For the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, the Greek myth of Sisyphus perfectly captured the human condition. Sisyphus was condemned to a life of meaningless activity—pushing a boulder up a hill again and again and again, without purpose or accomplishment. If the miscreant king had any hope of finding meaning in this existence, it had to come from inside him.
This is the existential condition, as philosophers have described it from the 19th century on. Understanding the absurdity of it—and understanding that one is personally responsible for making life meaningful—can be a source of overpowering anxiety and unease—what philosophers have called existential dread.
But how is this dread processed in the human mind? What exactly is going on in the brain when meaning is threatened and we struggle to affirm it? Such questions are increasingly being explored not only by philosophers but by psychological scientists as well, including two from the University of British Columbia. Steven Heine and Daniel Randles wondered if existential suffering might have the same neurological source as other suffering—the pain of social rejection, say, or even the pain of a stubbed toe.
Here’s how they explored this provocative idea in the laboratory. They knew from previous work that when meaning is threatened—by thoughts of mortality, for example—we normally compensate by reaffirming our basic values. They also knew that both physical pain and the pain of rejection are ameliorated by a common everyday painkiller. They decided to see if this painkiller might also blunt existential arousal—and prevent the normal psychological response.
They recruited volunteers and gave half of them 1000 milligrams of Tylenol. The others got sugar pills. Then they wrote short essays, some on death and dying and others on dental pain. The idea was that writing about dying would be an existential assault on meaning; writing about dental pain would also be aversive, but not a threat to meaning. Afterward, all volunteers were tested for emotional arousal, and finally, they were all asked to set bail for a hypothetical prostitute who had been arrested.
The prostitute scenario was a test of values reaffirmation. Volunteers who felt a threat would be expected to conserve traditional values by judging the prostitute’s moral violation more harshly—and being more punitive in setting bail. Heine and Randles expected that the volunteers who had taken a dose of Tylenol would not treat the prostitute harshly—because the painkiller would blunt the emotional arousal from the existential threat.
And that’s what they found. Volunteers who had their existence threatened and took the placebo—only these volunteers were significantly more judgmental and punitive toward the prostitute. Those who were threatened, but took the painkiller, showed no such need to reaffirm traditional values. They had in effect treated their existential angst with a common headache drug.
The scientists wanted to explore these findings a bit more, in a different way. So in a second experiment, they used a threat that’s culturally akin to existential thinking—surrealistic art. The experiment was exactly like the first one, except in this case some of the volunteers watched a short film by the director David Lynch, called Rabbits. Many will know Lynch better from his bizarre TV series Twin Peaks or his equally odd feature films, including Blue Velvet. No less surreal, Rabbits is incoherent and disturbing, a series of non-sequiturs, random laugh tracks and long pauses. It deliberately violates everything we have come to expect in a narrative.
The control subjects watched an episode of The Simpsons. Then, instead of the prostitute scenario, all the volunteers were asked to judge hockey fans who had recently rioted in downtown Vancouver, after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Would they jail the rioters, or fine them severely, or let them off? As before, it was expected that those most threatened would be the harshest judges.
They were—if they hadn’t taken Tylenol beforehand. As reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, only the volunteers who watched the strange Lynch film and took a placebo—only they were notably more punitive than controls. Again, the painkiller appeared to treat the existential threat—and psychic pain.
Heine and Randles believe they have identified a particular kind of distress that is linked to the violation of expectations. When things don’t happen the way we expect them to, we act to preserve meaning. They believe further that this distress originates in a specific brain region, which acts as a kind of cortical alarm. This alarm signals that we need to plot a course of action, whether the threat comes from a stubbed toe, loneliness, or the absurd plight of Sisyphus.
Excerpts from Wray Herbert’s two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American Mind and on The Huffington Post science page.