There’s a type of experience that I feel should have its own word, because nothing that I can think of seems like a fair description.

A first pass would be something like agony, utter horror, a feeling that you can’t stand this, that you are about to fall apart. But those aren’t actually the thing, I think. They are reactions to the thing.

The thing is more like a sense of utter horrifying impossibility. I suspect it’s the kind of an experience H. P. Lovecraft had in mind when talking about mind-breaking sights and things that man was not meant to know.

Suppose you feel an immense need to throw up and know that you are in fact going to throw up, and at the same time you absolutely cannot throw up, because you are in a bus full of people or something. Or to take a stronger example, someone you deeply care about must be alive because you deeply love them, and at the same time you also know for certain that they are dead.

There’s a sense of… you have two facts, and your mind feels like both of them must be true. But they also cannot both be true. It’s like they’re physical objects, magnetic so that they repel each other, and both cannot be in the same place at the same time because physical objects don’t work that way.

Except that, now they are. Some irresistible force has pushed them together and that is tearing the entire universe apart, reshaping the laws of nature to force them to accommodate this fact.

The thing that I’m trying to find a good word for, is that sense of impossibility that accompanies the world being torn apart.

Likely we don’t have a good word for this, because we ordinarily cannot see it. The mind recoils from it, and we only remember the sense of agony that surrounded it. It’s only in some unusual states of consciousness such as deep meditation, that two facts can get pressed against each other in such a way that the conscious mind is forced to stay present and witness the moment of impossibility.

I suspect that the two facts feel like mutually repelling objects because in a sense they are. That the mind is built to treat unpleasant feelings and ideas as something literally repulsive, an independent patch of the world that pushes against that which the mind accepts as true. My hand touches something hot and I quickly pull it away, the painfulness of the object repelling any desire to approach. Then the same mechanism for avoiding physical pain got recruited for avoiding emotional and social pain, and unpleasant beliefs and experiences.

But sometimes you need to grab the hot object anyway, do the unpleasant thing. And sometimes the facts come with overwhelming force, and you have to admit something that you kept struggling against.

I imagine facts and dislikes as kind of like large serpents or sea monsters, circling each other deep in the unconscious mind. Sometimes the facts take over a certain territory, forcing the disliked ideas to withdraw and adopt a more cramped space. They might twist themselves into elaborate tightly-bound knots, trying to find a way to exist in the narrow space that’s left between the facts, construct increasingly contrived rationalizations that let a person avoid facing what’s true.

And sometimes the dislikes push back. A fact encroached too quickly on territory that was too painful, triggered an internal wave of nausea that strengthened the aversion. The serpent-monsters of pain come out in numbers, force the sense of truth away, mark a region as one that must never be believed in again. A fanatic is confronted by the impossibility of their belief and rather than truly facing it, sinks even deeper into delusion, willing to proclaim any insane belief as true.

But even though facing the facts feels like an impossibility and like the end of the world, it’s actually not. Upon seeing the horror, the mind adjusts, reshapes the structure of its beliefs to accommodate for both things being true. Afterwards there is only a memory of having faced something horrible, and in its wake, two objects that have melted seamlessly together.

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18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:18 PM

This sortof makes sense to me, but to the best of my recollection I've never encountered this.  That said, there might be some reasons:

  • I have historically had a pretty muted emotional->physical response.  It took me decades to realize that when someone said that an emotional impact hit them "like a punch in the gut", they were not just exaggerating for emphasis.  Sure, I feel some physical effects, but less "punch in the gut" and more like "mild barely noticeable discomfort".
  • Even as a child, data took precedence over feelings.  Eliezer has frequently talked about being forced to look at something you don't like, at it taking effort to accept information that contradicts your existing state.  That's never been that hard for me; new piece of disturbing data?  That sucks, but we still need to immediately fold it into our working model.
  • I'm used to handling incoherent beliefs because I have to emulate people in order to function in society.  "What data set / background / training is needed for a belief system to come to this conclusion?" is a normal question for me.  If a new horrifying thing comes in, I figure out what contexts it might be valid in, then look at the differences in models.  If I find something to update, I do.

I write this mostly for myself.  I'm often surprised by just how differently people think; and I appreciate posts like this, because they provide a little bit more insight into what's going on in other people's heads.

Your comment describes me.

I'm not confident that this is an inherent thing about me rather than luck.

I wonder if it's just that I've lucked out and mostly avoided the bad type of situations wherein my more analytical side is seemingly suppressed to the degree Kaj describes in his post. I've had a pretty good life so far.

That's not to say I haven't had bad things happen to me. (possibly uncomfortable TMI about bad things happening in following spoiler-ed text) 

Probably the worst thing that has happened to me is that we had a child die during childbirth.  That was really bad and it causes me some amount of sadness when I think about it even 15 years later. It just never was a thing that caused anything like what is described in this post. It was sadness that lasted longer and was more intense than previous things that made me sad, but it wasn't a fundamentally different sort of sadness.

I think it's possible that I've just been lucky in that I've not had the life events whose exact characteristics mesh with the exact characteristics of my mind to lead to the sort of feeling described in this post or really most (all?) of the types of things I read about when people talk about trauma of various sorts. 

On the other hand, there are things about me that make me think maybe I have innate characteristics which lead me to not feel the way the post describes.  I'm a happy person. Things don't keep me down. I think positively about myself and others. I'm analytical. I'm pragmatic. I'm a bunch of things that fit into a cluster that would probably include "doesn't hold incoherent emotional beliefs so tightly as to need it's own word".

Extremely incisive but part of horror isn't just the single unacceptable fact, but that all the rest of your reality has been destroyed in too many ways to even begin to analyze.

Yes. Too many cached decisions.

 cognitive dissonance is a pretty well understood phenomena.

The wikipedia article is decent and mentions some of the landmark texts for understanding why the associated pain is adaptive for humans, such as:

Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance (1959)

Effect of the Severity of Threat on the Devaluation of Forbidden Behavior (1963)


The thing that I’m trying to find a good word for, is that sense of impossibility that accompanies the world being torn apart.

Disconfirmed expectancy

Disconfirmed expectancy

I'm not sure this conveys a sense of "utter horror over something whose very existence violates the laws of nature" very well. :)

That’s because your using the writing style of modern day popular internet culture and the more technical wikipedia articles are written in the style of a no nonsense academic journal editor (who knows readership would be limited to peers and colleagues). It would be very remarkable if it did.

To be fair, I think using the word "disconfirmed expectancy" to refer to what Kaj is talking about is... plain wrong. An academic style isn't "no nonsense" if it tries to be inaccurate.

I can't say I understand what you think something of that sort would actually be. Certainly none of your examples in the OP qualify. Nothing exists which violates the laws of nature, because if it exists, it must follow the laws of nature. Updating our knowledge of the laws of nature is a different matter, but it's not something that inspires horror.

Right, it's not that the thing's existence literally violates the laws of nature, but rather it's that it's incompatible with the model of reality that your mind has constructed. So the subjective feeling of it is the fabric of reality being torn apart. Though of course on an objective level, no such thing is happening.

An example that comes to mind would be if a young child was used to their mother always being safe and available, and then the mother died. Previously, "I can always be safe with my mother" was basically an axiomatic assumption for how they oriented towards the world, but then suddenly the person their mind had been treating as invincible and immortal and the cornerstone of safety was gone.

(I read somewhere a quote from someone whose parents had died at an early age, and who described the feeling as a literal one of reality being ripped apart and all of existence feeling wrong ever since. I didn't save the quote and don't remember the exact wording, though.)

I know what you mean! This happened to me and I had to reorganize my entire life around the victor of the two facts. As in logic, only one truth may exist, and ours is the task of knowing it. 

Some amount has been written here about .  That's usually in the context of smaller-than-horrific truths, but still pretty relevant.  I'd argue that is relevant as well here - your reaction to a truth is distinct from the truth itself, and the complexity and variety of reality, whether terrible or wonderful is fascinating and amazing.

When I was younger, I talked with survivors of Nazi concentration camps and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and I read a fair bit of historical accounts of horrible events.  I was and remain horrified by how humans treat each other, and of the basic fact of mortality.  And horror has driven me to study and learn, seeking exceptions and mitigations.  In the end, reality is what it is, but our actions (IMO, expressing kindness and sympathy, even to those who are hurting me in reaction to their pain and damage) can somewhat make it less horrible to experience parts of it, and reduce (but not eliminate) the actual terrible events.

A very familiar situation, thanks for describing it so eloquently. 

In my case the pain resulted from finally emotionally acceding an issue that I had intellectually perceived long before, but somehow managed to push the full implications aside. Once the dam broke, so to speak, the flood of horror and pain was enough to make me question my sense of sanity at the worst moments.  

In my case, it took about three years, a lot of emotional work, thinking and writing to learn to cope with it all, and to figure out a productive way forward with the new understanding of a horrible reality.

The truth remains oppressing and painful, but at the end of the day, one can‘t choose the circumstances one happens to live through. Therefore the task, as always, is to make the best of what is there, and just enjoy life to the best of your ability. What is hopeful at the end, the future remains an open, uncharted territory - and the scope of challenges yields a solution space only restrained by imagination and creativity. 

But yeah, the phenomenon absolutely deserves a word for it. Catastrophic revelation? Reality nuke? Well those are both two words. 

As far as pithy new verbiage goes, here's a couple possibilities: one might say the can't-stand-this suffering results from being abruptly "dreadpilled" or "sunderstruck".

Is there a difference of this from "The horror of what must, yet cannot, be false"?

I think they're the same

Or to take a stronger example, someone you deeply care about must be alive because you deeply love them, and at the same time you also know for certain that they are dead.


Isn’t this the “denial” psychological defense mechanism, famous for its role in Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief? In the reality the unfortunate thing is true; the impossibility is in the mind of the observer tripping circuit breakers.