Holy Sphincter!
September 15, 2010 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Why is it that I -- and many others -- have a physical reaction when watching the video of the transmission tower free climb (from this FPP)?

In my case it started with my sphincter tightening, my hands and the bottom of my feet sweating, then getting tingly and ending up throbbing with pain.

As suggested, is this reaction "a genetic trait developed over many, many generations," such as developed by our pre-homo sapien ancestors?
posted by ericb to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
And why these specific 'symptons?' And why from just merely watching a video and not experiencing it 'first-hand?'
posted by ericb at 7:42 AM on September 15, 2010

I could not figure out what all the other posters were talking about. i had none of the symptoms, and I'm not great around heights. However, my father has a textbook phobia of snakes. He can pinpoint the exact moment he became afraid of them (one crawled down his shirt against his bare skin as a child), and he cannot look at images of snakes without having a physical reaction. He throws up his hands as if the snake were in the room.

So I guess if you had this reaction, you are afraid of heights, no?

I remember learning in psych 1001 that humans develop phobias of natural threats such as snakes, spiders, and heights much more easily than fear of other things that might kill us (i.e. electrical outlets, cars, staircases). It is biological.
posted by Brodiggitty at 7:55 AM on September 15, 2010

Sphincter tightening, sweating, and hands feeling tingly (on account of constricted peripheral vessels) are symptoms of acute stress response. I'm no doctor but I'd say that the visual stimulation of watching motion pictures was enough to trigger your brain into tripping its "oh shit" mode, the symptoms of which are all generally designed physiologically to cope with impending exertion -- turn off nonessential things and make sure the large muscle groups are primed for action.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:58 AM on September 15, 2010

I'm sure a big part of it is the fact that it's a 1st person view. It much more easily allows you to imagine yourself in the situation, only you (and I) would stop. But in the video, we just keep climbing; despite the obvious danger, we see ourselves continuing to act in what we would consider a completely irrational manner.

Add to that Imp of the Perverse, and the weird inclination we have, when presented with a life threatening opportunity, to really consider what it would be like to jump, and you have a recipe for discomfort.

It also doesn't help that with the wide angle lens, and the fact that he keeps looking around, we are given a constant reminder of exactly how high he is, and how exposed and unprotected a position he's in.
posted by quin at 8:06 AM on September 15, 2010

I am not particularly afraid of heights, but watching that video was horrible for me. Sweating, butterflies, etc. Maybe it's because it was from the point of the view (the camera) of the man climbing, thereby making our brains more easily able to identify with being so high in the air.
posted by DeltaForce at 8:08 AM on September 15, 2010

On preview, what quin said.
posted by DeltaForce at 8:08 AM on September 15, 2010

Our brains simply didn't evolve to understand the concept of "video." We see a view from very high up, and it's moving and realistic and first person, and our stupid brain goes "AHH! I'm high up! I'm going to fall!" It's like dodging things during a 3D movie.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:36 AM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am not particularly afraid of heights, but watching that video was horrible for me. Sweating, butterflies, etc. Maybe it's because it was from the point of the view (the camera) of the man climbing, thereby making our brains more easily able to identify with being so high in the air.

I am not particularly afraid of heights*, but watching that video was... not exactly horrible, but intense and physical for me. I agree with your theory and I might extend it a tad - it looks like it comes from "your" viewpoint, but at the same time you have no control. At least if I was there, I could cling on / clip on! Also I would know when I was about to look down, or complete a sketchy foot-move, my brain would say "look down now" and I would feel my neck muscles operate accordingly, or I would grip tighter with my hand and not move my feet until I was sure I was ready, etc. With this you see the looking around and the movements but with no warning or control or non-visual feedback. I think it creates a sense of worst-of-both-worlds: you feel somewhat like you are the cameraman, but also lacking any control over what he does.

* Used to be. Got over it by climbing, funnily enough. WITH ROPES.
posted by Slyfen at 8:52 AM on September 15, 2010

INteresting -- I had absolutely no reaction (other than mild interest) when watching the video, because I could not separate myself from the fact that I was watching a video. I'm sure if I was the one actually doing the climbing, I would feel differently.
posted by modernnomad at 9:02 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have rather intense vertigo- I can fly in planes no problem, but I can barely even go near the edge of something even a few stories up. Not only did this video provoke almost exactly the same symptoms that you describe, but I find that there are even levels in video games (some of the Halo games, Mass Effect 2) that are so well designed that they now trigger the same response for me.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:15 AM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.
posted by Zozo at 9:16 AM on September 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm with modernnomad on this one- even though I was watching it on a large, high-definition screen, it wasn't possible for me to feel so deeply immersed that I felt vertigo. Then again, I've never had a problem with heights.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 10:20 AM on September 15, 2010

Just as another data point, I haven't even been able to click on that FPP to see the comments. Reading about someone climbing that high starts my "OMGFREAKOUT" response; my throat tightens, my stomach flips, and I get a nasty chill down my spine. I am afraid of heights. I hate standing next to the railing on the second floor of the mall, because it freaks me out. I don't take glass elevators.

So I'm going to chime in and agree with quin. When I think about watching a video from 1700+ feet up, I go crazy. But if I think about the video being filmed from the ground (watching the guy climbing), it's more "ooh, I'd hate to be him" discomfort. First-person POV is (for me at least) the bit that tips the scale.
posted by specialagentwebb at 10:26 AM on September 15, 2010

I'm glad this thread was posted because in the original blue post I thought everyone was just trying really hard to be funny and gather an empathy group.
The only thing I get remotely "ackkk" about watching is medical shows where they are just cutting people apart but I can still watch without wanting to die.

I used to have the urge to jump off of high locations when I was younger. It went away sometime before I started climbing.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:36 AM on September 15, 2010

I watched a few minutes of the video without much reaction, but I have inner ear problems.

I thought people were reacting strongly mainly because the camera was attached to the climber's head (wasn't it?), and that caused people watching the video to get exactly the same visual input they'd get if their own heads were going through the motions of the climber's head.

But their inner ears were telling them a completely different story.

That kind of conflict can be extremely stressful, and the stress was especially acute in this case because the visual input was so perfectly matched to actual head movements, so that there were no internal cues to allow you dismiss it as aberrant and false. And at the same time, watching the video is giving you visual input saying you are a thousand feet in the air and one false move can plunge you to your death, making it imperative that you keep your balance, yet your balance organs are telling you nothing is happening. Super stressful.

It didn't bother me because I'm used to my inner ears contradicting my eyes. Hmm, I also never get nauseated.
posted by jamjam at 10:41 AM on September 15, 2010

Yeah, another one with no real reaction here... I'm slightly afraid of heights and very afraid of climbing (was reduced to tears by a bouldering expedition this past weekend, in fact), but it's very easy to separate myself from that video.
posted by mskyle at 11:22 AM on September 15, 2010

I also had the tingly hands and sweaty palms, as well as shooting pains in my arms and legs. I pretty much couldn't make it past the halfway point of that tower video.

I was wondering if there's any relationship between having a physical reaction to a video like this and having been in frighteningly exposed climbing situations in person. I am fairly afraid of heights -- not helplessly phobic, but not naturally comfortable either -- but I enjoy rock and mountain climbing, which is naturally going to involve some exposure at heights. The feelings I had watching this were exactly the same as the feelings I have preparing to rappel off a cliff. That moment where you have to finally commit your weight to the line instead of your feet always features the same kind of clammy hands and shooting pains.
posted by rusty at 11:39 AM on September 15, 2010

It has something to do with the human body's sympathetic nervous system, as I recall from EMT class. Basically there is a pre-shock state where the body's systems contract in anticipation of mortal peril, and in preparation for shock proper.

The answer is simple... danger. Not just any danger but the danger that comes from extreme exposure. I've felt it while mountain climbing knowing that the void of gravity sprawls, well, right beneath the sphincter in question. The threat can only be subdued by mind over matter.
1768 feet in the air is pretty extreme, but the climbers are prepared for and conditioned to the exposure.

Just imagine being these people whose balloon hit a radio tower and they were forced to climb down. No preparation. No conditioning.

What was that sound? Oh, just my asshole slamming shut.

It wouldn't help if your eyes slammed shut. I'm sure it's even less helpful when your sphincter does the reverse, which is what happens when the sympathetic system returns to it's normal state.
posted by No Shmoobles at 12:31 PM on September 15, 2010

Curiously, I get the same response from watching this video as I do from watching someone I care about get hurt (or even hearing about it, sometimes) - a strange tightening and pain in the solar plexus / upper abdominal muscles. It's not a shooting pain, it feels more like someone is pinching and compressing the nerves. It's not tingly, it's flat and smooth. It's not even pain, really, it's just like all the nerves come alive at once.

I would love not to feel that sensation.
posted by komara at 12:31 PM on September 15, 2010

I think my physical response was due to the combination of the adrenaline released by vicariously experiencing the climb, and the 'blair witch' wooziness from the camera on his head swinging back and forth like that.
posted by umbĂș at 12:41 PM on September 15, 2010

So I guess if you had this reaction, you are afraid of heights, no?

Actually, no.
posted by ericb at 2:47 PM on September 15, 2010

I get a nervous, butterfly feeling in my stomach watching it. It was kind of a less intense version of the feeling I had before I did a parachute jump a few months ago FWIW. No tightening detected though!
posted by prentiz at 3:42 PM on September 15, 2010

BTW -- the video has been removed from YouTube, but is available here.
posted by ericb at 4:45 PM on September 15, 2010

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