Don’t look at the eclipse, worried optometrists have been warning for weeks. It could cause serious, permanent eye damage, but you won’t even know it’s happening because you won’t feel it — our stupid retinas are apparently not equipped with pain receptors. And in some kind of horrifying twist out of a dark fairy tale, you won’t realize anything’s wrong until you wake up tomorrow morning. So: Don’t look at it! Not even a peek!
You know that, I know that, and yet: I was very worried during the eclipse this afternoon that I was going to accidentally look at it, anyway. It’s like the fear you sometimes get when you’re on top of some high ledge, and you get the urge to jump. You know? I know some of you know, and that’s some comfort, but not much, in part because the feeling doesn’t make a lot of sense: If I was so focused on not looking — then why did it also feel like I wouldn’t be able to resist doing so?
If the urge to look is like the urge to jump, and I think it might be, then a 2012 paper in the Journal of Affective Disorders about the so-called “high place phenomenon” may help explain it. Would you be surprised to learn, first of all, that this feeling is more common among people who tend to be a tiny bit anxious? But the researchers’ theory also goes beyond that. For one, there is some evidence to suggest that people with high anxiety sensitivity also may be unusually sensitive to interoceptive cues — that is, physiological signals, and perhaps especially those associated with anxiety, like a pounding heart. But just because anxious people are more sensitive to these cues doesn’t mean they’re necessarily interpreting them accurately.
Sometimes this happens to me on a subway platform, for instance, and I’ll feel this rush cascading through my body — it’s like I almost jumped, but then reflexively jolted back. “This ‘safety signal’ is intended to keep the person alive and out of danger and it is fired so quickly that the person backs away from the edge, often without being fully aware of why he or she did this,” the authors of that 2012 paper write. It’s just an automatic physiological process, which exists to keep you safe.
The trick is in the interpretation of that process. “As the person tries to quickly rationalize what just happened, they arrive at a conclusion: They jerked away from the roof’s edge because they must have wanted to jump,” science writer Ed Cara explained in 2016. “Soon enough, this thought, which didn’t actually exist beforehand, revises their perception of the situation.” You’re accurately picking up on the somatic process that is keeping you from jumping, but you’re also misunderstanding it as proof that you have an unconscious urge to jump.
It’s just a theory, one involving a study of only a few hundred college kids, so this is not a definitive explanation for the urge to jump. Still, maybe the same applies to the urge to look: It could be that those of us who felt this way were so afraid of accidentally looking that we misinterpreted that fear as confirmation that we really, secretly, wanted to look and fry our eyeballs. But in the end, reader, I didn’t look. I don’t think. I guess we’ll know for sure tomorrow morning.