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S01E42: West Coast Imp Style
This year, we’ll be treated to two supermoons, with the first occurring on April 26 and the second on May 26. Supermoons are said to be bigger and brighter than your average full Moon.
Although we wish this name had to do with the color of the Moon, the reality is not quite as mystical or awe-inspiring. In truth, April’s full Moon often corresponded with the early springtime blooms of a certain wildflower native to eastern North America: Phlox subulata—commonly called creeping phlox or moss phlox—which also went by the name “moss pink.”
In April Moon names, references to spring abound! Breaking Ice Moon (Algonquin) and Moon When the Streams Are Again Navigable (Dakota) reference the melting ice and increased mobility of the early spring season, while Budding Moon of Plants and Shrubs (Tlingit) and Moon of the Red Grass Appearing (Oglala) speak to the plant growth that will soon kick into high gear.
Interestingly, the tragic experimental treatment of mental illness called the frontal lobotomy actually targeted the orbitofrontal cortex. Using a sharp instrument reminiscent of an ice pick, Freeman and his colleagues performed tens of thousands of lobotomies, which entailed sticking the pick into the brain above the eyeball, and severing the connections between the orbitofrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. The problem was not that it did not remove violent tendencies, it often did. The problem was that it more often removed all tendencies: "these patients are not only no longer distressed by their mental conflicts but also seem to have little capacity for any emotional experiences—pleasurable or otherwise." Although the imp of the perverse may live in the orbitofrontal cortex, it seems that there also may dwell its less perverse cousins, those that motivate us to go camping with our friends, pursue a love interest, or apply to graduate school; to experience life.
Thought Experiment: Negative Suggestion. Try not to scratch your nose. Continue reading, but be aware that even letting your nose itch would indicate personal weakness. So try not to even think about your nose, and see if you can read to the end of this chapter without once touching your face in the area around your nose.
The authors, led by Jennifer Hames, then a graduate student at Florida State University’s Joiner Lab, surveyed an online sample of 431 nearby undergraduate college students. They asked them if they had ever experienced the sudden urge to jump from a high place and simultaneously assessed their history of ideation, depressive symptoms, and abnormal mood episodes. They also calculated how sensitive to anxiety each participant was by asking how fearful they were of its physical symptoms, such as an elevated heartbeat and shortness of breath.
In total, about one-third of their sample reported the urge. People with high anxiety sensitivity were more likely to have experienced the phenomenon. Upon closer inspection, this finding could be partially explained by respondents’ current levels of ideation. People with high anxiety sensitivity were also more likely to have higher ideation, and people with higher ideation were more likely to report the phenomenon. Interestingly, though, just over 50 percent of people who felt the urge had never had suicidal tendencies. Having higher anxiety sensitivity also increased the possibility someone with low ideation would report the phenomenon.
Maybe in these sensitive non-ideators there was a mix-up between the unconscious and conscious aspects of their mind, a sort of cognitive dissonance. Someone like that could be walking near the edge of a roof when, for whatever reason, a reflex to step back kicks in and they jolt away. Though they may have not been in any danger of falling, their instinctual mind thought they were. As the person tries to quickly rationalize what just happened, they arrive at a conclusion: They jerked away from the roof’s edge because they must have wanted to jump. Soon enough, this thought, which didn’t actually exist beforehand, revises their perception of the situation.
“Thus, individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal; rather, the experience of high place phenomenon may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live,” the authors concluded.
A 2011 study from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 3.7 percent of the adult U.S. population has had suicidal thoughts in the past year; other studies have pegged the lifetime prevalence of ideation at 8 to 10 percent. Clearly, these numbers don’t come remotely close to the 30 percent of people who reported the high place phenomenon in Hames’ study. That suggests there is a real reason, aside from suicidal thoughts, for feeling the urge to jump.
In 2012, Jennifer Hames led a study at the Department of Psychology at Florida State University on the call of the void. She called it “the high place phenomenon,” and ultimately said that the call of the void is potentially the mind’s weird (and seemingly paradoxical) way of appreciating life.
“Thus, individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal; rather, the experience of high place phenomenon may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live,” Hames summarized.
An alternative theory to the call of the void comes from Adam Anderson, a cognitive neuroscientist at Cornell University. He studies behavior and emotion using images of the brain. His theory for call of the void is more along the lines of a tendency to gamble.
People are more likely to take risks when the situation is bad because they want to avoid the possibly bad outcome by gambling against it.
“It’s like the CIA and FBI not communicating about risk assessments,” said Anderson.
From the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, it’s “a moment of Existentialist truth about the human freedom to choose to live or die.”
The French, who first coined a phrase for this phenomenon, call it l’appel du vide, or “the call of the void,” also sometimes called “High Place Phenomenon,” but it can encompass more than just irrational thoughts of jumping to one’s death from a high place. It is more or less any sudden urge that pops into one’s mind and gives them a fleeting impulse to do something very dangerous that would probably kill or severely injure them. Although thoughts of leaping from a high place are the most commonly reported, it could be a lot of things, including the urge to suddenly swerve and drive into incoming traffic, jump in front of a barreling train, put something metal into an electrical socket, cut or stab oneself when holding a knife, or any number of other morbid urges we have to harm or kill ourselves. The thought is usually fleeting, and the person rationally knows they would never do it, but when the feeling hits it can be frighteningly potent and quite unsettling.
It is thought that at least 30% of people experience it at least once in their lives, and most of these people are not suicidal in the slightest, although people who are suicidal are more likely to report it. It is a bit of a conundrum, because if a person normally has no suicidal tendencies, no will to die and no actual intention of following these dark, impulsive thoughts to their conclusion, then why does it happen at all? What is going on here? Well, no one really knows, but it is common enough that there has been much study and debate devoted to this odd phenomenon.
We’re not just afraid of predators. We’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.
This theory involves the monoamine neurotransmitters in the brain (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) and how their activity impacts mood. Neuroscientists are aware that this is a reciprocal relationship: Lower levels of these transmitters result in the individual being less happy or depressed.
The lack of monoamine activity negatively impacts thinking. Conversely, thinking can lower the level of the monoamines, which would also result in depression. Thinking originating from the death drive may be one contributor to depression.
Freud proposed that humans have a life instinct and a death instinct. His theory was based on these drives (sex and aggression) dominating our lives. The drive for aggression is an external representation of the death drive. The death drive seeks destruction, life's return to an inorganic state. In some cases, this aggressive drive is directed inward, resulting in suicide.
In her excellent post, "The Inner Voice That Drives Suicide," Lisa Firestone, Ph.D discusses how a critical inner voice convinces people "it is better to end their lives than to find an alternative solution to their suffering." This inner voice may originate in the death drive.
Sigmund Freud theorised that we all have two major opposing forces working within our psyche; a life instinct (Eros) and a death drive (Thanatos). Eros pulls us towards life and sex, pleasure, survival, creativity and regrowth. Thanatos pulls us towards death and destruction. Whichever dominates overall depends on our environment growing up.
Well, the best way I can describe Freud’s death drive is by imagining you are standing on the top of a very high building. You are looking over the side. The death drive is that compulsion to step over into the air. It’s that strange, weird feeling of being drawn to the edge of danger.
Freud was a doctor and had been working with soldiers returning from WW1. The general consensus was that survivors from such terrible events would have a renewed vigour for life. In other words, their life instinct would go into over-drive after witnessing such death and destruction on an industrial scale.
But Freud discovered that this was not the case. In fact, the majority of returning soldiers appeared to experience the opposite. These survivors seemed to be compelled to repeat their traumatic experiences in their dreams.
So why is all this important? You would think that Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos would relate to the way we die, but it’s not. It’s about how we live, how we go through life. Freud believed that we all go through a period of self-destruction. Some people have longer and more intense periods than others. When this drive is turned inwards, it results in suicide. If it turns outwards, we behave in an aggressive manner to others.
This aggressive behaviour is played out in all walks of life, from politics to pop culture. Every day we hear of online bullying, animal cruelty, slandering of political opponents, bitching of someone’s weight or appearance, slut-shaming.
When Freud articulated the idea of the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920), he transformed himself into the psychological counterpart of a radical Hegelian without realizing it. The pleasure principle was “obvious.” People sought to maximize their pleasures and minimize their pains. The ultimate pain was symbolized (and actually experienced) by death, avoided at all costs. But, Freud concluded in a way that was broadly misunderstood, the opposite was the case. Another drive, more powerful than the drive for pleasure, dominated human behavior and consciousness, a death drive. Note: “drive,” Trieb, was translated as “instinct” until recently. Freud’s drives related to the key critical objects of childhood: the breast, shit, the phallus, the gaze, and the voice. These complex mediators (“partial objects”) continued to exercise an ambiguous force after first childhood encounters; they could not be assimilated within the world of objects and, thus, were linked to the idea of the Freudian Thing (das Ding).