Being overwhelmed: Paris syndrome

When I drive I occasionally listen to the radio. One of the shows discussed a syndrome called by the name of a city. I knew nothing about it, but once I hear something I remember. So I checked out here, here, and here and decided to write about similar experiences.

To see Paris and die

This is literally a phrase people say in Russia. It predates bucket lists and refers to experiences so profound, that each of us should have them. Somehow, for many people, Paris is not just a Romantic city with great food and art, but an overwhelming experience. I quote: “The excitement resulting from visiting Paris causes the heart to accelerate, causing giddiness and shortness of breath, which results in hallucinations…Japanese visitors are observed to be especially susceptible… When the reality of the modern city of Paris sets in, with its notoriously rude service and confusing public transport, some tourists simply cannot cope with their expectations being dashed. ”


There is a related syndrome. I quote: “involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects or phenomena of great beauty… The affliction is named after 19th-century French author Stendhal (pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle), who described his experience with the phenomenon during his 1817 visit to Florence”.

Definitely Paris and Florence are great cities. I love both, but I also love more than a dozen other cities well worth visiting (Rome, Venice, London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Tokyo, Kyoto and more). One of the things causing this particular syndrome is continuous visualization of the place well before visiting it. And this is something I am interested in.

My own first great travel experience

Each time we are exposed to a good story, we tend to visualize it. I happened to visualize Paris a lot when I was a child, as I visualized great works of the Italian renaissance. There was simply to way to avoid it. The books I read often depicted buildings and statues with great details and even greater excitement. Possibly the authors were in love with their subject, or this was required by genre maybe both.

The place I visualized more than any other place as a child was the Red Square. I was born in a small town in Ukraine, and I visited the Red Square in Moscow in 1989 after seeing it in many pictures and photos since  I was a toddler… The place was great and solemn and colorful, yet it was not as bright and saturated as it appeared on photos and the angle from which I saw everything was simply too low. It was cold and clouded, and I was about to leave the country. My heart did not race, instead, I was deeply disappointed. I loved my visualization much more than the real thing.

Is it really better to see once than to hear a thousand times?

There are different proverbs comparing the real experiences with visualized ones. I do not know to which extent they are true. Personally, I really like the visualizations I get after hearing a good story. The movie is never as good as a book, for a reason. It takes several hours or days to read a good book, and a subject of interest can be reviewed from many perspectives and details. When we actually see it, we see it only a couple of times, and there is a limit to the details we can see before looking for something else.

The profound sense of beauty near a true masterpiece is extremely rare. I remember that when I saw Raphael’s Sistinne Madonna in Dresden, I stood in front of the picture for two hours with tears of joy in my eyes. This was a pretty unique experience. I do not remember it near other remarkable masterpieces and be assured I saw my share. Sure, I can spend 20 min near a statue on Michelangelo or a painting of Boticelli or a huge polished gemstone observing the game of the light. Yet profound awe is a very rare experience.

At the same time, a good book (and my visualization of it) was capable to carry me into its world since I remember myself and for days. More than once I wished I could replace the actual moments of joy by the anticipation of those moments. Maybe this is just me, but it feels like a very common phenomenon.

When the visualization meets the real thing

So what happens when visualization meets the real thing? Usually, they merge into one, complementing each other. Soon after there is one whole experience, and it is hard to separate the things visualized from the things experienced first hand. This is a common scenario.

Occasionally, the visualization is much better than the real thing. We can either have both or substitute one with another. When we read a book and see a movie of the same book, we may hallucinate and see our visualization and not the actual movie.

And very rarely, we are equally awed by our visualization and the real thing. In this case, we get an enhanced experience, which is exceptionally powerful. I would imagine by descriptions: similar in nature to orgasm, but better.

Religious awe

There is an additional city very close to my home, which causes strong emotions:  Jerusalem. Now, I am not a religious man, but I could observe the true and deep awe of people who visited the holy places and touched the holy stones. This religious awe was a common subject of the Renaissance masters. The inquisition was not very happy about it: it looked very sexual in the eyes of the clergy.

I think that the total dedication and focus on one specific object is a transformative experience. Parents often experience something very similar with the birth of the first child: life divides to what was before and what comes after. The values and priorities shift suddenly in an exciting and frightening way. Religious people tend to call it “the miracle of life”.

Flashbulb memory

When we have a transformative moment, the nature of our perception changes. We drop our filters and become truly mindful. Every detail is remembered forever without us even trying, and then relived many times. This flashbulb memory phenomenon is enforced by changes in the heart rate, fast release of hormones, and other things that feel magical.

We are capable of experiencing the flashbulb memory moments more than once. If these moments are one in a million, and there are 31 million of moments every year, we could have several such moments per month.  Maybe that would be a sort of bliss. In fact, I do not think that many people have more than a couple of such moments in their entire lives.

Possibly this is a good thing since the post-traumatic syndrome is a mirror image of this positive experience.


Probably every transformative positive or negative experience eventually leads to acceptance. Simply being able to understand that the experience is rare and transient both adds to the magic of the event and to our ability to cope with it.

What we can also do is revisit. When we revisit the actual place or very detailed visualization of it, from a different spot and with new questions, we see something new and yet different. This new perspective adds to previous experiences, making them less overwhelming and more manageable.

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