- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010


By Jeff Wise Palgrave Macmillan, $27, 246 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman

In many ways, science journalist Jeff Wise’s book about the origins of and management of fear and the stress caused by fear belies Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural challenge, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Mr. Wise’s book deals with the physical and mental manifestations of this most basic animal instinct. His goal: “helping you better manage your response to pressure by better understanding the whys and hows” of fear - where it comes from, what activates it and how the stress caused by fear can best be mitigated.

To achieve this, Mr. Wise becomes a journalist-participant. He not only does research and interviews but also jumps out of a plane so he can experience how fear is generated by the brain, and he participates in a U.S. Navy training exercise that teaches neophyte sailors how to deal with the stress of an attack on their ship.

On the plus side, Mr. Wise obviously has spent a lot of time doing his research. He provides not only source notes, but a thorough bibliography that will enable readers to pursue subjects of interest on their own. He covers such stressful areas as stage fright, fear of public speaking and the sorts of problems that face hikers confronting aggressive animals. To be sure, Mr. Wise’s book would have been a lot more successful had he been a better writer. He has the annoying neophyte’s habit of telling you what he’s going to tell you, then telling you what he’s telling you, then telling you what he has just told you. Hint: Redundancy and spoon-feeding make for sloggy reading.

Moreover, far too much of this slim volume is written in the clumsy, stilted journeyman prose common to airline magazines, blogs or undergraduate term papers. One example: “Sir Laurence Olivier was among the most gifted and protean actors of the twentieth century, a performer whose laurels form a veritable Cobb salad of encomiums, including four Oscars, five Emmys, and a seat in the House of Lords.”

Likewise, a majority of Mr. Wise’s conclusions - “The important lesson is not to be afraid of fear, but to work with it. Accept it as part of your life. We should not try to conquer fear, and we should not try to avoid it” is characteristic of them - strike me not as epiphanies but simple common-sense maxims.

Here’s an example: Mr. Wise concludes that as a group, experts in one field or another are more likely to handle fears about their particular specialty better than nonexperts. “A substantial literature,” Mr. Wise writes, “has been growing up around the subject of what makes experts different from the rest of us.”

So what’s his point? Of course. Subject-matter experts are different from the rest of us. Because they know more. They have vast stores of institutional memory and real-world experience. A veteran sniper can consistently make kills from 600 to 700 yards away because he has spent years studying bullet trajectories and wind and climate variations and has the accumulated real-world experience to factor and process all those myriad variable conditions in the few seconds his target is available.

A Michelin two-star chef doesn’t have to read a cookbook and measure his ingredients to turn out a perfect vin de marchand sauce - he can do it because he has made it thousands of times.

Mr. Wise, however, comes at the subject as if it took scientific (as opposed to empirical) research to prove that experience is good. “In one of the field’s seminal studies, psychologist Adriaan de Groot demonstrated in the mid-1960s that chess players who play at an expert level are able to integrate detailed information about the game at a glance.” From his experiment, de Groot concluded that experts, unlike neophytes, are able to “condense disparate pieces of information into ‘chunks.’ ” And that “chunking can allow people to perform seemingly incredible mental feats by juggling what seems like huge amounts of information.”

This leads Mr. Wise to the conclusion that “chunking” enables experienced pilots to handle critical incidents better than inexperienced pilots. Well, duh. Do I really need a doctorate to tell me I’m probably better off flying with Chesley Sullenberger than with John Kennedy Jr.?

Much of the book centers on the work of psychologists like de Groot whose research, while probably valuable in a rarified academic setting, seems like the simple affirmation of obvious truths to anyone who has lived in the real world. Like the fact that divers tend to lose fine motor skills the deeper they dive and the colder the water gets, while “gross motor skills - big-muscle actions like running, punching, jumping and heavy lifting - are relatively resistant to stress.” Does one really have to fund an experiment to prove it? Why not just ask a few Navy SEALs or hard-hat divers?

Another obvious “revelation”: “Poorly learned skills … come undone easily under the mildest pressure.” Yup. They do.

The bottom line? “Fear isn’t all bad,” Mr. Wise writes. “Just as it can be the most intensely awful experience, it can also leave us feeling more exhilaratingly alive than ever before.” True enough. I just wish Mr. Wise’s book had left me with the same reaction.

Washington writer John Weisman’s novels “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available as Avon paperbacks.

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