Examining the strangeness of life as a fundamental existential psychology stressor

  • Fear of death
  • Fear of isolation
  • Fear of freedom
  • Fear of meaninglessness

How is life strange?

Before considering how a “life is strange” concept is a psychological stressor, let’s first examine why it can be seen as a valid observation. This could be examined in many ways, but here are a few aspects that hopefully give you an idea of what I’m talking about (even if you nitpick a few of these ideas or framings, hopefully the gist of the point comes through):

  • The physical world operates in ways that are non-intuitive and alien to our minds. For example, something strange must happen at the edges of the universe. Does it go on forever? Does spacetime bend? Whatever the explanation is will be alien and strange to our minds.
  • Similarly for the nature of time: there is something alien and non-intuitive with how it works: How can there be a beginning of time? How can there be an end of time?
  • Quantum physics research has shown us how reality behaves in ways that are counter-intuitive to human logic (e.g., the double slit experiment).
  • In order for there to be consciousness, our universe (at least our region of it) must be finely tuned in many ways (e.g., a world without gravity would never form things together). From a scientific perspective (leaving aside god/creator narratives), this would seem to suggest a universe with changeable, varying laws of physics (as discussed in multiverse theories, or in “the universe is a manifestation of math” ideas). It’s possible to imagine a universe that would not generate a large enough set of different physical laws necessary for the complexity of consciousness to arise (including a state of nothingness or near nothingness): when viewed through that lens, our existence can seem unlikely and bizarre.
  • In a universe made up of inorganic components, how did life arise? How unlikely is that exactly?
  • We tend to believe or feel that we have free will and control and yet we live in a physical world, where physical causes lead to physical effects. If we live in a physical world, how can there come to be an “I” that actually has control? (If you’re interested in this topic, I have a podcast episode about free will.)
  • The more you dig into the nature of your sense of “I”, the more illusory it can seem. For example: our internal thoughts largely come in the form of ideas or sentences that just pop into our minds unbidden, as if by magic. In what sense are my automatically generated thoughts “me”? Is there a “me” I’m not aware of and which I don’t have control over?

A personal story

To kick this off, a personal story might help to illustrate how such anxieties manifest. I dropped out of college in my sophomore year due to a so-called “nervous breakdown.” I had become increasingly anxious and dysfunctional and eventually reached the point where I felt like I was on the verge of losing my mind, or had maybe already lost my mind. I was fairly confident that I’d soon be living in a mental ward.

  • Before my breakdown, I had become obsessed with life being strange and what that meant. I was hanging out a lot in the school library reading books on Eastern philosophy and spirituality, specifically Buddhism and meditation and more obscure things like “contemplation of the horrible.” I was interested in reaching transcendence. I would tell myself that my awareness of the weirdness of the world was an indicator of my specialness, or wisdom. (This was in hindsight clearly due to me trying to compensate for how depressed and socially anxious I was.)
  • After I left college and was attempting recovery, everything appeared strange to me. Like someone who feels compelled to pick a scab, I felt compelled to keep questioning reality. For example, I’d be walking in a field and I’d wonder things like, “Why do we assume there’s earth and soil under our feet? For all I know there’s nothingness, an abyss.” No comforting assumptions about the world were taken for granted, and that was stressful.
  • During one of my worst episodes, when I was watching a movie, I suddenly saw the actors, and humans generally, as essentially talking monkeys: as strange creatures living on a rock floating in the middle of space who had somehow learned through trial and error to create vocalizations using vibrations from their mouths, similar to other creatures. This was not a purely intellectual realization, not a “that’s an interesting way to look at things” kind of thought, but it was a viscerally horrifying realization. It was a view of the world as alien, as seen for the first time. A view of humans as disturbing freaks, without the comforting underlying conceptual boundaries that we usually draw between animal and human. That was one of several times I felt close to having a psychotic break.

The strangeness of existence as a unique type of given or stressor

The idea of life’s strangeness and how it can create stress is not a new idea: it has been widely talked about. Sartre and other existentialist thinkers have written passages about looking around and seeing the alienness of life, seeing the world through eyes that take nothing for granted, that see the world without aid of the comforting framings and narratives and assumptions that we previously had about our existence and the world.

  • Fear of death
  • Fear of isolation
  • Fear of freedom
  • Fear of meaninglessness
Great book by Irvin Yalom about the givens and stresses of existence.
  • We can imagine a person frozen by fear of one’s freedom, a fear of taking action and building one’s life and meaning, but yet who doesn’t dwell on the strangeness of the world.
  • We can imagine a person aware of the strangeness of the world (even in a positive way, which we’ll talk more about) without having much fear of freedom or fear of taking action.
  • We can imagine a person preoccupied by the apparent meaninglessness of life without necessarily being preoccupied with the strangeness of the world.
  • We can imagine someone preoccupied with the strangeness of the world while finding plenty of meaning in their life (as we’ll discuss, strangeness-awareness may even aid finding meaning).
  • In the case of my own mentally unwell period, I’d say that I was primarily terrified by the weirdness and creepiness of the world. I wouldn’t say that I was terrified by a sense of meaninglessness; in fact, I might have said the world seemed too meaningful.
  • One overlap may be with “absurdism” philosophy, but most absurdism writing that I’ve seen focuses not on actual aspects of existence that are strange, but more on the universe being meaningless and chaotic.

A connection to religious beliefs

I’d argue that the perception that “life is strange” can be seen as the source of some religious feelings. I’d posit that some of the religious epiphanies that people are capable of, especially the more emotional and stressful ones, are similar in some ways to my nervous breakdown: similar in the sense that both might be seen to involve a realization of how strange and inexplicable the world is.

A connection to trauma effects

Examining “life is strange” as its own type of stressor can perhaps help us make sense of some people’s experiences after trauma. For example, when people experience traumatic things, they’ll often report the world feeling “unreal” afterwards. There can be elements of derealization.

Peripheral or unconscious awareness of life’s strangeness

I think it’s possible for “life is strange” stressors to be present even for people who don’t consciously think much about these topics. I think most people have an intuitive sense of how strange the world is (e.g., the fundamental weirdness of space and time) and how there are anxiety-producing threats lurking in those waters, even while those stresses may be largely unexamined consciously.

A perception of life’s strangeness may make psychosis and delusions more likely

There could be a relationship between one’s perception that life is strange and one’s likelihood to be psychotic or delusional.

Are there practically useful applications of these ideas?

What’s the practically useful takeaway from these ideas? I think that for people who seem to be suffering from these sorts of thoughts (even if it’s just a realization that the world is now scarier and more confusing than it was, and this might include some psychotic, schizophrenic-diagnosed people), there may be practical value in talking about the fact that the world is fundamentally strange, in the same way it can be helpful to talk about the other existential fears.

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Zachary Elwood

Zachary Elwood

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).