July 5, 2010
Fear & Terror, and the Orange Light
The words "fear" and "terror" are mostly used as synonyms these days, perhaps with "terror" meaning extreme fear. But it's possible that at some earlier time those words referred to distinctly different mental states, ones that are in ways opposites, fear being always dreadful, while the state of mind I refer to as terror being among the most enjoyable of life's experiences; fear being rational while terror is instinctive and unrelated to reason.
The planet Mars was named for the Roman God of War. Its moons are two of war's attendants, Phobos and Deimos, fear and terror. Greek attendants for a Roman god. Maybe the ancient Greeks, people who lived closer to the physical world than we moderns do, made a distinction between those words. War is a setting in which fear and terror, along with boredom, are characterizing elements. If "glory" actually derives from war and combat, maybe that's because it's related to the pleasurable, eternal, and even "cosmic" character of terror, terror as I define it below.
Even if the words "fear" and "terror" have always been synonyms, the distinction I make here provides way to think about the seemingly disparate aspects of war, stage fright and theatrical performance, the nature of psychosis, and the action or drugs such as marijuana and LSD.
EXAMPLE -- Consider the photo above of the burning aircraft falling from the sky. "Terror," as I use the term, refers to the be-here-now state of mind of passengers looking out the windows at the flames, entirely in the present moment. "Fear," however, is felt by those passenger who, as they board the airplane, or earlier, worry that it will fall from the sky in flames; it is a rational concern about some future event. "Fear" anticipates events yet to happen; it is focused on the future, and it can be said to be rational in that it derives "logically" from information heard or read, and images like the one above, about, in this instance, airplanes and air travel. But as the plane burns and falls, as the speed increases and the engines scream, the mind gets focused intensely on the present moment.
Whereas the fear state of mind anticipates the future, the terror state of mind is immediate, timeless, eternal.
The Physiology of Fear
When British and American soldiers headed across the English Channel to Normandy in 1944, most of them experienced the physiological components of fear as blood moved away from the body's surface, away from the skin and the hands and feet and the peripheral parts of the body most immediately vulnerable to loss of blood if injured. Fear also relieves the body of excess weight: there is the bladder urgency; diarrhea clears the bowels; and nausea discards the stomach's contents of food as well as the acid and digestive enzymes that can cause physical damage when the body's energy resources get directed to the skeletal muscles.
The physiology of fear prepares the body for running or fighting, for extreme exertion; it liberates stored glycogen energy from the liver and muscles, jacks up the blood sugar level, and provokes hyperventilation so as to reduce the blood's concentration of carbon dioxide and also boost blood-oxygen levels in preparation for sustained physical exertion. The cold hands and feet and the lighter skin color that represent the outward aspects of fear happen when blood moves from peripheral body parts and becomes available for moving oxygen and glucose to the skeletal muscles. The "cold sweat" reduces the body's temperature in anticipation of flat-out physical exertion. The physiological aspects of fear prepare the body for the extremes of performance that are useful to survival.
Physiological fear is not pleasant. People don't use drugs to get into that state of body and mind.
When the physiological status of fear is sustained, damage to the body can happen such as stress ulcers, as was noticed in the high rates of stomach ulceration reported by hospitals in London between the fall of 1940 and spring of 1941 when the Nazis carried out their air raids.
Imagine the sirens going off, and having to be in an air raid shelter and sitting and waiting, perhaps for hours, for a raid to start, and then to end. In those days, the bombs were smaller than the ones used in war these days, but even smallish bombs of only a few hundred pounds could crash through the roof of a house or a street overlying an underground shelter. Imagine you are sitting in an underground shelter with a crowd of strangers as bombs fall nearby, and thinking that at any moment one could land right on you. And while you are waiting for the "all clear," you fear that your house and possessions have been scattered or burned. Ulceration of the stomach is a side effect of the body's reflexive physiological response to sustained and intense fear, because part of the physiology of fear involves a reduction of blood flow to the lining of the stomach. Under normal conditions, the stomach lining maintains a high level of metabolic activity to prevent self-digestion by the stomach's acid and enzymes; the tissues of the stomach lining produce a constant flow of mucus as a protective layer against the corrosive environment. From an evolutionary point of view, fear, seems to work as a precursor to fighting or running -- i.e., a precursor to action, and the temporary cessation of blood and nutrient flow to the stomach lining increases the availability of blood and oxygen for the skeletal muscles, the ones that are most useful in fighting or running. Stress ulceration is a maladaptation with respect to sustained fear.
Cold hands, cold sweats, and the need to empty bowel and bladder are some of the overt physiological indicators of fear; they appear when a physical threat is thought to be, believed to be -- rationally known to be -- impending. The net effect of the physiological aspect of fear is preparation of the body for sustained action.
Terror, however, has nothing to do with matters that are anticipated, that, if they exist at all, are in the future. The terror state of mind is associated with action in the present moment, running or fighting, surviving right now.
The Terror State of Mind
If you've even been in a car accident, or in any fast-moving situation such as falling down stairs, you might recall that it seems to happen in slow motion.
The brain seems to operate at high speed during moments of terror, which could explain the slow-motion appearance of external events.
Fear seems almost always to happen before terror, maybe only a tiny fraction of a second, as when fear presents itself as a tightening of the muscles and the well-known "pucker" or tightening of the anal sphincter muscles, the experience being "gut wrenching" and very unpleasant. The transition can be sudden. For example, the gut-wrenching fear happens just at the very beginning as, say, the car you are in begins to skid out of control; then terror and the slow-motion action sets in as the car slides sideways at high speed toward a large oak tree or bridge abutment or edge of a cliff. Conceivably, fear is not present in the minds of soldiers who are already hunkered down in combat, with bullets flying everywhere. For soldiers, fear happens before the fighting begins: during the invasion of Normandy, troops approaching the beach in landing craft experienced vomiting and diarrhea. But once on shore, once the German machine guns were raining bullets on them, then there was no time for fear -- only time for action. Under those conditions, the brain seems to speed up, with the subjective sensation that external reality is moving in slow-motion, which is one of the characteristics of the terror state of mind. Soldiers seeking shelter from bullets during an invasion do not have time to consider the grocery list or to fret over some faux pas of the previous day, nor to contemplate the prospects of getting a medal or going to heaven. Terror is the ultimate be-here-now state of mind. Hence one of terror's attractive aspects: with the brain operating at high speed and the body doing all it can to survive, as in combat, the state of mind is free of all regrets about the past and all concerns about the future. The terror state of mind exists utterly outside any realm of fear. Hence the remembered thrill and excitement of, say, excelling in sports, of carrying the ball to a touchdown or getting over the hurdle or, in the most extreme conditions, being in pitched combat.
Terror's Memories: "My whole life flashed before my eyes"
Imagine you are walking along a high mountain path. There are small trees with leaves but sky is visible and clear, the air is comfortable, and the view to a distant horizon is mostly unimpeded. Maybe there's a slight breeze. You are alone.
Suddenly you notice a few feet ahead an abyss across your path, and a thousand-foot drop straight down. The path continues on the other side of the abyss, only three feet away.
You move slowly toward the abyss, perhaps crouching as you approach, increasingly seeing its great depth. Obviously such well-defined abysses exist only in dreams, and in hypothetical examples of things that can provoke fear and present challenges to terror's benefits. This mythical abyss serves that purpose, presenting itself upon an otherwise beautiful day and a pleasant solitary hike in the high mountains.
Fearful in your approach to the abyss, you crawl to its edge and behold its depth. Your apprehension, your fear, is reasonable and rational, because your parents warned you not to go near the edges of cliffs. Your teachers and your friends said the same thing, and you've seen or read news reports of people injured and killed in falls from high places. Your own experiences of falling also come into play, and fear develops according to this logical sequence: The abyss is dangerous, therefore don't get too close, or else you might fall and get injured, or worse.
But only three feet away, on the other side of the abyss, the path continues. That three-foot distance is only slightly more than one large stride; you could make it across at a slow run -- if, that is, you manage to push off with your foot just close to the edge as you launch yourself into the air, and if your foot doesn't slip backwards when you push off, and if you don't trip in your running approach to the jump. Those "ifs," they are part of the fear state of mind, and they can be called rational; if such and such, then you might get hurt or, in this example, killed.
Rational fear encourages you to turn back and return the way you came. That is, after all, the reasonable thing, to do. So you turn. But only a few feet away an eight-hundred-pound grizzly bear is rising up on its hind legs, ready to attack. In other words, a new rational fear presents itself: The bear can kill you.
The abyss is only three feet wide -- but it is also a thousand feet deep. The bear starts to move toward you -- and that's when the fear ends and terror sets in. In your mind an image forms, a surprisingly vivid image that, were it to happen in ordinary circumstances, would be insanely incongruous: the image is a childhood memory of playing hopscotch with your playmates on a chalked pattern on a concrete sidewalk in front of the house you grew up in. How bizarre -- only you don't think about that or notice the image's vividness until you recall it later. The next thing you know you are on the other side of the abyss, and the bear has fallen into it. You are safe. Terror has done its wordless reflex action, presaged by a vivid memory from childhood, a memory of hopping a short distance.
And one other interesting aspect of terror: you might have no conscious memory of having made the jump; instead, in your memory of what happened, you are surprised to simply and suddenly be on the far side of the abyss.
The Orange Light
Years ago I saw a television news story about an Atlantic fisherman who had fallen into the cold ocean. By his reckoning, he had spent two hours treading 50-degree ocean water. He must have felt like Pip in the "Castaway" chapter of "Moby Dick." "But then," he told the television reporter, "I finally gave up and said, Oh, what the hell, . . . and then I saw an orange light."
When I heard about the orange light, I assumed he meant the same kind of light I had seen one night in a river valley when social time had stopped and animal instinct and terror had taken over. I had never heard anyone mention that orange light.
It's possible that the orange light the fisherman was referring to was the light from the boat that rescued him. Maybe he was referring simply a light on a boat . . .
. . . only he hadn't really said anything about having then immediately been rescued. Maybe, just possibly, he spent another two hours -- or much more than that -- in the water, and he had no memory of it, terror having done its job -- making him survive a situation that wordy social reason would say was impossible, hopeless, stupid, and all the rest.
"Orange Light" is the title of the Ride-of-The-Valkyrie scene in the sound-track album of "Apocalypse Now." That title probably refers to the morning twilight during which the Air Cavalry attacks a village located on a beach where the surfing is supposed to be good. So it's probably just a coincidental name. However, I too, like the fisherman in the Atlantic, experienced an "orange light." It was memorably vivid and it marked the onset of terror and my last conscious memory until I was out of danger.
It happened in the late seventies when I lived near the Potomac River in Maryland, about a mile inside the Beltway around Washington, D.C. The C&O Canal runs beside the river, extending a hundred miles or so to western Maryland. The canal was at the end of the street I lived on, and each evening after work in the warm months I would coast on my bicycle to the canal and the towpath that ran between it and the river. I would pedal half a dozen miles upstream to Great Falls National Park and watch the sunset from a small rocky island just below the falls.
The Potomac river valley a few miles upstream of Washington is surprisingly pristine given its proximity to the main political center of our planet. My house was only five straight-line miles from the Kennedy Center, and yet the scenery along that part of the river could as well be as it was ten million years ago, except, of course, for the jet aircraft going over and the beer cans in the adjacent woods.
The rocky island I liked to sit on (the several islands are called "Rocky Islands" on the USGS topological maps) each evening was more or less in the middle of the riverbed, but when the water flow, which it was most summers, you could walk down a rock-strewn hill and step from rock to rock across the dry part of the riverbed which usually had dead carp and bass, some quite large, that had died slow deaths in little puddles around rocks of the riverbed.
I would ditch my bike in the woods, then work my way down to the dry part of the riverbed then cross to the island I liked and which had at its highest point an ancient water-carved reclining seat on the edge of a fatally high drop to the rocks and rapids of the flowing part of the river. From that perch each evening I could watch the airplanes coming or going from National Airport while I also had a nice view of Olympic-class kayakers practicing in the rapids as the sun dropped into the trees on the Virginia side of the river.
I pedaled up there nearly every evening for several summers. I would sit on my water-contoured rocky recline usually until just after sunset. Then I would climb down from the island in the still bright twilight, traverse the flat and mostly dry part of the riverbed, then climb the sloped bank to where my bike was stowed among thistles, then pedal home fast on the bumpy towpath.
Maybe a hundred evenings I had pedaled my bike to that excellent location and worked my way out to my seat on the rocky island. Most of the time I stayed until just after the sun dropped behind the trees on the Virginia bank. But toward the end of the third summer, I began staying later after sunset, watching the sky darken and the stars come out.
I had always walked out to the island and returned by the same sloping route to where my bike was hidden. On many evenings, before leaving the island, I would in my sure-footed cockiness leap from boulder to boulder high above the water, just for the stupid thrill of it. Often I did not get back to my bike till the stars were visible. It was crazy stuff, for sure, leaping along the edge of the cliff; a fall from the top of the island to the rocks below would have been fatal. But the challenge of the dim light encouraged my recklessness -- until one early September night when fate delivered one of its always unexpected lessons, one that led to my insight into the nature of "terror."
On that night it was about an hour after sunset when I climbed down from the island and stepped across the rocks of the dry riverbed in the dim twilight. I was headed toward the usual sloped path leading to my bike when I took note of a more challenging alternative route, a sheer vertical wall which, for reasons that I do not know, but related maybe to the thrill of having been high on the rocky island, leaping among the rocks, looked like a more interesting way to climb out of the riverbed.
The western sky still had some light, but not much. I changed direction toward the vertical cliff -- thinking even as I did that climbing a cliff alone at night might be a stupid thing to do. But arrogance is predicated on ignorance of the staggering price the gods can charge for those who like to think they are open to special experience and new knowledge.
The part of the cliff I headed toward was only about 40 feet high -- high enough that were I to have fallen, quite easily I would have been, if not killed, at least injured, possibly severely. Still, even in the dim light, the sheer wall appeared to have plenty of handholds. I saw no problem and had no overt fears.
The first ten feet or so were over the talus, the pile of rocky debris at the bottom of the cliff. Then came the vertical part.
The faint western light was bluish and yellow, but mostly I was in the dark, feeling more than seeing my way up a cliff that was far enough from the human world that, were I to fall, I would not to be found till the middle of the next day, or the day after.
As I started up the vertical part of the wall there was again the fear-based doubt: This might not be smart. But I kept going.
A few seconds later, and only about five feet above the talus and fifteen feet up from the river bed, the voice of doubt got stronger, and yet stronger as I worked my way upward.
I was maybe two-thirds toward the top when I found myself balanced on a ledge, my right side tight against the wall with my left knee carrying my center of gravity right on the edge of a sharp ledge maybe two inches wide that was cutting my knee. My right arm was above me, feeling around for a handhold I could not find. I was barely balanced on that narrow perch; a slight breeze could have whisked me off. Frank fear was upon me, and getting stronger fast. The sound of frogs in the puddles of the riverbed was very loud. I hadn't noticed that sound on any evening before, not in all my visits to that part of the river. Now it was a raucous world-encompassing screaming.
I decided to climb back down -- only I couldn't back up. I was barely balanced on one knee, the rock cutting into my skin, and there was nothing to grab onto.
The fear increased rapidly over what must have been only a few seconds. I tried to imagine holding my balance all night, waiting for someone to find me the next day, but there was no way could I hold that balance for more than a few minutes.
The screaming of the frogs, it seemed to be transformed by some kind of synesthesia so that suddenly the riverbed lit up with brilliant orange light. At that moment I realized it was all a dream, and that all I had to do was let myself fall and I'd drift to the riverbed and wake up, at home, safe in bed. And that is where my memory of what happened next ended.
The sequence of memory resumed -- with no subjective break in consciousness nor idea of how I got there -- when I was standing at the top of the cliff, looking over the dark river valley at the faint western sky and feeling exhilarated.
Memory is social, its trade is words. While one can remember that, say, a dinner was good, the remembered taste of food cannot satisfy hunger. We could not survive if memory could summon actual sensations instead of society's wordy codes for them: that the food tasted "good" or that the roller coaster ride "thrilling" or "fun" is the extent of memory. That I have no memory of that pure, instinctual response to being barely balanced on the side of a cliff at night suggests that words were irrelevant and useless to the problem I was facing. I was operating outside the social realm of language and therefore had no basis for remembering the details of the complex set of reflexes that drove my body to climb that cliff with apparent speed and ease.
That discontinuity of conscious memory can be interpreted in terms of the dream-like state that preceded the onset of the actions that got me up the cliff. It is as if, in effect, ordinarily waking and fearful consciousness had gone to sleep, passing through a dream state, and then some nonrational and alingual instinctive process took command. My theory is that the instinctive reflex must have been predicated upon earlier life experiences, simple ones, like climbing on a jungle gym on a playground, or climbing trees. Such childhood experiences create, I think, something like muscle memories that, when needed, are available to instinct's ancient expertise. Whereas ordinary memory seems to be language-dependent, with our earliest memories dating to the acquisition of language, there are other memories, from non-linguistic life experience, that are stored in the muscles and nerves that coordinate the movements used when catching a ball, running, fighting, swinging in a swing, learning the taste of good food and drink and other such matters for which words are mere shadow approximations. Waking language-based reason cannot convey the complexities of coordinated physical activity. The actual physical experience of walking, running, bicycle riding, leaping across rocks on the edges of cliffs -- such things happen without thinking, without recourse to ordinary waking rationality. On that cliff, my muscles and spinal ganglia said in their ancient silent way something like, "Stop thinking. Go to sleep. We can climb this no-sweat cliff." Such ancient cell-level visceral language is incompatible with waking word- predicated memory. Hence no memory of how I got up the cliff: I was saved by the nonrational actions of unspoken, unspeakable instinct as it took control from paralyzed fearful waking reason.
Terror and Eternity
It has been said that when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff in January, 1986, that the seven astronauts might have survived the explosion and even been conscious during the fall to the ocean surface, which they hit at several hundred miles per hour.
If any of the crew were conscious during the fall, one wonders what they thought during those final two minutes.
Generally speaking, the process of going to one's death is imagined as being scary and painful in most instances, unless it is fast. And since dying is not subject to natural selection -- i.e., genes that can cushion dying, making it less painful -- dying will be painful until we figure out ways to make artificial genes that might make it easier. But whether or not science figures out how to ease the process of dying, I had an experience that suggests that the Challenger astronauts might have died with equanimity and a sense of ironic acceptance.
The following account involves the slow-motion aspect of terror, plus the "flood of memories," and a sense of eternity, absolute freedom and ironic acceptance of death. I am grateful to the forces of the universe that I had this experience and am able to describe it, but I hope never to experience it again unless I am actually going to die, because the fear that preceded the onset of terror was too intense.
I was flying out of Kingston, Jamaica, in July of 1971. I had spent three thrilling weeks visiting friends there.
The plane, a Boeing 707, took off from Kingston airport in the early evening, about 90 minutes before sunset. My destination was Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The plane passed over the countryside of central Cuba, which looked serene and peaceful in the slant, orange, late-day sunlight. Florida came into view just after the sun dropped below the horizon; I had selected a window seat on the left side of the plane so I could see the sunset and the lights of Miami as we flew about 20 miles to the east of Florida's coast; I also expected that a left-side window seat would give a good nighttime view of Washington, D.C., by the time the plane was descending on its approach to BWI around midnight.
We crossed the U.S. coastline somewhere near south Georgia. The western sky still had plenty of light, but clouds obstructed the view of the lights of the rural towns which I'd hoped to see in Georgia and South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. Towns and cities at night, when viewed from seven miles up, look like phosphorescent fungi.
Somewhere over Georgia the pilot came on the intercom: Buckle up, he said, we're going to fly over a storm. The swept wings of a Boeing 707 each hold two heavy engines which, even in slight turbulence, bounce and twist on their pylons, and even though I am an engineer, the twisting and bouncing motion of the wings and engines in turbulent air is scary; airplanes can seem so fragile. That rough portion of the flight might have prepared my mind for what was to follow.
After we passed the storm's turbulent updrafts, cloud cover below still blocked the view of the towns and Interstate System, so I leaned back and fell asleep, hoping to wake in time to see the lights of Washington during the descent into Baltimore.
I awakened when the tone of the engines changed, suggesting our descent had begun. We were still several hundred miles from BWI, probably near Richmond, Virginia. I looked out the window; the clouds had departed and I could see the little towns of Virginia and cars on the highways.
Soon the lights of Washington came into view. And that's when it happened.
It was as if the plane had been caught in a powerful updraft. I had never experienced such upward directed force on an airplane. I was rammed down hard in my seat. The wings were going to tear off, I was sure. I was going to die -- I was certain of it.
On the several of occasions when fast-moving death seemed at hand, I have experienced a gut-wrenching, rock-hard, whole-body muscle tension and the "pucker." I closed my eyes, not wanting to see death coming. Then fear ended and terror began with the well-known flood of memories.
That flood of memories, they are not random but rather are always related to the challenge at hand: Our associative minds search thoroughly the archives of our life experiences, looking for some survival strategy in some earlier experience. (Once, when riding a motorcycle on a winding mountain road in Mexico, I hit a gravel patch and began sliding toward the edge of a steep rocky slope that dropped hundreds of feet. The single memory I had as the motorcycle slid sideways was a photo my father had made of me as an infant, crawling up stairs. The associative link between that photo and the pending prospect of sliding down a long and steep hill was one of clawing at the rocky incline on my way down it; the images of crawling and clawing were the associative linkage.)
As for the midair breakup of airplane, I had no prior experience of falling thousands of feet through night air, so there was no specific prior experiential memory, and therefore no flood of memories related in that way. Clearly I was going to die, and that was that. Within a tenth of a second of the upward thrust on the airplane, muscles tensed, I got the full pucker, and I closed my eyes so as not to see the end coming.
During moments of terror the mind moves faster than during any other experience in life. Within a quarter of a second, I estimate, of closing my eyes, the flood of memories came in the form of thinking about my schooling, childhood illnesses, the concerns of my parents and family for my well-being, and all of my life experiences -- all of them, everything -- all of it had led up to, been preparation for, this mindless, idiotic, random and meaningless ending. How ludicrous, how divinely weird that everything had led up to this moment, this end, the end of my life -- and all my experiences leading up to it, it all seemed divinely strange and then cosmically ironic. Everything which up to that moment had seemed important, my achievements, my victories, regrets and embarrassments, my plans for the future, everything which one second before had been important were suddenly . . .
Maybe somewhere in that eternity there was an instant of regret. Maybe. My astonishment at the ultimate laughable meaninglessness of my life is what I remember.
The word "eternity" is commonly taken to mean forever. For me, eternity refers to a timeless state of mind, when your brain, your mental processes, are going as fast as possible, and something like the timelessness of eternity takes place, and within that eternity I saw and felt my foolishness for having ever thought that anything in my life had really been important, not even my life itself. Nothing mattered, and I accepted my death. I was comfortable and accepting of it. The main feeling was an intense irony of suddenly knowing that all of my life had led to this end, which seemed cosmically random and absurd.
I was just about to laugh out loud at the craziness of having thought important so many trivial and silly things, when in fact nothing was important, or ever had been important. Not death, not life. I was going to die, and it was neither a bad thing nor a good thing.
Certainly not even two seconds had passed since the whole thing began, and in my racing-brain timelessness I thought this sentence: "If I'm going to die I want to see it all!" I opened my eyes and pulled myself up in my seat as the plane was still being rammed upward. I looked around the cabin. The other passengers seemed motionless -- because my mind was moving so fast that the long moment I looked at them was actually only quarter-second glance.
Then I turned to look out the window into the darkness expecting to see the wings breaking off -- which is when I saw it: Only tens of feet below us, lit by the landing lights of the 707, a twin engine private aircraft was passing right under us. The pilot of my plane had pulled up hard to avoid a collision.
Thus the role of that to which the word "terror" applies. Physical survival.
It's Showtime! -- Going on Stage
Historically one performs when fighting or running while in the terror state of mind. Being on stage, or appearing before a crowd, is best done with a similar be-here-now clarity and freedom from fear and distracting thoughts so as to achieve aesthetic perfection.
Many professional performers -- actors, musicians, politicians, soldiers -- acknowledge that fear happens before the performance, and that, if the performance is a good one, something like the in-the-moment nature of what I call terror comes into play just as the performance begins. An Olympic figure skater, for instance, cannot be thinking of winning of the gold medal while trying to be focused on the matter at hand.
If fear isn't gone by the time the performer appears before the audience, then all is lost. Many professional stage performers also have ways of making a transition from fear to terror just as the show begins.
The method I use to get out of fear and terror when I am about to perform I learned from a voice coach who helped me give presentations to other engineers. The method works like a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion. It consists of taking a deep breath and then exhaling while thinking or saying the phrase "It's show time!" It also works when I go into a roomful of strangers, as when entering a party wherein previously I would have been nervous and self-conscious as all eyes seem to turn toward me. When I do my routine, my mind seems to become blank of all thoughts and fears while becoming wide open to whatever is going to happen next. I always perform well and look confident.
The Associative Mind, Insight and Terror's "Flood of Memories"
The term "associative mind" has been used here several times. To me, it refers to what is effectively a central element of mental operation. Example: When we experience specific things, such as seeing a new face (in actuality or in a photograph), we recall memories of previous faces that have similarities -- similar eyes, nose, age, facial proportions, skin color, hair color, length, style.
Each thought that we have, everything we think from moment to moment in life, everything is linked associatively with immediate sensory experience or with the immediately prior thought. "Oh, that reminds me." It is as if the totality of conscious experience consists of connecting each present moment experience with specific events within some life-time averaged sum of all prior similar experiences. "Didn't Joe have ear hairs like that?" One's sense of self can be thought of as the sum total of all stored memories of prior experiences which seem to be categorized according to similarities: E.g., all faces, all faces with narrow noses, all faces with brown eyes, mustaches, old, young. And each new face, and each subsidiary characteristic such as nose, eyes and eyebrows, age, symmetry, skin color and texture and all other details, get compared to and integrated into memory according to each feature's similarity to all prior faces and face parts already stored according to their similarities into one's continuing storage of remembered life experiences.
In ordinary life experience, as driving to work or being there, or dealing with friends or new people, what we are consciously aware of depends on what we are experiencing and what associatively linked memories from earlier experiences come to mind. But, within the context of everyday experience, there's a limiting rule that works in this associative memory recall. For instance, if the sight of each new face were to make you think of all prior faces you have ever seen, then clearly you would get nothing else done other than to think of faces. A normal healthy person encountering a new face will recall just a generalized overview of prior experiences, perhaps noticing say a combination of eye color and mouth shape that are similar to some other person you know well. For example, if you hear or read "April 15," a likely mental association would be "tax deadline" -- unless, perhaps, that date is an important birthday, or trial date, or final exam date; the stated calendar date provokes specific mental associations that are most likely relevant in some immediate way, and only a limited number of the most socially useful ways. Too many mental associations would be mentally crippling; nothing else would get done.
When the terror state of mind is upon us, the associative nature of mind enables us to remember things that in ordinary waking life we'd not think of at all.
Marijuana, in my view, provokes, if not the terror state of mind, then something a lot like it. The associative mind "sees" more of the world. Hence the insights that marijuana seems to provoke.
Marijuana and Psychosis
The British mathematician, philosopher and writer Jacob Bronowski defined "insight," in the September 1961 issue of Scientific American, as "the seeing of a relationship between two things not previously seen to be related."
Drugs such as marijuana and LSD seem to provoke insights. Such drugs seem to stimulate insight and ideas. They seem to cause the "volume," or number, of associatively recalled prior life experiences and thoughts to be greater than normal in response to each present-moment event. Drugs like marijuana seem to broaden the "field of mental associations." A person high on marijuana, for instance, upon looking at such things as patterns in rugs or wallpaper, clouds or tree branches, tends to "see" faces in complex patterns such as clouds and tree branches because of the associative recall aspect of mental operation -- and, with respect to faces, something in our biology seems to predispose us to "seeing faces" within random patterns. Dogs and cats, too, can seem to lurk in the sky and in trees and among flowers, along with terrible things, monsters, that can be scary.
Drugs, like terror, seem to broaden the field of mental associations with each new experience. When I was frozen with fear on the cliff, my last remembered moment involved a mental association of the riverbed with being in bed, dreaming -- which I interpret as the first, and only, associative insight I had in that experience before my memory stopped working and consciousness seemed to go to sleep until I got to the top of the cliff.
The associative memories that arise during the terror state of mind can be visual or auditory and are vivid. I was in a motorcycle accident -- 650 Triumph, 55 mph on a residential street -- where a large dog ran out in front of the bike and I hit it square in its mid body.
It was a summer evening in 1962, when I was off from college for the summer. And even though the bike was heavy, the impact with the dog launched me and the bike into the air end-over-end. The flood of memories came within a few tens of milliseconds of the impact: years earlier someone had said that if you're ever thrown through the air you should let your muscles relax, which I did; then there was nothing else I could do then but ride it out. My mind was racing, and in the next few tens of milliseconds as the rear of the bike rose into the air I made a rough estimate of my finances and college schedule for the next semester, during which I assumed I'd be recovering from two broken thighs, that being the main injury of two friends who'd wrecked their bikes -- i.e., that being my indirect prior experience in such things. That financial planning was completed before the bike was even fully launched into the air. Then, relaxed as I was while upside down with a motorcycle between my legs, the road beneath my face seemed to move by so slowly that the individual stones in the tarmac were visible at 50 miles an hour. Two times the bike, with me still on it, crashed down into the street, and I thought it had stopped, only to have it rise again. The third time it stopped and I rolled off and flopped out on my back. My mind was clear, and as the dog owner rushed across the street to the dog, I thought I should just lie there, for insurance purposes. I was completely relaxed and felt no pain, but curiosity about my injuries made me start to get up. A driver who had been behind me tried to make me sit with my head between my knees, but I got up anyway and felt all right.
The bike was damaged, the front fork bent from the impact; I remember the large dog, a Collie, being bent around the wheel at the beginning of it all, and that I had felt bad about that.
I pushed the bike the last two blocks to my house where I rinsed off my abraded left arm and thigh where I pants had been partly torn away. Then I changed my clothes and that was that. But when bedtime came, I decided to take a shower, and when the warm water hit my abraded skin, the pain was the most intense of my life: I staggered out of the bathroom and fell on my bed, nearly passing out.
In the example of the thousand-foot crevasse and the three-foot hop, the associative linkage is with a mental image of a childhood memory of hopscotch -- "It's only a three-foot hop!" That was a hypothetical example, but it is the sort of thought that happens when the situation is dire and you are looking for ANY possible idea for how to survive it.
During the terror state of mind, such extreme mental associations are appropriate and useful. But if there is no bear threatening you, and you are simply walking along that mountain trail with other people, then being reminded by a crevasse of childhood hopscotch -- and then saying something about it -- might seem crazy to other people.
One particular insight I had that relates specifically to this idea of an associative connection between insight, drugs, psychosis and terror happened late one night in 1968. I was at a friend's house, and it was around 1 a.m. It was a warm summer evening. My friend Mark and his wife Margaret were there, as it was their house (their child Robby was asleep), Judy, my girlfriend of the time was there, plus two guys, Chuck and Dave, and Mark's younger brother Jeff, who was about 20 then and in the early stages of what soon thereafter came to be diagnosed as schizophrenia. I had done a "drug deal" earlier that evening with Chuck and Dave, involving a loan of $1,000 which I made in exchange for 4,000 blotter dots of LSD as collateral; we had gone to the bank earlier in the evening and done the deal, and we had been sitting around most of the evening and night listening to the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, basking in the glow of "having done business."
Around 1 a.m., Jeff, who lived with his mother several blocks away, had left to go home by way of the alley. He returned a few minutes later and said that police were in the alley asking people questions. Naturally, being high, we assumed the police were closing in because of the marijuana in the house. Hours earlier I had put the 4,000 LSD dots under the back seat of my car, which was parked on the street out front, and despite my stoned state I figured that even if the police were indeed closing in on Mark's house they probably didn't know about the LSD in my car, so that was not an issue. But we did have several ounces of marijuana in the house, and we figured that a good way to dispose of it, if need be, was to have it in the upstairs bathroom near the toilet, ready to be flushed. That was the plan, and anyone who's ever been in the thrall of that sort of stoned group paranoia can easily imagine the "freaked out" mood of the scene as we gathered everything and started up the stairs to the bathroom. What happened next was unrelated to the rumor of police in the neighborhood closing in on us -- in fact, for whatever reason they were in the alley, it turned out to be unrelated to us.
As I said, it was a summer evening, pleasantly warm, with the windows open. As we went up the stairs, which were in a hallway in the center of the house, I was at the rear while Jeff, Mark's brother, was right in front of me. Everyone else was ahead of Jeff and me. The hallway was dark, but the lights were on in the living room we had just vacated, and it was mostly in my view and Jeff's as we started up the stairs. At that moment a slight breeze caused the curtains on one of the windows in the living room to move and lift slightly. Jeff, a few feet ahead of me, saw the lift of the curtains and I noticed it too, but no one ahead of us saw it. It provoked Jeff to say, "Long robes blowing in the wind."
I knew that Jeff was responding to the curtains; he had made an associative connection between the curtains and some previous memory of robes and wind. It was a silly thing for someone to say at that moment, but I could see why he said it. For the others further up the stairs it was just another looney thing Jeff would say -- but he had in fact made a mental association, one that was utterly worthless in any ordinary or "normal" social situation, but it is an example of the excessive "volume" of mental associations that certain people with certain mental pathologies are inclined to make.
I kept thinking about that, and I have seen similar "inappropriate" responses of other people who, like Jeff, or called psychotic or schizophrenic.
Thus, my conclusion is that people like Jeff are somehow stuck in a be-here-now kind of state of mind that, if not the same as what I call here the terror state of mind, is at least a lot like it.
Neurosis and Chronic Fear
Is the word "neurosis" still operative these days, so many years after Freud's fall from popularity? I don't know, but I'm used to thinking of myself as neurotic, what with my fears and all, and of thinking of "neurosis" as being associatively linked with "psychosis." So I will give my concept of "neurosis" in relation to this fear-and-terror way of thinking about drugs and psychopathology.
Some people who are called psychotic, such as Jeff and several others I have encountered, say they would not want it any other way. Jeff seems to live in a state of continuous insight; I think of him as an artist who has no medium of expression.
If psychosis can be thought of as a psychological condition in which a person is stuck in something like a terror state of mind, than we can think of the psychotic mind as being focused within the present moment. A psychotic person would have difficulty composing, say, a shopping list for tomorrow, or making any sort of long term plans; they would also be unlikely to dwell on regrets and other matters of the past. In effect, they are stuck in the immediacy of the present moment, now.
By contrast, a person could be called neurotic if they dwell excessively on the future or the past, or both. That is my view of "neurosis," it is obsessive worry about the future and agonizing over the past.
An ideally healthy person, in this fear-and-terror way of thinking, would, it seems to me, easily be able to move between the fear and the terror states of mind, as needed. Drugs might, however, be useful to that end.