BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and AnxietyAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)

The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.

I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.

Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.

Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)

The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.

As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.

I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.

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BOOK REVIEW: How We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto

How We FeelHow We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Frazzetto’s book tells us what neuroscience can and can’t tell us about seven core emotions: anger, guilt, anxiety, grief, empathy, joy, and love. Doing so puts the neuroscience of emotion into a broader context of art, philosophy, the humanities, and the legal / political domains. Most often this serves to make the book more interesting by offering stories beyond the case files of neurologists and neuroscience researchers, but it does result in occasional editorializing.

The book consists of seven chapters, each of which is linked to one of the emotions listed in the preceding paragraph. These chapters always tell us the rudiments of what science has learned about the brain’s role in said emotion, but they often offer insights from other disciplines as well as providing more general information about the brain that the author found particularly relevant to the topic at hand.

The first chapter delves into anger. Besides the neuroscience of rage, we learn a bit about the expression of emotion (e.g. through facial appearance; a theme revisited in other chapters), and the degree to which genetics plays a role in proclivity towards anger. This chapter serves to set up general concepts, and so we also learn about what an absence of emotion looks like (e.g. indecisiveness.) And in compliance with the law that every pop science book on neuroscience tell the story of Phineas Gage (the foreman who got rebar shot through his brain and lived to tell the story—though in an uncharacteristically hostile way), Frazzetto knocks it out early.

Chapter two explores the topic of guilt. It should be noted that some of these chapters discuss more than one related emotion, and here we learn how shame and regret are differentiated from guilt. There’s an interesting story about Caravaggio and how his own guilt-ridden story influenced one of his most famous paintings.

Chapter three is about anxiety, and also takes on fear. In addition to the neuroscience, we get a discussion of relevant philosophy, specifically that of Heidegger. Here, the author also describes brain plasticity.

The next chapter investigates grief. As I suggested above, there are multiple points where emotional expression is discussed, and this chapter has one of the most extensive of such discussions. In terms of general concepts, Frazzetto introduces the reader to neurotransmitters. One also learns how grief is related to physical pain.

Chapter five elucidates empathy. A lot of this chapter discusses acting, and the need for actors and actresses to be able to acquire empathy from the audience. The reader learns the story of Stanislavski, and how he went about creating his self-named acting system which remains widely used. This chapter also explains mirror neurons that allow one to recognize expression and to mimic others.

The penultimate chapter is about joy, and here we learn more about expression of emotions and, specifically, the seeming universality of smiles. There is a discussion of poetry as it pertains to the emotion at hand. Having introduced neurotransmitters earlier, the reader learns about dopamine, its role in happiness, and how a number of drugs have been created that increase our natural dopamine’s effect or mimic it.

The last chapter is about love. Of course, we learn about oxytocin and vasopressin, two neurochemicals famously associated with loving behavior. There is also a fascinating discussion of Capgras Syndrome. In this condition, the patient feels that his loved ones have been replaced by impostors. That may not seem relevant until one realizes that the proposed mechanism for this illness is damage to parts of the brain that control emotional connection. Without an emotional connection, the person feels that said individuals can’t be his / her dearest friends and family—though his senses register that they are exact duplicates in every way. The brain builds a rationalization that they must be impostors. Of course, no emotion evokes more resentment towards materialist explanations rooted entirely in biology than that of love.

The book is extensively annotated and also has a bibliography. There are many graphics throughout the book from line drawn diagrams of brains to photos of brain scans to the artwork “David with the Head of Goliath” mentioned relative to the discussion of Caravaggio’s guilt.

There are a number of books in this domain (i.e. the neuroscience of emotion) and if you were only going to read one, I don’t think I’d recommend this one as it. However, if you are into this topic, it is definitely worth a read. It’s interesting and insightful, and has a unique approach.

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5 Tools to Hulk Your Way Out of Your Comfort Zone


5.) Take a class / Join a group: While I’m partial to yoga and the martial arts, the class could be in any area that presents a challenge.  However, there are a couple of advantages to the aforementioned two (to which I would add dance.)

 

First, these disciplines train one to be expressive with one’s body and to move more freely. This can do wonders for confidence. People store tension in their bodies without even realizing it. Many have postural problems that effect confidence and self-perception.  A 2014 New Zealand study found that posture can have a strong effect on emotional state.

 

Second, no matter who one is, one will be challenged by new approaches to movement.  The average person has great difficulty learning to use their body in new ways. One needs to drill in movements conscientiously to achieve competency. Our conscious mind, frequently gets in the way. Even the most athletic and coordinated people will need to work it, failing repeatedly until they succeed.

 

Why is the challenge so important? Many people go through life afraid to fail, but far too few fear never failing. Sounds idiotic. Nobody wants to fail. I have some hard news. If you’ve never failed, it’s not because you are unmitigatedly awesome in all things. It’s because you’re living in a box and cherry-picking life experiences that feel unthreatening.

 

If, like me, you’re an introvert, this approach offers the additional benefit of social interaction that is of a predictable / schedulable nature. One needs the interaction, but the problem comes when one has social interactions and / or sensory stimulation that go on too long and in an unpredictable fashion. Therefore, being able to schedule such time is a good way to go about being a more productive introvert.

 

 

4.) Writing  / Visualization:  These two approaches to mentally rehearsing allow one to keep one’s inner critic in check. The problem with simply day-dreaming it is that critic can chirp in without being that cognizant of it.

In visualization, one quiets the mind and can then non-judgmentally acknowledge and dismiss the negative thoughts. In writing–be it as a journal entry, poem, or a story–we may not notice the nagging voice of the inner critic on the first draft, but you can take note of it and undo it in rewrites.

 

 

3.) Travel / Living abroad: I should point out that not just any old travel will have the desired effect. Many people plan their travel with the objective of being comfortable at the fore.  They eat at places that serve the same kind of food as at home. They stay in hotels with virtually all of the comforts of home, and sometimes many more. This is understandable because the traveler might just be seeking rest.  However, if one is seeking the epiphany or enlightenment experiences talked of by backpackers and ashram-dwellers, that’s not something that comes from staying in resorts or eating at American fast food joint. Those kinds of brain changing experiences come when one is stripped from the familiar and has to surrender one’s attachments to the way one thinks the world should be. One’s perception of culture and worldview changes radically when immersed in a foreign environment.

 

 

2.) Game it / Roleplay: There’s a big movement to gamify all manner of everyday activities.  In her book, “Reality is Broken,” scholar of game design Jane McGonigal describes a game called “Chore Wars” that incentivizes the doing of mundane household chores.

 

What is it about games that help one move beyond one’s limits? First of all, it incentivizes actions. And if you’ve ever noticed people playing games on their phone or FB for hours on end, you’ll note that it doesn’t take much reward to keep people plugging away—as long as the game is structured well.

 

Second, good games provide a built-in process of “leveling up.” This means that the challenge keeps being intensified as our skill level advances. Those familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of “Flow” will recognize that matching skill level to challenge level is one of the most crucial elements in facilitating flow-state.

 

Roleplaying is a bit like the previously mentioned tools of visualization and gaming in that it’s a way to have a low-cost rehearsal. If one has someone with whom one can engage in such a roleplay, than one also has someone to help make you aware of your inner critic and its deleterious effects. And that brings us to the final tool:

 

 

1.) Have a spouse, partner, and or confidant: In “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” Robert Sapolsky tells a story of being interviewed by a magazine. He was asked what the number one thing that they could tell their readers about reducing stress.  To which he replied that the most well-established factor in stress reduction is to have a spouse / life partner with whom to share one’s challenges.  Unfortunately, this was a magazine for women business leaders, a significant portion of whom had given up on permanent relationships and families. They, therefore, asked him what else he had.  Still it’s hard to overlook the anxiety-fighting effects of having someone around with whom to share one’s dread.

5 Courage Building Yoga Practices

Learning to manage and moderate one’s fears and anxieties needn’t involve strapping on a parachute, cold quitting a job, or bare-knuckle boxing in a back alley. In fact, it may be best to begin by quietly watching those anxieties at the other end of the spectrum, the one’s so subtle that conscious awareness of them can be blotted out by the noise of living–but which nevertheless have a physiological impact.

 

The ability to quietly and non-judgmentally witness one’s emotional state–as is taught in yoga and related practices such as Buddhist meditation–is crucial (and, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable lessons that these systems have to teach.) Crushing or repressing emotions is a demonstrably losing strategy. At best these feelings are tamped into one’s subconscious mind, still adversely affecting one’s outlook and, therefore, indirectly casting a pall over one’s life.

 

You’ll note that I’ve mentioned courage and moderating fear, but have not mentioned defeating emotions or quelling fear. Wrongly, our archetypes of fearlessness are characters like John McClane (i.e. the “Die Hard” movies), Katniss Everdeen (i.e.”The Hunger Games” trilogy),  or Yoda (i.e. the “Star Wars” movies.)  But neurologists who study patients whose brains have been damaged such that they are literally fearless tell us that the defining characteristic of such individuals is “paralysis by analysis.” In other words, Sheldon Cooper (i.e. “Big-Bang Theory”) is a more apt model. Also, the fearless tend to live short lives because they eventually do something fatally inadvisable.

 

We need our fear. However, while fear can keep us from doing stupid things, it can also turn us into the worst version of ourselves. Therefore, our fear needs to be moderated with courage and reason (to these, some would add “faith.”)

 

You may note that I tend toward the intermediate / advanced with the practices I mention. This is, in part, because that’s probably more likely the point at which one is ready to take this on. In beginning a practice, one may have one’s hands full to grasp the basics of alignment and breath.

 

Without further ado, here are a few yoga practices that I’ve used to help me witness my anxieties and learn to moderate them:

 

1.) Nauli (and other external breath retention [i.e. bāhya kumbhaka] techniques.): Breath retention can produce a subtle anxiety, even when one has full control of the timing of release and the next breath. In fact, subtle anxiety may cause one to have a less robust retention than one might otherwise. Truth be told, this practice has probably been more fundamental than any of the āsana practices that will follow, for me personally.  

Note: external retentions are relatively advanced practice and should only be added to one’s sadhana after one has been taught by an experienced teacher and is somewhat experienced with pranayama.

practicing nauli

practicing nauli

 

2.) Eyes closed: This is particularly effective with Surya Namaskara (Sun salutations), standing poses, and–at an advanced level–balancing poses. One should make sure that ones balance is solid throughout before attempting with one’s eyes closed. We have redundant systems to help achieve balance (i.e. inner ear, proprioceptive, and visual), but–for the sighted–going without vision can be nerve wracking.

ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara

ashwa sanchalanasana in Surya Namaskara

 

3.) Inversions: Inversions are meant to be calming because when the blood pressure to the head increases, it triggers reactions in the body to reduce it. However, it may take some time before that promised is reached. I’ve done a more extensive post on inversions that can be read here.

shirshasana (headstand)

shirshasana (headstand)

 

4.) Standing Back-bends: (Ardha Chakrasana / Urdhva Triangmuktasana / full Urdhva Dhanurasana) Simple back-bending can create the feeling that one is about to fall back onto one’s head. One may want to begin with a simple back-bend as one might do in Surya Namaskara before advancing to the complete Urdhva Dhanurasana in which one moves into a wheel pose (Chakrasana) from a standing position. (Urdhva Triangmuktasana is an intermediary in which one’s knees are more deeply bent, and one reaches back towards one’s Achilles tendon.)

ardha chakrasana

ardha chakrasana

 

5.) Standing Balances: Depending on one’s level, anything from tree pose (vrksasana) to bound twisted half-moon pose (baddha parivrtta ardha chandrasana) may be applicable. I’ve shown the unbound version of the latter (parivrtta ardha chandrasana.) Twisting and balancing at the same time provides a great challenge, if one is already confident with balances generally.

parivrtta ardha chandrasana

parivrtta ardha chandrasana

 

Happy practice.

Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

What RYT300 Taught Me About Fear

IMG_2752

I recently completed the RYT300 course at Amrutha Bindu Yoga to obtain my RYT500 yoga teacher certification. (i.e. The 200 hour course–which I completed a couple years ago–plus the 300 hour course are the primary requirements for the 500 hour certification.) The essay below is about one of the key lessons I learned in this phase of training.

 

I walked through the streets of Bengaluru barefoot and with not so much as a 5 rupee coin in my pocket. [If your response to that is “big whoop,” you probably live somewhere like Singapore, Helsinki, Kobe, or Calgary where the streets are immaculate and the rats aren’t so bold. If you’re familiar with what goes on in and near the streets in India, you may be wondering what the hell is wrong with me.]  It was an unconventional teaching tactic to be sure, but it ranks among the most valuable lessons of the training—surpassing no small revelations about postural alignment, pranayama methods, bandha technique, physiology, and yogic philosophy. It was even up there with the experience of advanced shatkarma (cleansing practices) that were completely new to me.

 

What’s the lesson?  If you’re going to teach yoga–particularly at the intermediate / advanced level that RYT500 is intended to prepare you for–you need to work on not being ruled by fear. That isn’t to say one must be fearless. We imagine fearlessness to equate to courageousness, but courage is action under fear. Neuroscience tells us what a fearless person is like. We know from individuals who’ve had the parts of their brains damaged that are responsible for the emotion—they are paralyzed by indecision. Our emotions provide a basis for choosing–at least as a tie-breaker when no clearly superior path exists. We need our fear, just like our other emotions, but if you can’t move forward because of it you may have a hard time keeping learning.

 

Not being ruled by fear isn’t just—or primarily—about being able to keep practicing advanced techniques until you can get a grasp on them.  Yes, mastering a handstand requires a fair amount of falling down (hopefully, in a controlled fashion), and that’s a lot of potential for anxiety, but there’s more at stake.  What precisely? One might start, as many do, with what Patanjali has to say on the subject, and one can start from square one. “Chitta Vrtta Nirodhah.” (Quieting the fluctuations of the mind.) Many of the fluctuations of the mind result from anxieties and our obsession with solving them. Our brains are wired to try to anticipate worst case scenarios so we can develop ready-made solutions for them. This can result in excessive pessimism, extended stress, and all the problems that go along with that stress.

IMG_2642

There’s a popular saying that goes, “money is the root of all evil.” But, I think it’s wrong. Fear is at the heart of all evil—not to mention a fair amount of run-of-the-mill pettiness.

 

So what is the path to anxiety management? Start small, and dispassionately observe your discomfort. Don’t try to squelch the emotion, just watch it while trying to avoid putting good or bad labels on it. Of course, sources of anxiety are personal. As far as prescriptive yoga practices, that depends upon one’s personal anxieties. For some inversions might do the trick, for others extreme back bends, for some external breath retention, for others it may be balancing. Then, of course, there are the advanced shatkarma practices I mentioned earlier–such as vaman dhauti (cleansing by vomiting) or poorna shankhaprakshalana (i.e. clearing out one’s digestive tract via massive ingestion of salt water.)

 

I recently finished teaching a Kid’s Camp (a post about that to come.) At the beginning of the camp, I was telling someone that the kids were fearless, but what I came to discover was that kids just allow their enthusiasm to swamp their anxieties. I had seven-year-olds doing pinchamayurasana (forearm stand) and vrschikasana (scorpion) within the first few days. That would be a hard sell for adults. [I don’t think I’ve ever taught those postures to adults.]  It’s not just that kids are bendy, they’re also ready to get up after they fall down. (And since they’re not stressed about the possibility of falling they don’t tense up and get badly injured.) Someone posted a great meme on Facebook recently. It said, “A child who falls down 50 times learning to walk, doesn’t go, ‘I don’t think this is for me.’”

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

Amazon page

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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