Sunday, June 7, 2009


I had a very strange experience today. I was reading a book, intently, when I felt slightly nauseous. At first I didn't pay it any attention, and kept reading, but it steadily grew worse. Eventually I realized that it was what I was reading that was making me nauseous. Intellectually, I didn't see anything wrong with it; emotionally, I didn't feel anything unusual; but physically, I felt sick. I finished the section, and sat down for a while, and after a few minutes it passed; I picked up at the next section and felt fine.

Now, let me add a bit of context. I've read plenty of shocking, graphic, and unpleasant material, and I have a fairly vivid imagination. I've read things that have given me nightmares, I've gotten awful mental images stuck in my head. I'm a fan of fantasy horror; I've read Lovecraft before sleeping, and I've read the Sandman graphic novels, in which case I didn't even need to visualize*. The thing I read today wasn't as bad as any of these. It wasn't even particularly objectionable. And yet, as far as I remember, nothing I've read has caused such a dramatic physical response.

A combination of genetics, instincts, and early nurture give us a package of associations that determine how we react to various perceptions. This is, perhaps, what we'd call human nature. Throughout the process of education and socialization, new associations are created, and existing ones are undone or superseded. This is because human nature owes nothing to constructed concepts like right and wrong, safe and risky, kind and cruel. It might, in some general sense, tend to encourage the survival of the human species, as was probably the case in this particular incident. However, it works in a way that often isn't the way we'd like to be, and depressingly often can't be overcome by any incentive. We do our best to reprogram ourselves and others to make us, in some sense, better people, but we're constantly fighting against a tendency that doesn't care whether we're good or not, one that can evoke powerful responses on a level that we can't control.

Of course, I'm being incredibly hypocritical here. I've drawn a huge false dichotomy between the human mind and this animal-level "human nature". Our constructed concepts are built on these instincts, and the associations and reactions they provide are the levers by which we can be taught. We wouldn't be able to have a sense of right and wrong if it didn't grow out of our basic responses to perceptions. If we cut out the animal brain, we wouldn't be super-human and super-moral; we'd just die. A little irrational discomfort, a susceptibility to fear, an inability to care about people we've never met and can't put a face to as much as those we've spent all our lives with; these are part of the price we have to pay to be able to have a mind at all. We can't wipe out the roots of our sentience; rather, by understanding how we work, we can come up with new ways to make ourselves better.

Well, that was a large reaction to a relatively minor event. Maybe it doesn't signify anything so grand; maybe it was coincidence, or suppressed neurosis, or something I ate. Still, though, I think there's an important lesson here. Don't take yourself too much for granted -- take the time to think about why you feel the way you feel. Who knows? You might learn something.

* By the way, please don't be put off by this characterization -- both Lovecraft and the Sandman series are great stuff, and highly recommended reading to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of scariness. They won't really give you bad dreams. Probably.


  1. After the first two paragraphs there was only one thing on my mind while reading the rest of the post...

    What was this things that made you feel nauseous!? I felt like I was being setup for an awesome punchline and then left hanging...

  2. Sorry. I don't really want to post it on the internet. And anyway, I'm abstracting away from it to make a broader point.