On amusement parks, depression, and familiarity with death.

On amusement parks, depression, and familiarity with death.

My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.

A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.

Phew, that was a close one!

A “Scrambler” in action — image from Golden Wattle on Wikimedia.

My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.

At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.

On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”

I wasn’t.

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Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.

And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)

To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.

During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.

“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.

My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?

Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.

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In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.

My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.

But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.

A week later, he was gone.

Easy.

The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.

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Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.

But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.

Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.

But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.

Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.

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For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.

But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.

In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:

The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.

Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.

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Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!

Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!

And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.

On love and physics.

On love and physics.

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Portrait of Max from 812 Magazine.

I recently attended a singer-songwriter’s performance with my buddy Max.  I have difficulty sitting still, so I’d brought paper and some markers to draw horrible cartoons while we listened.

After the show, Max and I caught up.  We briefly mentioned our work (he is building things; I am alternating between typing, reading children’s books, and spraying down my popsicle-sticky kids with a hose) and started hashing philosophy.  Max digs the old stuff – he’s currently reading Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, which speculates on both the existence of atoms and reasons why we are conscious.

I told him once that K won’t let me talk about free will at parties, so Max often goads me into it.  He’s always loved the image of K hovering with a flyswatter, waiting for me to broach her ire by describing the experiment that would disprove the existence of free will.  “We can’t do it yet, but if a non-destructive brain scan at sufficient molecular accuracy … “ SWAT!

Hugh-EverettI described Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum wave-function collapse – the idea that with every coin-flip, the universe splits into two and time keeps marching on with the coin having landed both heads and tails.  A lot of physicists like dispensing with probability and randomness.  Not me – I think the world needs a little chaos.  Even if our choices were totally unpredictable, we might not have free will, but if the universe was predictable, sensible and orderly, then we definitely wouldn’t be free.

If you feel like you have free will, that’s almost the same as having it – but how free would you feel if researchers could strap you into a scanner and predict your fate more impeccably than any fortuneteller?

And then, because Max and I always bring up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus when we discuss the meaning of life, we had to talk about the experiment that would let you prove Everett’s theory (but only to yourself).  I’ve written about this previously, in an essay on my father-in-law and the science of resurrection, but the shorthand description of the experiment is “quantum-mechanical suicide.”

If every coin flip created a new world, and inside one your consciousness would be extinguished before you learned the result of the flip, then you could only consciously perceive yourself as experiencing the other outcome.  Someone could flip a coin hundreds of times and you’d always see it landing heads, if the you inside every tails world was instantly ablated.

I was scribbling out diagrams, jotting numbers, and drawing an experimental apparatus with a research subject exploding into flames.  Max leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and mused, “But what I want to know is where love comes into it.”

I added a few more jagged flames, then set down my pen.

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Photo by Shena Pamela on Flickr.

Look, I’m a clever dude.  I’ve always been good at math, despite having taken very few math classes.  I’m well read, hard working, and adept at solving puzzles.  But I was never the best with emotions.  Before I had kids, nobody would’ve mistaken me for any sort of love expert.

I stuttered a little, then described quantum entanglement (also referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – Jim Holt wrote a lovely essay for the New York Review of Books about it).  Particles that are linked stay linked.

Max shook his head.  We both knew that wasn’t really love.

But I’m a cold, rational scientist.  Max trusts his intuition that something mystical is happening in the world.  What kind of explanation might satisfy us both?

So we tried again.  The world is real.  There is, as best we can tell, a single, objective reality surrounding us.  But our consciousness has no access to that world.

In reality, the computer I’m typing this essay on is composed of mostly empty space.  Electrons flit blurrily around atomic nuclei – when I reach toward the keys, electrons in my fingertips are repelled, giving me the illusion that the computer is solid.  One by one receptors in the cone cells of my eyes interact with incident photons, letting me believe that I am constantly seeing a room full of smooth, hard surfaces.  My consciousness gobbles sensory data and creates a representation of the world.

And it’s within those representations that we live.  Some philosophers question why humans are conscious.  Others speculate that iPhones have consciousness as well.  Just like us, a modern telephone integrates a wide variety of external perceptions into its conception of the world.

In any case, because we live within our perception of the world, as opposed to the world per se, love really does change the universe.  By opening ourselves up to the world, we suddenly find ourselves to be inside a different world.  A physicist might not notice the difference after you let yourself love – but that physicist isn’t inside your head.  A physicist’s truth is not always the truth that matters.

Which I am very grateful to Max for teaching me.

Header image from The Scientific Cartoonist.