboarding. To put it another way, as I pointed out in an article about avalanches in Popular Mechanics, snowmobilers make up more than half of all avalanche deaths. So is it the machines that are dangerous, or the people who ride them? Continue reading Death on a Sled

Heartbroken? Take a Tylenol. (Seriously)

The kind of pain that you feel when you get rejected socially feels different from the hurt you feel when you break your leg or scald your hand. But neurologically speaking, they’re closely related. As researcher Naomi Eisenberger has shown, circuitry underlying both kinds of pain are found in the anterior cingulate cortex.

But if that’s the case, can a drug that dulls pain in the body have a similar effect on one’s emotions? A surprising new study suggests that the answer is yes. Continue reading Heartbroken? Take a Tylenol. (Seriously)

Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen: Why Won’t She Leave Him?

The facts are straightforward: on Christmas Day, Charlie Sheen’s wife, Brooke Mueller, called 911, frantic that a switchblade-armed Sheen had threatened her. Police arrested Sheen, then released him after he posted an $8500 bond.

And then, yesterday, their lawyer told US Weekly that the couple were happily back together: “They’re very much in love, and they want to try to work it out. I think they had a really bad day, which is probably an understatement, but they need their privacy and they need some time.”

Three letters: WTF?

But as baffling as the story seems to be, science can offer an explanation.

Continue reading Brooke Mueller and Charlie Sheen: Why Won’t She Leave Him?

Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem

The aughts been a good decade for Malcolm Gladwell. The  reigning king of urban intellectuals has never not had a book among the New York Times’s top 10 bestsellers since his first book, Tipping Point, debuted in 2000. (Currently, he has four.) With so much success, of course, invariably come brickbats. The latest volley of slings and arrows has arrived from the direction of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor who, reviewing Gladwell’s book What the Dog Saw in the New York Times Book Review last month, declared that the author “unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and… occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

As someone who has just published a somewhat Gladwellian tome myself, I have a somewhat different perspective. The problem, I’ve discovered, isn’t just that Gladwell is wrong. It’s that his formulations are so darn sticky. Continue reading Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem

Superhuman? No, Just Very Frightened

The AP just reported a story that vividly illustrates the incredible capacity of the human brain and body to perform under intense pressure. A Kansas man named Nick Harris was driving his 8-year-old daughter to school last week when he saw a car back up and run over a neighbor’s 6-year-old daughter.  “I didn’t even think. I ran over there as fast as I could, grabbed the rear end of the car and lifted and pushed as hard as I could to get the tire off the child,” Harris said.

The story continues:

Continue reading Superhuman? No, Just Very Frightened