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BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise

Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in DangerExtreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Extreme Fear examines the science behind fear—particularly the fear of life and death situations. In doing so, the author presents findings from scientific research as well as cases that demonstrate the concepts behind those findings. People are often so close to their fears that they take them for granted, and feel that there’s nothing to be done about them. However, there’s a great deal to be learned about how fear operates and how one can improve one’s performance in fearful situations. By replacing the lens of shame with one of science, one can see what fear is objectively, and make the emotion more of a help and less of a hindrance.

A central idea in the book is that fear evolved to maximize one’s chance of survival against the age-old threats facing mankind. These pre-historic threats were relatively straightforward: saber-tooth tiger attacks, clubbing by members of warring tribes, fire, famine, flood, etc. Ancient threats often called for hauling ass, freezing in place, or getting stabby. The problem is that our present-day threats often call less for gross motor skills (run, kick, or throw) and more for creative or nuanced solutions to technological problems (i.e. sliding cars, falling planes, or malfunctioning assault rifles.)

Motor learning is one means by which this mismatch between what our brain tells our body to do in a stressful situation and what is called for in our modern world. Take the case of the infantryman with the jammed rifle. Without training, he might pick up the rifle like a club, intending to use it to unleash blunt force trauma. That is, if he’s still alive then the enemy gets into cudgeling range. Alternatively, the soldier may drop the rifle and run for his life. However, because he had a drill sergeant who made him practice clearing his weapon over and over, his body can go to that behavior while his conscious mind is blinking out.

Still, motor learning only takes us so far. Sometimes creativity is called for, and that’s a tall order in the face of where our body / brain want to put limited resources. In fact, Wise begins the book with the story of a pilot who was flying an old plane when the wing support broke and the wing flipped up, threatening to rip off. Somehow the pilot figured out—based on a vague memory and lots of experience—that he could flip the plane over and fly it upside-down and the wing would snap back into place. Then he had to figure out how to land: a.) upside-down crash, or b.) try to flip the plane over at the last second. The brain systems that this pilot smoothly accessed are among those that one doesn’t expect to be operating in life or death situations—e.g. those involved with long-term conscious memory and abstract problem solving.

The question of how some people can keep their wits about them, as the above pilot did, while others crash and die is the one that Wise really wants to answer. It turns out that it’s not such and easy question. During World War II, the military conducted studies to try to determine which soldiers could be counted on under life and death stress. The answer didn’t readily present itself. Among the problems in finding an answer is that courage and fearfulness aren’t as unitary or straightforward characteristics as one might think. Wise presents the case of Audie Murphy as a prime example. Murphy was at once one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War II—a man who’d taken on a company of Germans single-handedly—and a man of great social anxiety.

The book’s 13 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part presents fear and its effects. The middle section deals with various forms, aspects, and facets of fear, including: social v. life-and-death fear, choking behavior in sports, and fear of fear v. fear of an outcome. In the last part of the book, Wise suggests how one might achieve better performance in the face of fear.

I found this book to be informative and interesting. Wise did a good job of picking cases to illustrate the concepts discussed in the scientific literature. I’d recommend this book for individuals who are interested in the science of the brain and the ways to achieve ultimate human performance.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this- I have been studying how meditation and facing one’s fears can help – pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I may read this book.

    Like

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