“Don’t look.” Look. Slowing down, I peer across two lanes, scanning the scene. A man lies still, face down on the cement with a marine corps baseball cap sitting next to him. Behind him is the wreck. Though told not to look, I have to. What was once a pickup truck is merely a hunk of metal, shaped and bent like an abstract piece of art. I can’t help but stare. The thrill from my transgression ignites all the nerve endings in my body as sirens blaze in the distance, incessantly growing louder and louder. It must have just happened. A mixed sense of relief and sadness overwhelms me. I can’t help but think, that could have been me. Traffic immediately slows down as all cars around me follow my lead, decelerating in order to get a peek of the wreck.
Why do we do this? Something deep down ignites a response in humans, triggering this particular behavior. Driven by morbid curiosity, people cannot divert their eyes from tragedy, especially tragedy tied to death. It is part of our nature, as humans, to inherently be drawn to this; however, it is our nurtured approach, as a society, to perceive death and tragedy in a unique way that aligns with America’s cultural upbringing.
What ignites this curiosity from a neurological standpoint is a fight-or-flight response initiated by the brain in the face of disaster, regardless of whether there is an immediate threat to the observer or not. Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand with a doctorate from Northwestern University, claims that this neurological process activates our “survival instincts.” Upon first look, our perceptual system stimulates the amygdala to “send signals to regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data.” The brain consequently evaluates this data, generating “awareness of the disaster,” which further instigates the fight-or-flight response (“United,” 2017, p. 1). So, when confronted by sudden turmoil, we ask ourselves first, are we in danger? We look closer, compelled to see the wreck for ourselves in order to process fleeing or staying put. Perceiving no actual threat, we watch from the outside in, protected yet equally exposed to death in the flesh. This is the breakdown of morbid curiosity. It draws people towards the very edge, initiating a fight-or-flight response by tapping into their survival instincts, only for them to be pulled right back, out of harm’s way, yet still be possessed by what’s in front of them, remaining tangibly present.
Once out of harm’s way, why do we remain fixated by morbid curiosity, by the siren calls that lure us in, gripping us to the point where we cannot divert our attention? A probable explanation for this behavior is the attentional blink phenomenon: people shift their attention from one object or event to another, producing a gap of time when they are unable to successfully focus on the task at hand, like driving on a freeway. Looking at the neural structures involved in capturing and holding attention, Lars Schwabe, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at Ruhr University, conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a quick sequence of 15 words while simultaneously identifying two targets, T1 and T2, that were either emotionally arousing or neutral. Using magnetic resonance imaging, he and his colleagues noticed an “increased activation towards emotional compared with neutral T1s in the left amygdala,” ultimately extrapolating that the “detection of T2s in the attentional blink period was impaired by emotionally arousing T1s” (Schwabe, 2011, pp. 1-9). Lengthening the blink, the human brain allocates more attentional resources to processing the emotional first target, impairing one from detecting the second target thereafter. This prolonged attentional blink following T1 – what causes us to slow down at a snail’s pace on the infamous 405 – is essentially a byproduct of neocortical attractors. On a deeper level, though, the attentional blink paradigm pushes individuals to reveal concealed information that they feel attached to. Dr. Giorgio Ganis, a cognitive neuroscientist in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Radiology, exploits the link between concealed information and attentional processes, inferring that because the T1 stimulus “has special relevance” to a person, he or she is more likely to detect it over T2 (Ganis, 2009, pp. 189-193). Morbid curiosity fits in this “special relevance” category, in which humans are naturally receptive to danger because they ultimately fear being harmed by it, becoming emotionally attached. Their brain sends signals, initiating a response – the attentional blink phenomenon – where they place special relevance on unveiling the concealed knowledge of T1. It is quite an enigma, really. Regardless of the fact that darkness lingers in the shadows, people want to know more… They do not yet know the full story. And it is unbearable.
More times than not, morbid curiosity, initiated by the attentional blink phenomenon, is linked to an element of death – the ultimate tragedy yet also the ultimate fascination – introducing the relationship between negative information and psychological behavior. An individual’s natural tendency to choose the negative helps decipher this enigma of fearing death while simultaneously seeking it out. Professor in the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, Suzanne Oosterqijk conducted a behavioral demonstration of morbid curiosity where participants had to choose between social negative images and neutral images based on briefly presented visuals (Oosterwijk, 2017, p. 1). As expected, participants preferred to view images that displayed “death, violence, or harm” over the neutral ones; and thus, “the proportion chosen negative stimuli [did] not reflect a choice for a negative stimulus, but a choice against a neutral stimulus” (p. 9). This is why Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, why Pandora thrust open the box. They purposefully chose the unexpected. Curiosity towards the negative thus trumps the neutral because it allows people to acquire more knowledge about their surroundings, feeding the desire to look death and tragedy straight in the eyes. Prone to the negativity bias, there is a wanting as opposed to a liking towards the idea of death, ultimately labeling morbid curiosity as a sensation-seeking motivation.
This revelation begets the question of whether or not humans’ fear of death fuels the underlying motivation to observe its darkness, so that we may eventually expose the root cause of morbid curiosity. Claiming that humans live in a world both of beauty and sublime, Edmund Burke, notable political thinker and philosopher during the English Romantic Era, claims that the sublime – “the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling” – overwhelms the capacity for reason, producing a feeling of astonishment, in which the “mind is so entirely fixated on an object that it cannot entertain another” (Court, 2015, pp. 3-4). The sublime, therefore, renders us incapable of rational thought, in which our strongest emotion tied to a particular object leaves us in a heightened state of astonishment, solely fixated on that object. This is especially evident when the sublime is accompanied with a sense of obscurity. A sense of the unknown. Burke calls it “infinity,” where the eye cannot “see an object distinctly,” setting forth “a terrible uncertainty of the thing” (p. 4). Labeling this object as death itself, John Dryden, one of the greatest English poets of the 17th century, theorized the natural habit of living life without contemplating its inevitable end, claiming that “death itself is nothing, but we fear to be we know not what, we know not where” (Wilson, 1999, pp. 25-26). Such uncertainty drives our morbid curiosity – the thirst to know more and simultaneously, the dread to discover the ugly truth. And so, the psychological undercurrent of morbid curiosity is the fear of death and its finality – the unknown.
Driven by this fear, our fixation on death in experiencing tragedies from a distance originates from how we, as a society, have been culturally molded to perceive “the end.” The death enigma is further unraveled, looking at the history of how America views death in comparison to other cultures. In particular, the paradox surrounding the relationship between fearing death and being magnetized by it mirrors the Chinese yin and yang in the sense that opposites attract. However, death does not present itself as an enigma in Chinese cultures as it does in American ones. According to Margaret O’Connor, Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Monash University, Australia, who conducted thorough research on death and dying in Chinese cultures and traditions, the yin and yang reveals the cyclical nature that “life undergoes cycles of production (Yang) and destruction (Yin)” (O’Connor, 2007, p. 4). While they are opposites, each half fuses together, determined by the contours of the other, in simultaneous harmony. Thus, the ultimate goal is to maintain the balance of the yin and yang, equally accepting both life and death in the same dimension. Americans, on the other hand, struggle to perceive life and death in harmony; rather, they create an imbalance between the two, letting their fear of death fuel the sole focus of just living life itself and disregarding the inevitable end altogether.
While Eastern cultural beliefs coin death as a transition, an extension of life, Western traditions place emphasis on materialistic views, equating the death of the body with the death of the self. This shift in thinking differentiates death-affirming from death-defying societies – a culture’s ability to accept death as a certainty and not as some unknown, neglected force. Infuriated by this worldly paradigm, Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, begs the question: “Would it not be better to give death the place in actuality and in our thoughts which properly belongs to it?” (Wilson, 1999, p. 29). Freud believed to his core that in order to survive, we must be true to ourselves, giving death not a place in uncertainty, but a place in actuality. America’s repressed view of death squanders this idealization, while other cultures’ perceptions of death praise it. For them, the most effective way to accept and essentially defeat death anxiety is by manifesting its reality, acknowledging it as a facet of life. Unlike these death-affirming societies, the American culture has not normalized death. Even the idiom of expression itself is rejected. Therefore, we cannot truly understand and come to terms with it, for the fear of the unknown still prevails. In a large-scale study of colonial gravestones spanning across hundreds of years, historical archaeologists Edwin Dethlefsen and James Deetz, who both earned their doctorates in anthropology at Harvard University, observed how Christian death rituals have lost their meaning in our society over time. They began by examining early stones in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which “point[ed] out stress physical decay, brevity of life, and the harsh certainty of death” with the typical carving representation being “a death’s-head with a skull-and-crossbones.” In the mid-eighteenth century, gravestones gradually revealed “a less stringent view of mortality,” replacing the death’s-head with cherubs, “trumpeting angels and winged souls ascending to heaven.” By the early nineteenth century, this emphasis on resurrection and heavenly reward progressed to the “romantic abstraction of stylized urns, weeping willows, lambs and flowers” (Jackson, 1977, p. 7). The loosening towards a more abstract representation of death over time reveals America’s cultural devotion to withholding the dead in the living world, refusing to let go. Americans are hence motivated by the promise of a better world through physical materialism rather than through divine, spiritual emphasis. Choosing to live in a temporal-material world, we have shifted our views on death, from a skull and bones to weeping willows, completely overriding the eternal-spirit world and disregarding the inevitable end altogether.
Culturally incompetent towards death, we, as Americans, dread the day we may come face-to-face with it, while others accept it as part of their cultural upbringing. This essentially drives certain behaviors in the face of death, prompting us to stare at the dead body lying in the middle of the 405 surrounded by car parts that are all scattered about. Our brains send signals to our body triggering a fight-or-flight response and tapping into our survival instincts. We become prisoners to the sirens in our head, echoing the word, “look”, over and over again. It is not only our nature that begets this response; it is also our nurture. Naturally choosing the negative, we are unable to divert our attention from the element of death because we are not culturally used to its presence. Experiencing tragedy through an outside lens, we feel safe… safe from the actuality of “the inevitable end” that seems so foreign to us as a death-denying society. We think, wow, that could have been me. It is our innate fear that draws this conclusion, luring us towards the edge – so close to death that we can practically touch it, yet far enough that we become bystanders to it – perpetuating the death enigma.
Court, S. (2015, March 2). Edmund Burke and the Sublime. Wordsworth Grasmere. https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2015/03/02/edmund-burke-and-the-sublime/.
Ganis, G., & Patnaik, P. (2009). Detecting Concealed Knowledge Using a Novel Attentional Blink Paradigm. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 34(3), 189-96. http://dx.doi.org.libproxy2.usc.edu/10.1007/s10484-009-9094-1
Jackson, C. (1977). American Attitudes to Death. Journal of American Studies, 11(3), 297-312. Retrieved October 21, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27553308
O’Connor, M., Hsu, C.-Y., & Lee, S. (2007, August 13). Understandings of Death and Dying for People of Chinese Origin. Shibboleth Authentication Request.
Oosterwijk, S. (2017). Choosing the negative: A behavioral demonstration of morbid curiosity. PLoS One, 12(7)http://dx.doi.org.libproxy2.usc.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0178399 Schwabe, L., Merz, C. J., Walter, B., Vaitl, D., Wolf, O. T., & Stark, R. (2011). Emotional Modulation of the Attentional Blink: The neural structures involved in capturing and holding attention. Neuropsychologia, 49(3), 416-425.
http://dx.doi.org.libproxy2.usc.edu/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.12.037 United States: The Science Behind Why We Can’t Look Away from Tragedy. 9 Nov. 2017, libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww-proquest.com.libproxy2.usc.edu%2 Fdocviw%2F1961384501%3Faccountid.
Wilson, S.L. (1999). The mirror of death: Diverse cultural beliefs, images, and rituals of death and the effects on the living (Order No. 9987404). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304571707).
Great work Audrey Nourse