Journal Entry – Sun Dec 20

I wish it were Friday! I have to go Christmas Dinner shopping (😑 🙄)

I’m doing another values exercise – I do these on a bi-annual, sometimes quarterly basis. I’m pretty in tune with my values – I added playfulness to my list a few years back – I hate when people are serious all the time (an ex made me realize that playfulness was essential to me).

Right now, to kick off the new year, I have the list below – I feel pretty comfortable with this, although at times I think it’s too long, but why do I need to have a top-five or ten? If it’s important to me and makes me who I am, then I’m counting it:

  • Ideas
  • Action
  • Results
  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Knowledge
  • Competence
  • Playfulness (sometimes I can be annoying – André might say most times)
  • Variety
  • Spontaneity 
  • Integrity
  • Authenticity
  • Learning
  • Exploring
  • Efficiency 
  • Curiosity
  • Effectiveness
  • Continuous improvements (if it ain’t broke, that doesn’t mean it don’t need fixing)
  • Jokes (good and bad – I pretty much laugh at everything, even things I shouldn’t, which gets me in trouble, which is also funny!) 

Dee wants to go to another Airbnb, like right after this! I’m missing home; my desk, bed and high-speed internet and wondering about my fish! Do you think they even know I’m gone?

Woohoo!!! – Final Lecture # 24: The Allure of the Dark Side

What makes death, violence and evil so fascinating? In the Republic, Plato tells the story of Leontius. 

One day, Leontius was walking outside Athens’ walls when he happened to see “some corpses lying at the executioners’ feet.” At this, Leontius found himself conflicted. On the one hand, he was disgusted as anyone would be and turned away; on the other, he had a strange desire to look at the dead bodies he had stumbled upon.

Plato’s story of Leontius is rich and important in many ways. For instance, Plato thinks this suggests a third division in the soul: Not only is there a distinction between reason and desire, but there is also a spirited part of the soul revealed here.

When we encounter a dead body, we react in distinctive ways. Professor Pascal Boyer notes that encountering corpses triggers precise mental processes related to three important themes:

  1. Predation: For a long time, we’ve been both predators and prey. Viewing a dead body, so the story goes, triggers our sense of ourselves as potential prey and provokes fear. 
  2. Contagion:  Corpses are decomposing organic matter; they are potentially toxic, so they require us to handle them carefully. In response to this, we find ourselves experiencing disgust at the sight of dead bodies. 
  3. Violation: When we encounter a dead person, we experience a flood of distinctive thoughts and feelings related to the violation of a person. Discovering a dead person triggers our sense of what it’s like to be a person and to have the properties associated with persons. Yet because this person is now dead, our expectations related to personhood becomes violated.

Rubbernecking – When we rubberneck – gawk at disasters and accidents – we participate in a kind of morbid curiosity. One professor, Eric Wilson, thinks that we want to experience other people’s suffering, not in a sadistic way but to empathize.

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Picking up on this suggestion, psychologists Hank Davis and Andrea Javor used Boyer’s three themes – predation, contagion, and violation – to study how audiences react to horror films. They had participants score 40 horror films according to Boyer’s themes. (Where was I when this study was taking place!?) The movies whose aggregate scores were higher tended to be rated more favourably on IMDB. Effective horror films impact us in many of the same ways dead bodies do. Their impact comes from their ability to trigger complex emotions and thoughts and violate our expectations about the category of person.

They also note that a sense of peril, associated with the theme of predation, is a “defining feature of the horror genre.” Audiences find being menaced, frightened, or even disgusted pleasurable enough to want to watch horror films. Philosopher Noël Carroll calls this the paradox of horror. This ties in with Leontius and his desire to look at corpses. We can imagine that Leontius felt fear – we can imagine that the executioners were menacing, and the situation was dreadful.

Still, even though the dead bodies Leontius wants to see are real, which makes them importantly different from a horror film, he’s relatively safe in the same way we are when we watch horror films. In neither case are we in immediate danger. Perhaps we can scrutinize hazards from a safe distance and rehearse real-world scenarios in a way that helps us learn about how we would handle horrible situations.

A hedonic reversal occurs when something that used to be painful or unpleasant becomes pleasant or pleasurable. Part of the explanation for this is that initially, negative experiences can falsely signal that there is a threat to us. For instance, take a hot pepper that isn’t really dangerous, or a roller coaster isn’t truly going to kill anyone (I’m guessing the professor didn’t see Final Destination 3 (2006))

As we realize that we’ve been fooled, our body isn’t quite telling the truth, some of us start to derive pleasure. One professor, Paul Rozin, describes this kind of joy as derived from a mastery of “mind over body.” This is benign because it’s safe, but it’s masochistic because we end up enjoying what our bodies initially reject. We come to enjoy initially unpleasant sensations and feelings through this process of mastery.

In a 1995 article, Deirdre Johnston identifies four different motivations that adolescents have for watching horror films. She argues these motivations suggest four different kinds of “experiences in response to graphically violent stimuli.”

  1. The gore-watching motivation is associated with people who seem to be curious about violence, who have an “attraction to the grotesque,” and who seem to have a “vengeful interest” in killing and seeing people “get what they deserve.” 
  2. Thrill watchers focus “on the suspense.” 
  3. Independent watchers seem to care about playing a social role to test their maturity and bravery and perhaps even demonstrate those qualities to others. Independent watchers identify with victims but have a positive outlook. 
  4. Problem watchers also identify with victims, but they do not enjoy horror films. They tend to feel angry and lonely, and they tend to experience negative affect both before and after watching horror.

Johnston’s study suggests that people with certain personality traits tend to be motivated to view dark things like horror films for very different reasons. They might get very different things out of their experiences. 

When it comes to real-life horror, the philosopher Robert Solomon has argued that being aroused by real horror is desensitizing and perhaps even pathological. More importantly, “it is morally repugnant, and the moral repugnance lies precisely in the fact that those who enjoy the [truly] horrible no longer find that the horrible provokes horror.” For Solomon, horror as a response to the horrible is something very unpleasant – a traumatizing and emotionally overwhelming experience. It’s the kind of experience that makes us feel helpless and lost.

However, as the classicist Garrett Fagan notes, throughout many cultures over human history, audiences have been drawn to spectacles involving real horror. These range from executions to blood sports such as gladiatorial games. People are drawn to spectacles featuring real horror partly for the same reasons people are drawn to all kinds of sports: They find a community of peers whose collective experience validates their shared view of how the world is.

For a modern example, consider reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda and the man who is credited with masterminding the attacks of September 11, 2001. Ask yourself: Were you happy to hear the news? Did you read any of the accounts of the siege that led to his death with pleasure? If you did not derive pleasure from this event, do you know anyone who did?

It appears that there are all sorts of social, psychological, and moral factors that might drive us to enjoy or to find some satisfaction in what might seem so dark, at least at first.

Perhaps the reason people are haunted and fascinated by the dark side of things has much to do with mastery. This is the basic idea behind hedonic reversals. It’s what flips negative experiences into something enjoyable or at least interesting and worth pursuing. This sort of exploration is what the Buddhist thinker Pema Chödrön has in mind when she says that, “in all kinds of situations, we can find out what is true simply by studying ourselves in every nook and cranny, in every black hole and bright spot.”

Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature

Of course, merely thinking about dark matters won’t magically cure us or transform the troubled world, but it’s a start. This means that thinking about evil and other dark aspects of the human condition isn’t just some morbid curiosity. We’re not being strange or childish. On the contrary, we’re facing up to who we are.

(Source: The Great Courses – Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature)

I am very excited to start Understanding the Brain

Feature Photo Credit: PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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