The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).

Death and Broken Cups

This article originally appeared on The Order of the Good Death. I have already written, here and here, about the death positive movement, to which this post is meant as a small contribution.

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As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men”.

This passage from the will of the Marquis de Sade has always struck a chord with me. Of course, he penned it as his last raging, disdainful grimace at mankind, but the very same thought can also be peaceful.
I have always been sensitive to the poetic, somewhat romantic fantasy of the taoist or buddhist monk retiring on his pretty little mountain, alone, to get ready for death. In my younger days, I thought dying meant leaving the world behind, and that it carried no responsibility. In fact, it was supposed to finally free me of all responsibility. My death belonged only to me.
An intimate, sacred, wondrous experience I would try my best to face with curiosity.
Impermanence? Vanishing “from the minds of men”? Who cares. If my ego is transient like everything else, that’s actually no big deal. Let me go, people, once and for all.
In my mind, the important thing was focusing on my own death. To train. To prepare.

I want my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet”, I would write in my diary.
I’d prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone. Without leaving any trace of my passage”.

Unfortunately, I am now well aware it won’t happen this way, and I shall be denied the sweet comfort of being swiftly forgotten.
I have spent most of my time domesticating death – inviting it into my home, making friends with it, understanding it – and now I find the only thing I truly fear about my own demise is the heartbreak it will inevitably cause. It’s the other side of loving and being loved: death will hurt, it will come at the cost of wounding and scarring the people I cherish the most.

Dying is never just a private thing, it’s about others.
And you can feel comfortable, ready, at peace, but to look for a “good” death means to help your loved ones prepare too. If only there was a simple way.

The thing is, we all endure many little deaths.
Places can die: we come back to the playground we used to run around as kids, and now it’s gone, swallowed up by a hideous gas station.
The melancholy of not being allowed to kiss for the first time once again.
We’ve ached for the death of our dreams, of our relationships, of our own youth, of the exciting time when every evening out with our best friends felt like a new adventure. All these things are gone forever.
And we have experienced even smaller deaths, like our favorite mug tumbling to the floor one day, and breaking into pieces.

It’s the same feeling every time, as if something was irremediably lost. We look at the fragments of the broken mug, and we know that even if we tried to glue them together, it wouldn’t be the same cup anymore. We can still see its image in our mind, remember what it was like, but know it will never be whole again.

I have sometimes come across the idea that when you lose someone, the pain can never go away; but if you learn to accept it you can still go on living. That’s not enough, though.
I think we need to embrace grief, rather than just accepting it, we need to make it valuable. It sounds weird, because pain is a new taboo, and we live in a world that keeps on telling us that suffering has no value. We’re always devising painkillers for any kind of aching. But sorrow is the other side of love, and it shapes us, defines us and makes us unique.

For centuries in Japan potters have been taking broken bowls and cups, just like our fallen mug, and mending them with lacquer and powdered gold, a technique called kintsugi. When the object is reassembled, the golden cracks – forming such a singular decoration, impossible to duplicate – become its real quality. Scars transform a common bowl into a treasure.

I would like my death to be delicate, quiet, discreet.
I would prefer to walk away tiptoe, as not to disturb anyone, and tell my dear ones: don’t be afraid.

You think the cup is broken, but sorrow is the other side of love, it proves that you have loved. And it is a golden lacquer which can be used to put the pieces together.
Here, look at this splinter: this is that winter night we spent playing the blues before the fireplace, snow outside the window and mulled wine in our glasses.
Take this other one: this is when I told you I’d decided to quit my job, and you said go ahead, I’m on your side.
This piece is when you were depressed, and I dragged you out and took you down to the beach to see the eclipse.
This piece is when I told you I was in love with you.

We all have a kintsugi heart.
Grief is affection, we can use it to keep the splinters together, and turn them into a jewel. Even more beautiful than before.
As Tom Waits put it, “all that you’ve loved, is all you own“.

Dolore sacro

Come è noto, nella maggior parte delle tradizioni religiose il sacrificio corporale è parte integrante di specifici rituali o pratiche di ascesi o espiazione. Nelle culture più marcatamente sciamaniche o tribali il dolore sacro va spesso di pari passo con l’estasi e la trance mistica, come accade durante alcune festività in cui le ferite vengono praticate o autoinflitte dai devoti come segno di una raggiunta “immunità” alle sofferenze, garantita dalla comunione con la divinità.

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In Oriente, l’intera esistenza era vista come una serie ininterrotta di sofferenze. Questo tipo di visione pessimistica era comune nell’area indocinese, e le due soluzioni a cui si era pensato prima dell’avvento del Buddha erano le più logiche. Per sconfiggere il dolore si doveva: 1) massimizzare il piacere – da cui la tradizione tantrista, che peraltro ha diversi elementi di derivazione sciamanica ed è radicalmente differente dalla versione edulcorata che ne hanno dato in Occidente le varie trasposizioni New-Age; oppure 2) abituare l’anima alla sofferenza, in modo talmente estremo da non poterla più percepire – da cui tutte le tecniche di meditazione ascetiche induiste. La rivoluzione operata dal Buddha fu proprio quella di proporre una via di mezzo, che non indulgesse nell’attaccamento alle cose ma che non mortificasse il corpo.

Eppure, anche la visione buddhista deve fare i conti con la sofferenza: quando il Buddha Siddhārtha Gautama annunciò le Quattro Nobili Verità, che ruotano tutte attorno al concetto di dolore (Dukkha), la prima di queste recitava: “[…] la nascita è dolore, la vecchiaia è dolore, la malattia è dolore, la morte è dolore; il dispiacere, le lamentazioni, la sofferenza, il tormento e la disperazione sono dolore; l’unirsi con ciò che è spiacevole è dolore; il separarsi da ciò che è piacevole è dolore”.

Chiaro quindi come, all’interno di una concezione simile dell’esistenza, il sottoporsi a stress fisici notevoli assuma un significato di accettazione e di “allenamento” alla vita, fino all’auspicato distacco da questa realtà fatta di illusione e dolore.

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Per quanto riguarda il cattolicesimo, il sacrificio più comune è quello di derivazione ebraica, vale a dire la vera e propria rinuncia a un beneficio o a una ricchezza come forma di contraccambio per una grazia o un favore richiesto alla divinità.

Nella tradizione cattolica, però, il corpo umano ha storicamente avuto un posto subordinato rispetto al concetto di anima. Nonostante la nuova catechesi abbia cercato di rettificare l’attitudine religiosa verso il corpo, ancora oggi per molti fedeli esiste una marcata dicotomia fra fisicità e spirito, come se la purezza dell’anima fosse minacciata costantemente dalle pulsioni animali e peccaminose del suo involucro materiale.

In questo senso nel mondo cattolico il sacrificio (da sacer+facere, rendere sacro) tenta spesso di ridare dignità al corpo disonorato; l’accanimento per il controllo degli istinti, considerati impuri, fa in questi casi sfumare i contorni dell’atto sacrificale, rendendo difficile capire se si tratti effettivamente di un atto di rinunzia al benessere fisico in nome del sacro, oppure di una vera e propria punizione.

A San Pedro Cutud, nelle Filippine, durante le celebrazioni della Settimana Santa, i credenti inscenano la Passione del Cristo in maniera fedele e realistica: il devoto che “interpreta” Gesù, in questa sorta di rappresentazione sacra, viene flagellato, coronato di spine e infine crocifisso realmente (anche se con accorgimenti che rendono il martirio non letale). Pare che Ruben Enaje, un fedele locale, sia stato crocifisso ben 21 volte fino al 2007. Rolando Del Campo, un altro devoto, ha fatto voto di essere crocifisso per 15 volte se Dio avesse voluto far superare a sua moglie una gravidanza difficoltosa.

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Chiaramente, come in tutto ciò che riguarda l’ambìto religioso, ognuno è libero di credere ciò che vuole; e di leggere, in queste manifestazioni di fede assoluta, una miopia intellettuale oppure uno strapotere della casta sacerdotale, una ricerca della spettacolarità che sconfina nel divismo, oppure al contrario una commovente espressione di modestia e di umanità. Quello che resta come dato di fatto è che il dolore trova sempre posto nella contemplazione del sacro, in quanto è, assieme alla morte, uno dei misteri essenziali a cui l’uomo ha da sempre cercato una risposta.