Is this a phobia?
August 2, 2011 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Why do I avoid looking at maps, satellite images and the Mona Lisa?

About five years ago while flipping through an art history book I had a strong reaction of dread/fear come over me while looking at a print of the Mona Lisa--to such a degree that I couldn't look at that page anymore. I experienced a sinking feeling, sweaty palms, repulsion and had to kind of talk myself down afterward. I had never had a reaction like that to any image before. That's how the whole thing started. This led slowly to becoming afraid of other unlikely things, namely maps and satellite images/photos taken from space. My current reaction to such feels akin to a fear of falling, but, just as with the Mona Lisa, I wasn't afraid of maps or satellite images until relatively recently. I realized now how routinely I avoid clicking on links or allowing myself to be caught off guard in any way by visuals. It's not ruining my life (yet) but I can see how something like this could continue to expand, as it already has, into a real problem (especially since I work in the design industry). Therapy is the best answer, but I can't afford therapy right now. Please tell me anything you can about the symptoms I've described. Is this a phobia? Have you ever had any similar experiences? If so, was it brought on by anything in particular? Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like a vaso vagal response

I have this in response to medical procedures, needles, blood.... it is so bad that I can't actually read that wikipedia page about the vaso vagal response, as that will set me off! I recently had to have some medical procedures that were going to require me to maintain consciousness and I ended up going to see a psychologist, just for one session, who taught me the applied muscle tension technique

I am not sure if this would work for you though, given that I was practicing this technique in the lead up to the procedure, in anticipation of the procedure, whereas you cannot easily predict when you would see a map or satellite image. However, it might be worthwhile seeing it the budget can stretch to at least one session with a psychologist - that might be all it takes to learn some techniques to avoid the response, or disassociate it in your mind.

Good luck!
posted by unlaced at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2011

This is not merely an AskMefi question. This is an ask-your-therapist question.

Severe anxiety like this is a problem. The manifestations (Mona Lisa prints, maps, etc) are merely outward signs of the real fears rambling around inside your mind.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:51 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to what you describe exactly, but about 15 years ago I was shopping with a friend when we walked by a large ad for (bottled water?) with a photo or photorealistic image of a waterfall. I remember feeling both chilled and depressed by the scene, especially the intense blue, the vastness of the waters, the absence of people and animals. I said to my friend, "That's creeping me out. It's depressing." He said, "Pictures of nature are always depressing."

Although we never talked about it again and it wasn't really a big thing, I often remember that day whenever I come across other images of overwhelming, wild nature/landscapes: deserts, rainforests, tundras, etc., and have to look away and put it out of my mind. Perhaps this is similar to your reaction to satellite photos, at a lower level.
posted by methroach at 7:02 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another possibility is that it could be a form of Visual Stress. If looking at these images is making you feel dizzy, nauseated or otherwise ill or uncomfortable it could explain the aversion.

I used to have an issue with patterns such as stripes making me feel dizzy and disoriented. More oddly, I also get queasy when I look at a certain shade of light purple... specifically, the color of easter jelly beans. Not sure what that is all about. But maybe it's a thing.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:08 AM on August 2, 2011

I have the same problem with visuals. If I see pictures of space it terrifies me. And I can't touch the picture or even look at it.

Same goes for any thing related to the ocean. If I'm looking at a book and a picture of underwater is on the next page, I start to freak out. Especially if there's some sort of marine life on the page. I can't let my hand go anywhere near it. Repulsed, scared, anxious, depressed, that all happens. I don't watch underwater nature shows on television either.

I can't even take lukewarm showers, because that's how I image the ocean must feel!

Any kind of surgeries or hearing about them will make me weak. Like my bones actually start to hurt just from an image or someone describing a procedure they had done. It's kind of a running joke in my family about my bones hurting when talking medical procedures.

I've always had such reactions to these images or even thoughts. I've never really understood it, but just figured it was a phobia.
posted by Sweetmag at 8:30 AM on August 2, 2011

I beg your pardon, but... how fascinating!

I think it is your fear of falling. The satellite photos are easy enough to explain, and the maps, with their bird's eye views, but the Mona Lisa?

I just spent a few minutes looking at images, and the eponymous Mona does rather seem to be hanging over a void of distant landscape. I think your gut may be onto something, too; it's astonishing how much attention that dull, indifferent painting has gotten over the centuries, and that it might be subliminally invoking a fear of falling seems a far better explanation to me than any twaddle about her smile, and given Da Vinci's great excess of canniness, that might be anything but inadvertent.

As far as the sudden onset is concerned, my fear of heights increased tremendously very abruptly in my late thirties, to the point it became difficult for me to walk across bridges, whereas before I had done dozens of technical ascents involving hanging suspended over gulfs of hundreds and more than a thousand feet many times. At the same time, I developed a fear of spiders, so I think it was something physiological rather than psychogenic.

Have you noticed any increase in allergies, asthma, or something like arthritis that happened around the same time?

If so, you might have developed an autoimmune problem of some sort, and could experience some relief from your fears by getting it under control if that's the case.
posted by jamjam at 8:52 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

If it makes you feel less strange, I have what feels like the same thing about maps and satellite images, particularly of huge stretches of ocean. Also, pictures of icebergs underwater, and pictures of planets or other enormous things suspended in space (and holes, but that's different). It all feels related, but I've never experienced anything like that looking at a painting of a face.

I think the fact that this has come on so suddenly for you, that it's triggered by such an apparently diverse set of stimuli, and that you are starting to dread looking at pictures in general means you need to keep an eye on it. I think you should make getting therapy a priority if it starts to feel out of control. It might also help if you decide now that you're OK with asking someone close to you for help later if you ever need to. I've never seen or been diagnosed by a mental health professional, but I've had two doctors tell me I was anxious (for unrelated reasons; one prescribed medication, which I didn't take for long), and though I had never really considered the possibility, it struck me as a plausible diagnosis, on reflection.

There may be mental strategies for dealing with this feeling on your own. It's taken a few years, but I've slowly desensitised myself (a lot, not completely) by forcing myself to look at pictures of the things that scare me, in the daytime, when other people are home and I already feel safe. I find that suppressing my fears makes them worse - but over-indulging them is just as bad. With phobias, you become more afraid of feeling the feeling that the object of your fear induces in you than you are of the object itself. It helps me to remember that there's no reason I need to avoid feeling fear. It's a normal emotion, it's not dangerous, and I can handle it. So I let myself feel it fully, and then move on to something else. The fear sticks with me for a little while, but I acknowledge it without submitting to it, and it soon dissipates. That works for me, and I hope you find a way to deal with this that works for you. Good luck to you.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:59 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

From the Wikipedia page on the Mona Lisa (and I did not know this):

The painting was among the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape and Leonardo was one of the first painters to use aerial perspective.[30]

It has nothing to do with the Mona Lisa itself and everything to do with the aerial perspective that is used in the painting.
posted by 200burritos at 9:02 AM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

There could be a simple anxiety disorder at play here as well. Be mindful of any other stresses in your life, talk with a therapist about them when you can afford one. It seems your nerves might be on edge, which is making you far more sensitive than your are normally to outside stimuli. You might need to find a way to relax yourself so you can view these images calmly. Perhaps take some time off, take a few dramamine, and give it another go looking at these images while laying down?

In the meantime, pay attention to things going on in your day to day life with a pen and piece of paper, jot down things that may be causing you stress. Take note of your eating habits, caffeine intake, as well as any prescription drugs. Approach this as journalistic-ally as you can, rather than speculative (which can easily lead to hypochondria..avoid that trap). You can approach this one of many ways depending on what school of thought you subscribe to when it comes to psychology. I'd suggest self medication as a start so you can get some bearings. Dramamine may help with the nausea or feeling that there's loss of balance. Anti-acids might help with an upset stomach and triggering of the vagal nerve (a nerve that runs from the stomach and up the spine, known for feelings of fainting/syncope and nausea). P.S. IANAD
posted by samsara at 9:02 AM on August 2, 2011

BTW, I had a severely irrational fear of something that was directly linked to something else. Once I got away from what was causing it, it died down considerably. Mine was stupider than satellite photos--it was a common food. Think ketchup or onions. I literally could not walk by this thing in the grocery aisle. I think that once you get to the root of your fears, they will die down.
posted by 200burritos at 9:05 AM on August 2, 2011

It has nothing to do with the Mona Lisa itself and everything to do with the aerial perspective that is used in the painting.

Additionally, the two halves of the background are in different perspectives (the left side is from a higher viewpoint) which adds to the overall weirdness of the image. This may be part of what's skeeving you out.
posted by mumblingmynah at 9:19 AM on August 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Additionally, the two halves of the background are in different perspectives (the left side is from a higher viewpoint)


That clinches it (for me).

R. L. Gregory points out in one of his books (either Eye and Brain or The Intelligent Eye) that a painting in perspective is an imitation of the retinal image that would result from a single fixation of the eyes.

The Mona Lisa then, as a person peruses it and fixes the eyes on one perspective and then the other, could give rise to a sensory input equivalent to two different perspectives of the same scene.

And that's exactly what motion by the viewer does; it gives rise to a different perspective of the same scene. But, as we all know from sitting in a train or bus which is not moving, but which has another train or bus right beside it which is moving, getting that visual cue of motion without the other physiological correlates of motion (mainly from the inner ear) can cause a profound vertigo.

That disjunction's at the root of motion sickness, as well.

So The Mona Lisa gives some viewers vertigo akin to motion sickness. No wonder the damn thing's mesmerizing.

That bring us back to the OP's response: "I experienced a sinking feeling, sweaty palms, repulsion and had to kind of talk myself down afterward."

If this is essentially vertigo/motion sickness, then the drugs ordinarily prescribed for these things, such as Dramamine and Antivert could potentially be very helpful in stopping it.
posted by jamjam at 2:50 PM on August 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Oh, and I forgot to add that people with inner ear problems are much more likely to get vertigo and motion sickness.

The sudden onset of the OP's Mona Lisa overdrive (sorry) could be due to the development of inner ear problems, which are often signified by tinnitus, by the way.
posted by jamjam at 3:03 PM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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