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Jeff Wise

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

Jeff Wise

Fear, Death and The Psychology of Fight Club
Joshua Chaplinsky
"Jeff Wise"

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.

Wise is currently a contributing editor at both Travel + Leisure and Popular Mechanics. He has also written for the likes of Details, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure and The New York Times Magazine, to name an illustrious few. Throughout his career he has repeatedly put himself in harms way for the sake of a good story (not to mention his own personal enjoyment), tackling everything from skydiving to dog sledding to piloting a WWII fighter plane. He recently distilled his years of experience and turned a critical eye towards the science behind the adventure. The result is Extreme Fear: The Science Of Your Mind In Danger, an investigation into what H.P. Lovecraft called the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind.

JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: As a journalist, you've jumped out of airplanes, bungeed off bridges and rappelled down cliffs. You talk a bit about it in the book, but how did you come to be the go-to guy for dangerous writing assignments?

JEFF WISE: I don't really do dangerous stuff. I wouldn't compare myself to the Outside Magazine crew of writers who climb mountains and ride motorcycles into Afghanistan. I do stuff that I consider "soft" adventure, stuff that anybody can do. It's all very retail. Well, there are some exceptions. I have been able to do some stuff that not everybody can do. Like ride on the Goodyear blimp.

JC: Or participate in Naval training simulations.

JW: That was kind of a different story, actually. I do the adventure stuff, but I also do other stuff. And it all kind of blends together, to a certain extent. Like, I'm interested in airplanes, I'm interested in aeronautics, and occasionally I'll do an experiential article about flying, but maybe I'll just do a business story about a company that makes airplanes. It's all very similar in that it all involves me flying around in a little plane.

JC: Do you find that you've become more known for the extreme adventure stuff?

JW: Well... this is maybe a little off topic, but the whole world is changing for people like me- namely freelance magazine writers. In the past, the only people I needed to be known by were my editors. So if I had four or five people in New York who knew who I was and liked what I did, that was fine. Now everything is moving to the internet and the old business model is crumbling, so it becomes a lot more valuable to become known to the average person. So in a way, in the last couple years I think I've been making more of an effort to speak directly to the public, rather than just be a guy who writes for magazines.

JC: How then did you make the leap from adventure writer to the more scientific material you cover in Fear?

JW: Here's the thing- when I found out about the concept of Southeast Asian beaches, I decided that I had to organize my life in such a way that I got to spend time on Southeast Asian beaches. So I moved to Hong Kong and became a travel writer. I got my degree in biology at Harvard, so my undergraduate preparation, such as it was, was scientific, but my interest was- I wanted to roam around the world and do cool stuff. So whenever I could finagle for someone to pay my way, because I was writing an article, I would do that. And it turned out, there are only two kinds of- and this is back in the early 90's, but I'm sure it's still true today- the only kind of writing that anybody in the United States cared about, as far as foreign coverage goes, was business and travel. You go out there and you think, I'm gonna get an interview with the Dalai Lama- no, nobody cares. So you learn to think about what the market is gonna like.

But getting back to New York, I became a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure, and because that opportunity existed, it shunted my whole career in that direction. I became the Travel + Leisure soft adventure guy. But I had also been doing these sort of experiential things for Esquire and Men's Journal- whoever would take me.

JC: So if you are going where the assignments take you, is that how you came to write about the subject of fear?

JW: No, that was something I felt like I really wanted to do. I really wanted to dive deeply in a way magazine articles don't let you. And I felt there were these two sides to my personality- the adventure seeking part and the scientific part. So the science of fear seemed compelling to me both emotionally and intellectually. All this interesting work was being done and it hadn't really been covered as such. Joseph LeDoux had written a very excellent book about how the emotional subconscious works. A lot of it was about fear, but he wasn't writing from an experiential angle and there was a lot of stuff that he didn't cover.

Of course once you decide that you want to do it, you have to pitch; you have to get your agent on board and your agent has to sell it. And while this whole process is unfolding you're living in mortal terror that you are going to wake up in the morning and there is going to be a cover story in the New York Times Book Review- "Fear!" You know?

JC: In the book you describe fear as "a force that gives life meaning."  You give the example of a car accident you were in when you were twelve years old. Looking back on that, do you feel that experience had a profound effect on the way you deal with fear?  Did it mold you into an adventure seeker?

JW: I've always assumed that it did, but you never know if a formative experience changed you or you would have been that way anyway. You can't rewind the tape and do a controlled experiment. But I've always felt- I feel like more than most people, I think about death a lot. And not in a bad way. It almost goes without saying that we think of death as a negative thing in our culture. We find it humiliating and embarrassing. It's like a bodily function that is unspeakable. And I think that's unfortunate, because death is a basic, non-negotiable, fundamental fact of our reality. And the more you are aware of it, the more precious it makes everything else. My mother- and to a lesser extent, my wife- is convinced that everything I do is going to kill me. But I don't feel that way. I don't want to die. And I especially don't want to die doing any of these things that I'm doing, because it would probably be violent.

I'll tell you, I just had a son two years ago, and when you give birth to a kid, you are responsible for the death of that kid, too. I mean, my son is gonna die some day, and that is a horrible, horrible thing to bear, and my wife is giving me a very funny look right now. People walk around and it seems like they are not aware they are going to die. Like in Fight Club, it is all about trying to wake up from the anesthesia of commercial existence, right? Trying to connect and feel pain, feel something rather than nothing. You see people shuffling around the mall and you want to slap them and say, do you realize that you stand at this summit of 4 billion years of continuous evolution? Don't you realize you have this cytoplasmic continuity with the bacteria that were your ancestors? The universe is so mind-boggling, and it is so easy for us to get lost in the haze.

JC: That being said, do you feel like pursuing some of these adventure assignments is an exercise in confronting your own fear and your fear of death?

JW: It's not really about the fear of death. It's about the recognition that death is part of our lives. I have this idea that there's this spot on the earth where 100 years from now your bones will be lying. You don't know where that spot is right now, but it exists. And it doesn't matter what our emotions about death are. It's as vivid a part of our reality as our birth is. Of course our subconscious is terrified of dying. I don't think I could ever reach some philosophical state where I could meet death with a smile. So for me, flying isn't about confronting a fear of death, it's more about feeling as vividly as possible what it means to be alive.

The whole structure of the book is framed by the story of Neil Williams, this famous pilot who survives a very near fatal crash. And afterward, he's sitting on the ground, and the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, the smells are more vivid. And I think that that's one of the aspects of fear that is really compelling, that it makes you feel more alive. You feel more alive because death is so close and so present. But I don't have a death wish, I don't want to die, I don't crave extinction. Just the opposite.

JC: You give the example of Neil Williams, but in the end he wound up dying in a plane crash.

JW: True, and that happens a lot. I guess that I was trying to point out [in the book] that if we habituate ourselves to danger, we can become too habituated. The risks we are willing to accept become, the margin of error becomes so small. You see this a lot of times with people who do crazy things. A lot of base jumpers die base jumping and a lot of cave divers die cave diving. And you don't want to get too habituated.

JC: Now that you have a child, are you more reluctant to put yourself in dangerous situations for the sake of your writing?

JW: This might be delusional, but I never believe that I ever take an actual risk. I really don't. A bungee jump is terrifying, but it's not an actual risk.

JC: It's not?

JW: I think you can do a lot of things that are very scary and yet pose no actual risk.

JC: But people have died bungee jumping.

JW: Like one in a million.

JC: Ok.

JW: Look, I could get hit by a car tomorrow. Flying on a commercial flight is much less dangerous than driving in a car. Driving in a car on the highway is a dangerous thing. You can actually be suddenly and violently killed. But we say, OK, I'm going to accept that level of risk. Flying a small plane- and I also fly gliders, which is actually statistically more dangerous than flying a small plane, but again- I don't feel like it is an insane risk.

I interviewed Travis Pastrana a couple months ago. Here's a guy who has broken every single bone in his body. I am not that kind of guy at all. I'm not a mountain climber. Mountain climbers die all the time. I was just reading this thing about climbing Everest. Your chances of dying on Everest are like 10%. The things I do, I say I do "retail" level soft adventure. Things you have a reasonable expectation of surviving.

But they are also kind of scary. In a week and a half, I'm going up to Northern Quebec and I'm going to the only school where you can learn igloo making from Eskimos.

JC: There's a school for that?

JW: There's a very small school. Mostly for people who need to know about Arctic survival. I'm doing it for this magazine article. And from the comfort of my living room, it seemed like a really good idea, but now that I'm thinking about it- it's 30 below up there right now. It's unthinkably cold.

JC: Yeah, if it's 30 degrees in New York, I'm miserable.

JW: It's scary, but I'm not going to die. They're not going to let me freeze to death.

Jumping out of an airplane- you're not going to die. The minute before you jump out of the airplane, you might believe you are. Your amygdala thinks you are going to die, and it's hard to argue with a fully activated amygdala.

JC: You talk about the paradoxical effect of RIA or relaxation induced anxiety. Do you find knowing so much about the science of fear can lead to over-thinking and make you more susceptible to it?

JW: I feel like, no. I think the problem with something like relaxation induced anxiety is that if you're focusing too much on your body- and this is what happens with panic attacks sometimes- someone who normally doesn't pay any attention to their body is suddenly paying attention to their body. And they are noticing for the first time, oh my god, there's this weird feeling in my lungs, should that be that way? Am I having a heart attack?

If we think of fear as this mysterious force that swirls around us like smoke and comes from some deep mysterious place, it is more scary. The number one armor against fear is knowledge. Especially knowledge of your own self. So people who have been in a life or death situation in the past know that they can deal with fear. They are twice armored. So I think if you read this book and related it to your life, and maybe the next time you started to get scared you watched yourself and thought, OK, there's my sympathetic nervous system kicking off, my adrenal cortex is releasing these hormones into my blood stream... It's a mechanistic thing and you can watch it and influence it. You can train it like you can train a dog. It's a thing over which you have some control. And I think that's a kind of power.

JC: It just seemed to me that every time you gave an example of a way to combat or control fear, you qualified that with the potential for it to backfire.

JW: It's paradoxical. I definitely get what you are saying. It's certainly true of anxiety disorders. The more you become conscious of yourself, the more prone you are to these kind of effects. It's more true of social fears than of, say, the fear of jumping out of an airplane. That's one of the things that really attracted me to fear as a topic, is that it's so paradoxical.

JC: To me, it basically seems like you can deal with it or manipulate it to an extant, but overall your brain is in control and there is nothing you can do about it.

JW: There's nothing you can do about it if you jump into the deep end with both feet. I think the best approach to fear is to always kind of push your limits, but respect your limits. If you do a little bit at a time, you are not going to completely lose your marbles. Like what happens with a guy like Laurence Olivier, he's doing something he did everyday for his entire adult life and all of a sudden he gets too tired, too stressed out, he hasn't memorized the lines- he just pushes himself way too far.

JC: Speaking of Laurence Olivier, you discuss "choking" and stage fright, both of which are forms of performance anxiety. For all the writers out there, where does writer's block fit in? Is it a totally different beast, mentally?

JW: I think it's related, but I haven't really delved into that, so I'm just sort of speaking off the cuff, here. I don't know what other people mean when they say writer's block, but for me writer's block is an inability to grapple with what I need to write about. Sometimes it is really hard to get my butt in the seat. Say I've got to write a story about breath mints. I sit down, and instead of thinking about breath mints, I find myself thinking about surfing or cookies or something.  Anything other than breath mints. It can be very hard to force your attention where it doesn't want to go to. So it's more like a self control thing, but it does maybe have to do with fear of failure. Like, what if I start to write this piece and it doesn't work? So maybe it does relate to performance anxiety in that the more you care about this thing, the less able you are to do it. The stakes become too high. It becomes too scary, too unpleasant; you don't want to think about it. So you find yourself thinking about something else.

Some advice I've given in the past is that, if you can't think of what to say about something- and I do this myself, sometimes- start writing in all caps. Because if it's in all caps it's obviously something I'm not going to file. So I just start writing everything I know about breath mints. Breath mints are inexpensive, you carry them in your pocket, you put them in your mouth- you know what I'm saying? You just go. Start writing, even if it's gibberish. There are no stakes. It is kind of like with archers and target panic- you take the target away, and you start shooting at a bale of hay. And it's amazing how many times I wind up copying what I wrote in all caps. And one of the things I keep coming back to in the book, the unpleasantness of fear is worse than whatever it is we are afraid of. Fear is worse than its object.

JC: What about the science of literally being scared to death? Can you die from fear?

JW: I love that question. I came across the story of a woman who had her house broken into, and in the process of the break-in, she had a heart attack and died. So she died from fear. Fear is arousing. It jacks up your heart rate, etc., etc. Now if you are unhealthy, is that enough to kill you? Being really scared, like going to a scary Halloween fun house, does the same thing to your body as going for a hard jog. Your heart rate goes up to about 150, 160 beats per minute. So physiologically, if your arteries are 96% blocked anyway, do you really need to go for a jog [to die]?

Walter Cannon, the guy who invented the concept of fight or flight, did a paper later in his career about how people die from witch doctors. The witch doctor says, I put a curse on you, you're going to die, and the person actually dies.

JC: Like the power of suggestion?

JW: Yeah, sort of like the power of suggestion. He had this theory that it wasn't sympathetic nervous activation that did it, it was parasympathetic nervous activation. Your heart gets slower and slower and slower and just stops. I write in the book about the four different kinds of panic. Three of the four types of panic, your heart is pounding. But the fourth kind of panic, where you faint, your heart actually slows down. Fainting happens when you have no hope of escape. When the lion has you in its jaws you go limp. So it is possible your heart rate gets so depressed that it just stops and you die. That's what Walter Cannon was talking about.

JC: But if you are in good health, fear technically shouldn't kill you.

JW: No. But then again, the people Walter Cannon studied were perfectly healthy, so...

JC: You recently wrote a piece on your blog (HERE) countering the pseudo-science of Christopher Nolan's Inception.

JW: Well, pseudo-science is... I had read a piece (HERE) where someone was saying all these thrillers are a window into the future of science, how science will delve into how our brains work, and it kind of got me a little hepped up.  I had a bee in my bonnet, so I wrote this thing where I was like, no, just stop. I find the whole thing very interesting. I enjoyed the movie. I enjoy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I love Total Recall. And I think the people who write these screenplays have to outline for themselves a theory of how the brain works. In the case of Total Recall, there is no difference between having a memory and having the experience. It's interesting to think, is that even possible? Could we imagine a cognitive entity that would be unable to distinguish between a memory and the present?

Going back to Inception, it's not that I think Christopher Nolan is an idiot. I would reserve pseudo-science for Jenny McCarthy and being anti-vaccine. Nolan's not doing any harm; it's entertainment. I just got a little excited because people were talking about this as being the future. I think it's important to recognize that this is no more a window into our reality than The Purple Rose of Cairo is. You're not going to step out of a movie screen, no one is going to come into your dreams. Our mental world feels very different than it actually is. And I think that is one of the take home lessons of modern neuroscience. We have to interrogate our own experience. When we fall asleep and we feel like we are in a meadow- there is no meadow. There's a bunch of cells in our brain encoded with what it is like to be in a meadow and those are being stimulated. It is creating a subjective experience that only exists in that person's reality. So if you stop and think about that for a minute, the whole premise of Inception becomes insane.

Fight Club, too, has an implicit theory of the human brain. It's that we can have two separate personalities cohabiting within a consciousness.

JC: That's not more plausible?

JW: I think it is a leap of imagination of a different order, of a smaller order, because yeah, there are people who believe that they have multiple personalities. This fellow out in California named Michael Gazzaniga has done all this split-brain research where one half of a person's brain can do things and the other half of the brain has no idea. So there's not like there isn't some neural basis for it. I just don't think Fight Club could be a documentary. But it's way more plausible. It is conceivable, whereas Inception is not.

JC: So a schizophrenic can actually have multiple personalities where one is doing something the other is completely unaware of?

JW: It's not actually called Schizophrenia, it's called Dissociative Identity Disorder. Schizophrenia is actually an incredibly common syndrome, whereas Dissociative Identity Disorder is really, really rare. Except on TV, where it is really, really common. Like that show The United States of Tara. If you are an actor, it is the greatest thing in the world.

JC: Are there any movies that get the science of the mind right?

JW: There's all of those Oliver Sacks movies, like Awakenings.

JC: But those are based on real life.

JW: Right. You know what was really interesting? You ever see Synecdoche, NY?

JC: Yeah, I love that movie.

JW: I thought that really got overlooked. I thought it was a wonderful essay on narcissism. The idea that you are going to make this epic work about every tiny detail of your life, and you're going to find an actor to play you, some guy who for whatever reason knows everything about you. Someone who is already obsessed with your minutiae. It's not realistic in any way, I just thought it was really neat. That's the thing about Kaufman- he tells these incredibly implausible stories using this fairy tale illogic that feels true. Which is why I want to emphasis that I'm not opposed to Inception on a moral ground.

JC: Haha.

JW: Another problem with Inception is that it didn't tell us anything true about ourselves, whereas I feel that Kaufman does. There are no buildings that have a half floor in them, and yet we feel like we've worked for that company. I loved Being John Malkovich, but no one is ever going to write in The New Scientist that Being John Malkovich is a window into the future.

JC: You mentioned earlier that you were going on assignment to learn how to build igloos with Eskimos. What else is next for you? Another book?

JW: I'm going right from Northern Quebec down to Florida to do a story on people who design and build their own airplanes. I'm also working on a pitch about self control, which I think is a really big thing right now in our culture, this fighting with ourselves. We've conquered the external world, man is the master of nature, but we are not master of our own nature. We're getting fat, we're getting drug addicted, we can't control our spending- we're really out of control. So I think that's ripe for a little encapsulation.

JC: Sounds interesting. Looking forward to it.

The Jeff Wise Blog

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Joshua Chaplinsky has also written for Twitch. He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.