Hey Vsauce. Michael here. In 1924
psychologist Carney Landis drew lines on people’s faces
and then photographed them in various
to study facial expressions.
But he didn’t use actors
and he didn’t tell the participants to
pretend to feel emotions. Instead,
he subjected them to actual trauma.
He had them do things like
smell ammonia, look at pornographic images and even reach their hand in
buckets of wet slimy frogs.
His most intense directive
involved ordering them to take a knife and while being photographed
cut off the head of a living rat.
Most initially refused to cut the head off,
two-thirds agreed to do as they were told,
including a 13-year-old boy referred to
the psychology department by a doctor
for high blood pressure thought to be
caused by emotional instability.
Many believe his inclusion in Landis’ experiment
was an accident.
If replicated today Landis might be arrested
but what is psychologically arresting
about these images
is that the unease and disgust and fear they show
We are paradoxically drawn towards some
pretty repulsive things:
car accidents, car chases,
the possibility of a crash or a fight,
or a natural disaster; I mean not one that hurts anyone, of course,
but one that’s exciting.
drama, disfiguration, true crime, war
and gore, the macarbe. Like the Kangling, a trumpet
used during Himalayan Buddhist rituals
that’s made out of a human leg bone.
We often feel guilty for being interested
in these types of things, after all, they are unpleasant
but yet we can’t look away. Why?
Well, there is no single reason, there are
many of them
but they can be mould into a mnemonic.
We like disturbing things because we like
They give us strength, catharsis
reality, exploration, acceptance and meaning.
Watching someone eat gross tasting jellybeans
or a ghost pepper or a spoonful of cinnamon or
suffer in more extreme ways, is a kinda
strange thing to like to do
but it’s part of what keeps us alive.
We are curious, even if the outcome
could be bad.
We often find uncertainty more
than unpleasant certainty. At least if we look
There’s a neurological basis for
exploring in the face of danger.
We become more attentive and alert
when we are frightened, which makes
Neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine
are released when we are scared
physically and mentally preparing us to
take on a threat or successfully escape from it.
Dopamine is famously part of the brains
Dopamine is released in response to pleasurable
things, like sex and food, but that doesn’t mean
our brains find disturbing things
It’s more interesting than that.
When dopamine systems
are inhibited in laboratory animals, they will cease
to seek out food
and literally starve to death; because
they no longer find food
If food is placed
in their mouths, they will consume it and express
signs of satisfaction.
Evidence like this suggests that the brain contains
systems that motivate seeking, approaching and curiosity
for their own sake.
This has implications in the study of
Just because you want to do something
doesn’t mean you like it.
The rush of chemicals into our brains and bodies when we are
help us. When the threats are real. But if the threats
aren’t real, or if we are safely distant from them,
and merely spectating, the same chemicals still
appear, making us more attentive, more curious
and making it more difficult to look away.
In the early nineteen hundreds
Eugène-Louis Doyen published incredible
images of corpses he cut
into stackable slices. The images
are amazingly macarbe but yet utterly
fascinating and a wonderful reminder of what we are
literally made of.
We often feel like we need an excuse,
like Halloween or anatomy homework, in
order to look at things like that
without coming across as a total weirdo. I mean
come on if you look too interested in
the macarbe it might look like you are
into, approve of or enjoy the gruesome.
Funny enough, that guilt may very well fuel
our desire to look in the first place. Sometimes
pressure to not do something can
actually make people more likely
to do that thing.
It’s called The Boomerang Effect.
There are many different ways for things to
boomerang: one is The Streisand Effect,
when trying to suppress something unintentionally
makes it more widely distributed. In 2003
Barbra Streisand sued to suppress a photo
published online, as part of a
California Coastline Preservation Project.
One of the photos, the one she was trying to get rid of, showed
Within a month of the lawsuit going public
nearly half a million people had flooded
the website and downloaded the
picture. Before the suit only six people
had downloaded the image, two of which were her lawyers.
In a similar fashion, social pressures
and tabboos against viewing
disturbing things can make them more
rarer and so a more valuable commodity, and also
free, in that deliberately viewing them can demonstrate to ourselves and others
that we are free and can do what we want.
Disturbing things can also make us feel
stronger, because their repulsiveness
is a challenge.
Glenn Sparks at Purdue University
has studied the way terrifying films affect us.
After watching them, viewers often feel stronger,
satisfied that they didn’t chicken out, that they made it through,
they conquered something disturbing and were able to handle it.
It’s almost a form of practice. As Stephen
King put it,
“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”.
On the more negative side, following
celebrity scandals or seeing
defeat on the faces of the rival team
can make you feel pretty good. It’s
‘Schadenfreude’, which means harm joy; getting pleasure
from others misfortunes. Social comparison theory
describes and predicts behavior like this
although grades and
rankings cause anxiety, we nonetheless
a drive to seek out evaluations of ourselves
in comparison to others, we especially
enjoyed the evaluations
that put us on top.
Now, causing other people to be
less well off sort of makes sense under this lens.
If its relative happiness you’re
concerned with, trolling or harassing or griefing
other people sort of works, it doesn’t make
you happier but compared to the people
you are less annoyed.
Viewing scenes of
anger and vengeance and violence
that don’t even involve us can nonetheless cause
our own anger and aggression to burn off, as though they’re being
satisfied. It’s called catharsis,
a cleanser, a purification. Creating images and movies
and stories that play with our
emotions might be grasping at low
hanging fruit. A task beneath such logical
creatures as ourselves.
Or, it might be a powerful demonstration
of the fact that we have control, or at
least a leash,
around how we feel.
We condemn the actions
of serial killers but nonetheless often
like rock stars. Web sites like RedrumAutographs and Serial Killers Ink
sell autographs, souvenirs, trinkets
and works of art
made by real serial killers.
Some call it murderabilia. On a spectrum of
petty thrills and morose voyeurism
to complete overwhelming obsession and fear,
our relationship with the morbid is
but it is under our control if we’re aware
of our actions. One of the most
constructive and socially important
uses of the morbid is the facilitation of meaning, acceptance
In his book ‘Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck’
Eric G. Wilson says that our attraction
to the macabre is
on some level a desire to experience
someone else’s suffering.
Morbid curiosity is often about the
Imagining what it would be like to be that
other person, what if that happened
to me? Could it happen to me?
Empathetic feelings remind us that our
time is limited
and that we are fragile and in doing so
closer together. Sure enough, the last
movie I watched it made me want to go
out and hug the very first friend I could find
wasn’t a happy feel-good comedy. Instead,
it was Louis Theroux’s somber ‘Extreme Love Dementia’.
Viewing unpleasant things
doesn’t always make them less unpleasant
or any less real
but that’s not always the point. Morbid
also about acceptance. Remember,
our brains are wired with motivations
unpleasant things, because doing so
can be preferable
Gawking at morbidity is often about asking why?
There must be a reason, a meaning behind all of this.
When tragedy strikes or horrors are
revealed, we listen to experts give opinions,
neighbors describe the killer, we look for
signs that were missed
and confirmation that others feel the same
way we do,
that people are helping or making sure
is served. Katelin Dodi the host of ‘Ask a
here on YouTube just wrote a phenomenal book
‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other
from the Crematory’.
In the book she says
“accepting death doesn’t mean that you won’t be
devastated when someone you love dies,
it means you will be able to focus on
your grief, unburdened by bigger
existential questions, like
why do people die? And why is this
happening to me?
Death isn’t happening to you, death
is happening to us all.” That’s heavy stuff
but acceptance like that is one of the
greatest things morbid
curiosity has to offer and don’t worry,
there’s a funny side to all of this, or at least
a funny side related to this
and how morbidity helps us make sense of the world.
A study in Finland found that children were four
times as likely to be scared
by their usual television programs if a parent
was in the room.
It surprised researchers
but one explanation lies
in the “Uh oh, Mom flinched theory”.
The idea is that to a young child almost
everything is brand new
but parents are older, they’re wiser, they know what’s normal
and if they are scared of what’s on TV
uh oh… How we feel and how we feel about
how we feel
is to a large degree learned. There’s a
theory about the origin of humor
called the encryption theory of humor. It
suggests that one of the great roles humor
plays is in measuring who is inside and
who is outside,
who is similar and who is socially
too different. Jokes test what
unstated common knowledge the teller and
So might we be
morbidly curious for the same reason we
enjoy telling jokes?
Jokes assess underlying shared
attitudes. Morbidity helps us asses shared
underlying attitudes of an existential
variety, morality and justice.
Whether it’s used for empathetic or
morbidity and laughter may share
a similar adaptive role. We are morbidly
because we like to scream but more
the yuk…and the yuk yuk
And as always,
thanks for watching.