On the normalcy and nobleness of wanting to touch the corpse at a funeral

Philosophers and psychoanalysts have long debated the lure of the morbid – but the current dominant explanation, from evolutionary psychology, is rather deflating, lacking any reference to Freudian “death drives” or the like. We’re compelled by horrible things, this argument goes, because it pays to scrutinise dangers that could threaten one’s survival. Such tendencies evolved before mass media, of course – so these days, we see celebrity self-destruction and far-off tsunamis, and they grip us as hazards that might befall us, too.

But Wilson’s conversations with psychologists lead him to another, more uplifting conclusion: that “our attraction to the macabre is, on some level, a desire to experience someone else’s suffering.” We yearn to empathise – a yearning that is, incidentally, perfectly compatible with the evolutionary argument, since empathy helps us forge close bonds, which are essential for survival. Striving to feel what it might be like to be caught in the tsunami, or the pile-up, may be fundamentally healthy. Perhaps even “the itch to touch a corpse,” Wilson writes, recalling his behaviour at his grandmother’s open-coffin funeral, “is normal [and] noble.

–Oliver Burkeman, “Morbid Curiosity: Can gawping at disaster be good for us?

A connection between fascination with things associated with morbidness and human desire for empathy? My gut says yes–and actually, such an argument would provide a socially acceptable explanation for why on earth I end up studying topics associated with the grim.

But the ideas gotta fester longer before I have more to say.

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