You’ve probably spent many hours last week riveted to television images of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—people suffering through all our worst nightmares. Homes flooded or burned to the ground. Cars underwater. America’s biggest, brightest city brought to its knees.
And after that first moment of horror, you probably also experienced a confusing welter of other emotions. One minute you're tearing up along with a family who's lost everything. The next you’re sharing images of the aftermath, perhaps even punctuating your emails with jokes (“nice to see the NYC subways finally getting cleaned!”). But then, you feel embarrassed about your heartlessness and voyeuristic curiosity.
Why do we watch? Why do we grow so emotional about people we'll never meet? Why do we sit through endless replays of the same horrific scenes (as if maybe this time they'll come out differently)? And why do men in particular joke about it afterward? Men's Health contributing editor Richard Conniff recently investigated how tragedies play with our brains. Turns out, these confusing and sometimes contradictory emotions are completely normal.
Psychologists say we do it partly for self-preservation. Paying attention to other people's disasters is a way to keep the same things from happening to us. That's one reason we like thrillers and shark-attack movies so much. It’s called instructed fear.
Let's say you narrowly escaped the flooding. "Flashbulb memories" of the event would be imprinted on your brain, particularly in the amygdala, which is your subconscious fear central. If you subsequently encounter some hint of that experience—a cloud formation, a change in the wind—the amygdala's role is to put you on alert before your conscious mind suspects anything is amiss. That way, you have a head start on your escape route and increase your chances of getting out alive.
The same response occurs even in people who merely saw the devastation on television, says New York University neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, Ph.D. Likewise, when you pass a bad accident on the highway, you feel the fear that raced through the victims, and it helps prime your own subconscious first-alert system in case you ever face a similar crisis.
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Humans are wired to connect with other people. When someone looks frightened, our eyebrows also rise in fear, often without our being aware of it. When we see a child's face twisted up in anguish, we make the same face, and doing so actually causes us to feel sorry, too. When we see someone else in pain, it activates the pain-sensitive regions of our own brains.
This kind of "emotional contagion" happens not just during disasters, but anytime we're with other people: You smile at me; I smile back. "We are very much social creatures," says J. Philippe Rushton, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, "and empathy is part of the genetic glue that binds us to other people."
Being on the same emotional page helped keep families and tribes together during our evolution, when food was scarce and predators abundant. Groups that didn't "click" tended to undergo a brief, bloody lesson in natural selection. As a result, empathy, emotional contagion, mirror neurons, and other mechanisms for social bonding are now built into our biology.
Television simply "grafts onto these innate systems," says Rushton, "and when we look at people suffering 1,000 miles away, our bodies react in the same way."
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She says, "Oh my God, these poor Sandy victims. They've lost everything." He says, "They had plenty of warning; why didn't they just get out?" Then they fight.
Researchers don't yet know exactly why women are generally more empathetic than men. In animal studies, females seem to be more sensitive to oxytocin, an essential hormone for social attachment, inducing calmness and nurturing behavior. (Think maternal bonding.) Males produce more of the hormone vasopressin, which also encourages affection, but with a frisson of anxiety and alertness to threats. (Think watchdog.)
Are these same neurochemicals shaping the way we respond as we sit in front of the television and converse about it afterward? It's too early to say; the research so far has focused on one-on-one relationships, not larger social groups. But if we at least recognize that our different approaches may each serve a useful purpose, we might fight less and relate more.
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It’s how we cope with our helplessness. “You see it, you see it, you see it, and then it becomes less frightening," says UCLA psychiatrist Mark Thompson, M.D. It's like teenagers going through a phase of addiction to horror movies. Then suddenly they master their fears and put the fascination behind them.
They're one way we begin to heal. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we practice what Pennsylvania State University folklorist Bill Ellis, Ph.D., calls "strategic suppression of humor." The sense of threat and injury is still too raw. Then the jokes start to come, focused at first on denial, displaced anger, and the need to assign blame. (Hence one of the first jokes after Katrina: "What's George W. Bush's position on Roe v. Wade? He doesn't care how black people get out of New Orleans.")
The second wave of jokes, says Ellis, typically uses gross humor to gain distance from the painful realities of death and dismemberment. After the fatal explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, for instance, one joke defused the tragedy by putting it in the context of a contemporary ad campaign featuring lots of pyrotechnics. ("What was the last thing they heard from the pilot on the Challenger? 'No, I wanted a Bud Light.' ")
That's sick, right? On the contrary, says Ellis, it's how we come to terms with the unthinkable, "and the fact that it's done in an unexpected way makes it a triumph of the human imagination over reality."
We turn away from the pain and go back to our daily business. A joke reminds us that life is, after all, still worth living.
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Writing and reporting by Richard Conniff; Corbis photos