[TRIGGER WARNING] This essay will talk about death and briefly mention depression and suicidal thoughts. Please proceed with caution.
Have you ever walked the crossroad and just had the sudden impulse to throw your body to the road, against the running vehicles? Or, have you ever stood at the edge of the cliff, and wondered how it would feel to lean a little more, allowing yourself to fall down as you pictured your body crashing against the rock until it hit down the ground?
If you think that your inner demon telling you to do it, or if you’re debating whether you’re having suicidal thoughts, don’t worry. Most likely, you’re not. In fact, it is actually a common phenomenon that scientists called as “The Imp of The Perverse”, a tendency for humans to do the worst thing possible in the given situation.
The name was actually first introduced by Edgar Allan Poe in his short story with the same title.
“ We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling.
It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it.”
Poe described the tendency as an “imp” who led people to perversity, which by definition is the deliberate desire to behave in an unreasonable (most of the times unacceptable) way. And that is exactly what happens when we imagine our death falling down the cliff. We do not have any reasons behind it. Our life is fine (maybe not so much, but not to the extent we want to end it so badly), we’re just hiking up the mountain for the fun and thrill. This is also what differs the imp of the perverse with suicidal thoughts, where we plan and consciously think of ways to kill ourselves, as a way that we see will solve our problems. Suicidal thoughts result from various causes, depression being the most common, but it’s mostly because of the feeling that there is no other way than to end one’s life. Perversity, however, results from… well, nothing. There’s just no logical cause that brings out the impulse to run to the moving cars. And more often than not, when we feel the rush of the sudden impulse, we actually do not want to die.
However, despite closely described in situations that involve death, the imp of the perverse does not always apply only to life-and-death situation. Have you ever been in a serious and quiet professional meeting and you had the urge to scream, or to hop onto the table and make a ruckus? Have you ever wanted to just suddenly dropped your phone or slammed it hard to the ground, without any reason at all? That’s your imp of the perverse for you.
So, if there is no logical explanation behind our reason to do the worst thing possible in the given situation, could there be a scientific explanation to this phenomenon?
Thanks to the thrive of science world that seek answers in everything, yes, there is a medical explanation to the imp of the perverse.
Turns out, the “imp” we’ve been talking about, is living in our own brain. Specifically, the orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain where the perverse tendency settles down. Although this theory is still a hypotheses, there has been multiple defining medical cases that show that a cut of connectivity between the orbitofrontal cortex with the rest of the brain also cuts the patients negative tendencies, such as violence, sexual transgression, and more — but, it was also found that it did not only remove negative tendencies, but tendencies in general. Patients showed less responses to emotional experiences and had lesser desires or motivations to do things.
So, does removal surgery of the synapse of orbitofrontal cortex the only thing to stop your imp from bothering your mind?
No, not exactly.
Just like how I’m always amazed at how exhaustive our entire body is built — like the most perfect living machine — I am also once again amazed when I found out that we have prefrontal cortex, a part of our brain lying just beneath the outer edges of our forehead, was the one responsible acting as a ‘brake’ to our tendencies. So, as long as our prefrontal cortex is well, we most likely will still be able to have full control of our impulses. After all, the real problem of our imp is when we actually do what our impulses tell us to do, no?
Psychologically speaking, such negative impulses and intrusions in our thoughts are common to happen. It would depend on our reactions and responses to them to further diagnose what is going on in our brain. Shiu Wong, a psychology researcher mentioned that one best way to deal with it is to normalize it, understanding that a lot of people out there are experiencing the same.
Turns out, normalizing things manage distress.
And as out-of-topic as this is, the advice might apply not only to the phenomenon of “imp of the perverse”, but also to our everyday life, especially when we’ve succumbed to our dark places. So, when we are stressed, depressed, anxious, it might help to manage by believing that the same thing we feel are also experienced by many people out there.
We are never alone.