Faces that matter: history, emotion, transplantation

Dr Fay Bound Alberti has published widely on the histories of medicine and science, gender, the body and emotions. Fay co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London where she remains Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Other areas of interest include illness and disease, the history and ethics of cosmetic surgery and the relationship between mind and body and gender politics. Fay’s most recent book is This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016). She is a regular blogger for The History Girls, a group of best-selling, award-winning writers of historical fiction and non-fiction. Fay’s forthcoming monograph is a cultural and emotional history of face transplants.

This post contains graphic descriptions of facial injury.

Faces matter. They signal our individuality, genetic inheritance, emotions and identity. Little wonder that a disrupted or disfigured appearance is a source of social stigma and distress.[1] Yet faces are also matter; reshaped by cosmetics, art and surgery. Today, faces are transplantable, able to be moved from one human being to another, from the dead to the living. This brings extensive ethical as well as medical considerations. As the medical anthropologist Linda Hogle put it, ‘you’re really transplanting more than the tissue itself [with face transplants]. You’re bringing someone’s identity and overlaying it on the recipient’s body’.[2] That challenge was realised in the person of Isabelle Dinoire, the world’s first partial face transplant recipient.

In 2005, the 38-year old French woman was savaged by her pet dog after she had taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. Whether the overdose was an accident or not has been a subject of debate. Dinoire described waking to find ‘a pool of blood next to me. And the dog was licking the blood. But I couldn’t imagine that it was my blood or my face. Or that he had chewed me.’[3] Still groggy and confused from her overdose, Dinoire sat up and tried to light a cigarette, an act she described as ‘an automatic gesture’. Confused that she could not keep the cigarette between her lips, Dinoire crawled to her bedroom to look in the mirror. That is when Dinoire discovered the full extent of her injuries. She had no lips, no chin and no nose. That was the moment she realised ‘it was not a dream, it was reality. I had no face.’[4]

Dinoire’s operation took place at a time of intense global competition to undertake the first successful face transplant; a development with echoes of the first heart transplant.[5] Images of Dinoire pre- and post-surgery and voyeuristic details of her rehabilitation were told by a mass media to a public repulsed and intrigued.[6]  When Dinoire died of cancer in 2016, her doctors denied it was in any way connected to the cocktail of immunosuppressant drugs she had been taking. Though those drugs are known to increase the risk of cancer.[7] I have written in detail about Dinoire elsewhere, for her case draws attention not only to complex, gendered assumptions about face transplant patients and the female body, but also to the political framework in which medical firsts take place.[8]

Since 2005 no more than forty face transplants have taken place around the world, in Spain, Turkey, China and Poland, with varying degrees of success.[9] Yet face transplants are a relatively neglected area of recent history, and discussion still revolves around medical and ethical rather than emotional and psychological concerns.[10] I am currently writing a monograph on the history and pre-history of face transplants that explores their affective and cultural context. For face transplants raise key questions about our identity as human beings, our relationships with others and the ways in which physical appearance is linked to experiences of anxiety, depression, fear and shame. Before her face transplant, Dinoire felt that her visage was ‘monstrous, traumatic, unshowable.’ After her transplant, she was still subject to the gaze of others, but now because she was a ‘circus animal.’ Her existence provoked mixed emotions in others: from her surgeons to her children, from the family of her donor to the unknown multitude who looked at her ‘before and after’ pictures and talked about medical miracles, the limits of science and whether she might ever ‘kiss again.’ This question does not seem to have been asked of male face transplant recipients.[11]

Dinoire’s experience is a reminder that facial disfigurement and reconstructive surgery does not take place in a vacuum. There are important historical accounts of facial disfigurement as a social and medical question, many of which show considerable nuance between medical and social models of disability. [12] Face transplants are both a continuation of the surgical reconstructive skills that developed after World War I and something else; the blending of two identities, old and new, and the creation of a ‘hybrid-being.’[13] While post-war reconstructive surgery primarily took place on soldiers returning from battle, informing a gendered narrative of disfigurement and heroism, today’s face transplants raise a different set of questions about gender, identity and emotion. Moreover, today the very act of getting older triggers fear and disgust, let alone a traumatic facial disfigurement or a surgical procedure as radical as a face transplant.[14] In writing the emotional and ethical history of face transplants, then, it may be society as much as surgery that needs to come under the spotlight.

[1] R. Lansdown et al (eds), Visibly Different: Coping with Disfigurement (Oxford; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997); A. Clarke et al (eds), CBT for Appearance Anxiety: Psychosocial Interventions for Anxiety due to Visible Difference (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); N. Rumsey and D. Harcourt, The Psychology of Appearance (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 2005).

[2] J. Bowen, ‘Gaining face,’ 19 May 1999: http://www.salon.com/ 1999/05/19/ face_transplants/ accessed 24 February 2016 and F. Baylis, ‘A Face is Not Just Like a Hand: Pace Barker,’ The American Journal of Bioethics, 4 (2004), 30-32.

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p010rk4f/broadcasts.

[4] ‘La femme aux deux visages,’ [‘The Woman with Two Faces’] Le Monde, 7 July 2007: http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2007/07/06/la-premiere-greffee-du-visage-raconte-sa-nouvelle-vie_932443_3224.html

[5] See Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, Emotion (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2010). Introduction.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/dec/03/health.france

[7] https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/immunosuppression

[8] ‘From Face/Off to the Face Race: The Case of Isabelle Dinoire and the Future of the Face Transplant, BMJ Medical Humanities, 9 December, 2016: http://mh.bmj.com/content/early/2016/12/09/medhum-2016-011113

[9] S. Khalifian, P.S. Brazio and R. Mohan et al, ‘Facial Transplantation: The First 9 Years,’ The Lancet, 2014; 384: 2153-2163 and M. Sosin and E.D. Rodriguez, ‘The Face Transplantation Update: 2016,’ Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 2016, 137: 1841-1850

[10] A recent exception is Sharrona Pearl, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other (forthcoming, University of Chicago, 2017).

[11] Bound Alberti, ‘From Face/Off to the Face Race.’

[12] M. Gehrhardt, ‘Gueules Cassées: The Men Behind the Masks,’ Journal of War and Culture Studies, 2013; 6: 267-281, S. Biernoff, ‘The Rhetoric of Disfigurement in First World War Britain,’ Social History of Medicine, 2007; 24: 666-685 and Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2016

[13] This term is explored in Samuel Taylor-Alexander, On Face Transplantation: Life and Ethics in Experimental Biomedicine (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).  

[14] C. Saunders, J. Macnaughton and D. Fuller eds. The Recovery of Beauty: Arts, Culture, Medicine (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 2015

The Museum of the Normal – What You Said





This is a post by Sarah Chaney and Helen Stark, both project managers in the Centre for the History of the Emotions.

‘I realised how normative, pseudo-scientific the idea of normal can be… Also that normal doesn’t necessarily equal healthier or better. There is a very subjective and biased sense of what normal is or should be.’

So commented one attendee at our drop-in late, the Museum of the Normal, a public event designed to address the history of being and defining normal. We wanted to measure whether there was a change in attitudes and the quotation above, taken from a follow-up survey, shows how this person’s perception of normality shifted – we might say, became more critical – as a result of the event.

We used 20 spot interviews on the night and a follow-up online survey, completed by 44 people, to assess responses to ‘The Museum of the Normal’. In the spot interviews, participants commented on activities they had enjoyed, but only a few looked at the wider concept of challenging what is normal and how this might change in different cultures and time periods. However, the follow-up survey showed much more reflective thinking. It might be that reflection was needed before changes in thinking could occur, or that those responding represented a different section of our audience or were reluctant to confess to a naivety about normativity in person.

I tell you what’s interesting about it, if you think about cultural norms and then like personal norms, and all the other, like, norms, then there must be some sort of like hierarchy, I don’t know, which overrides stuff. I don’t know, it’s just making me think about other stuff. So if you think it’s normal to go out on a Saturday night and have a few beers you know in some cultures they think that’s a bit weird, right, so that’s abnormal in that culture. But personally that’s ok. And culturally, like in Britain, that’s what we like to do, we like to go to the pub on Saturday, don’t we? So it, it’s quite interesting when you start to think about it in those terms. (transcribed from spot interview)

The results of our follow-up survey provide strong and cumulative evidence that participants experienced a change in attitude about ideas of the normal and healthy as a result of attending the event. One attendee commented ‘[The event] challenged my view immensely. Being normal is multi-faceted.’ Another wrote ‘It made me think about the historic concept of “being normal”, which I hadn’t really done before.’ In both the follow-up surveys and the audio interviews from the evening itself, participants reflected on the extent to which what is ‘normal’ is culturally constructed: ‘It highlighted how subjective normality is and how current trends are born out of cultural contexts rather than having any basis in hard fact. It was helpful to be reminded of this, making me feel more comfortable in being myself, whatever that is, rather than trying to conform to some constructed idea of how I should be.

Participants in the follow-up survey also indicated that the event had make them think more both about where our ideas of what is “normal” or “healthy” come from and the role of medicine and psychology in creating these norms. ‘It made me realise how difficult it is to define ‘normal’! While I had some understanding of it from a medical/mathematical perspective, it was really interesting to throw social, cultural, historical and linguistic ideals into the mix too – and realise that there really is no such thing as truly “normal”.’ ‘I realised how normative, pseudo-scientific the idea of normal can be… Also that normal doesn’t necessarily equal healthier or better. There is a very subjective and biased sense of what normal is or should be.’

Some audience feedback also supported the contention that challenging the emotional nature of normality is helpful – and can even be therapeutic. ‘It shed light on fresh dimensions of being, and not being, normal; how, in some ways, it is normal not to be normal. I feel it would have given reassurance to people who may often feel excluded from the mainstream.’ ‘It made me think that normality is a product of your surroundings – you gravitate towards situations or groups of people that are in some way similar to you, so you feel normal around them. A lot of problems have been caused by people being or feeling forced to conform to somebody else’s idea of normal.’

From audience feedback after the event, it was clear that a number of visitors had reflected on the themes of the event, considering where our ideas of what is normal and healthy come from, and how these change historically and across different cultures.

Wordcloud of responses to the Museum of the Normal follow-up survey

Want to know more? Read other posts about ‘The Museum of the Normal’ or listen to our Psychic Driving audio track.

How to Keep Calm in Kolkata

Life can be stressful in Kolkata – the crowds, the poverty, the heat, the constant cacophony of car-horns. And that’s just for me, a pampered western tourist. So how do the locals cope? More to the point, to what extent do locals seek therapy for mental health problems like depression, or for general life advice? To find out, I interviewed two Kolkata therapists, Mansi Poddar (left) and Charvi Jain (right), both of whom have successful local practices.

Why did you become a therapist?

Mansi Poddar: Since I was a kid, people have come to me to tell me their stories. When I was studying in Boston, I had a brilliant therapist, and she encouraged me to become one too. I did a masters at NYU, then came and started practicing here.

Charvi Jain: I come from a business family and was expected to go into business too. But I worked with a charity called Make a Difference, which works with underprivileged children, and that showed me I wanted to work around people, helping them. I did a masters at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay. It was 95% women on the course, five men, and only one of them Indian! It’s still a woman’s job, because men feel more pressure to make money. After the masters I specialized in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It’s not a very well-known profession – I often have to explain what I do. It’s a bit easier after Dear Zindagi [a Bollywood film last year about a young woman who gets therapy]. But some of my relatives still don’t approve, they say it’s a waste of time. But I’m doing well – my appointments are fully booked for the next two weeks and I’m thinking of expanding.

How normal is it for people in Kolkata to go to a therapist?

Mansi: It’s not very normal. There’s a lot of stigma. People who do come feel a lot of shame about it, like it means they’re weak, so I have to work to remove that stigma for them.If you want to insult someone, you call them crazy or a psycho. Parents would say ‘if you don’t behave, we’ll send you to Ranchi [a famous psychiatric asylum]. People see beggars in the street with psychiatric problems and worry they’ll end up like that. There’s a fear of poverty, of family not accepting their problem. Families contribute a lot to the stigma by denying the reality of mental illness.

Charvi: People in their 20s or early 30s are more open to therapy, partly through exposure to American TV shows like Suits or How I Met Your Mother, which mention therapy. But people in their 30s or older tend not to come unless there’s a serious crisis. Often, people won’t tell their family or close friends they are getting therapy. Students may not tell their parents, and can’t pay for the sessions. Families can strengthen the stigma – you often hear ‘it’s all in your head’. I’m seeing a teenage girl with depression, and initially the family were supportive, but then when she didn’t get better they labelled her as lazy. People think they’re weak for not being able to cope without help. I tell them it’s the opposite – they’re strong for seeking help. Or they trivialize their problems – they say ‘do I really need therapy?’

And they still don’t know the distinction between a therapist and a psychiatrist. Many clinical psychologists here still have a very medical approach – their room is like a doctor’s chamber, with a table in between them and the client. That’s why I called my company Over A Cup of Tea. If people have been to counsellors before, often their experience wasn’t good – they get labelled, judged, with lots of morals enforced on them.

Mansi: Psychiatrists can also enforce their moral judgments. You still get psychiatrists recommending conversion therapy for homosexuality [which is illegal in India]. Or doctors saying ‘stop thinking about stuff so much, it’s not a big deal’.

Indian culture may not be very aware about therapy, but it does have a strong spiritual and religious culture – meditation, yoga and so on. Is that helpful? Do you draw on that in therapy?

Mansi: If people have a spirituality, it can be a great support system. Those who combine Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with their spirituality or faith tend to have a better outcome. On the other hand, spirituality can be too positive, it can encourage over-detachment. It can be like a drug – you keep needing to go to another workshop or retreat, and if you stop, things start falling apart.

Charvi: People sometimes bring in their religious or spiritual beliefs. If you can connect the therapy to that, it works better. For example, if someone is a Jain, like me, you can connect the therapy to the Jain idea of the ‘power within’. But usually people have already tried to get better through yoga or meditation. So if you mention it, it’s like a cliche.

How applicable have you found Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to Indian culture and Indian minds?

Mansi: It’s quite applicable and works quite well, partly because it fits with older Indian spiritual ideas [indeed, the inventor of CBT, Aaron Beck, was quite influenced by Buddhism and the Dalai Lama has said it’s very close to Buddhist theories of the emotions]. Mindfulness-CBT is obviously close to Indian spirituality, though it’s still very new here. I sometimes recommend clients use Headspace [a British meditation app].

Charvi: People find CBT very intriguing. Often they have Googled their problems, self-diagnosed, and found that CBT is effective for depression or anxiety.

Is therapy just for the well-off in India?

Mansi: I’m trying to create awareness among the less well-off but awareness is greater among the better-educated.

Charvi: Therapy is quite reasonably priced here, around INR500 a session [about $7]. I see people from lots of different classes.

India scored quite low in a UN global happiness survey last year – below Somalia in fact. And it has one of the higher suicide levels in the world, particularly for young people. Is it quite a stressed, unhappy culture? If so, why?

Mansi: I think a huge amount of depression goes unreported in India. I see a lot of depression among women, due to gender inequality in our culture. They are encouraged not to be individuals, to live purely for the happiness of their husband and his family. If they have a good husband and in-laws, it can be fine, but if not, it’s hellish. And if they have ‘home-maker depression’, there’s not much I can do for them, it’s a systemic problem. They can’t afford to divorce and be financially independent, and their families might not have them back. There are extreme cases of abuse, but in general it can be an insidious abuse where the mother-in-law makes their life hell. It comes from the man not supporting his wife, wanting to be a good son instead. Some women are standing up and breaking out of this. Maybe they demand more autonomy within the marriage, maybe they get divorced and start an independent life. It can be a huge struggle for them, but once they get there they enjoy better mental health. As for men, they often report problems at work, where office life can be very hierarchical and they feel bullied by their boss.

Charvi: There’s a lot of discontent – Indians tend to compare their life with others’ lives, with their friends or neighbours, and feel they’re not living well in comparison. There’s always someone doing better. Status anxiety is also very prevalent – people rely on external validation to feel they’re OK and doing well. I think a big problem is that, in the context of families and relationships, boundaries are very blurred. If you want to follow your passion, that comes with a lot of guilt – people feel obliged to be with their parents. But if they obey their parents, they feel they’re missing out and their lives lack meaning.

How about student mental health? Is there a lot of pressure to do well in your exams?

Mansi: A huge amount. There’s actually a campaign, Release the Pressure, about exam pressure and how harmful it can be. People think their exam results define their worth as a human being. I hear people say ‘she got 98% in her exams’ about a 36-year-old. Now there’s a slight change, parents are backing off a bit, or trying to expose their children more to things like the arts, outside of school.

What about sex therapy?

Mansi: I used to get a lot of work for sex therapy, and still get some. But I’ve had some bad experiences around it. A woman therapist working with me – I wouldn’t be able to handle that.

So how can public awareness around mental health be improved in India?

Charvi: There’s more talk about well-being in the media, in weekend supplements and things. But it tends to be more about physical health. I use articles and videos to try and increase awareness. [Mansi also often writes articles on mental health].

Here’s the video for the Release the Pressure campaign:

The ecstatic experience economy

There’s a new book out later this month on the psychology of ecstatic experiences, and why they’re good for us. It’s called Stealing Fire, by two performance coaches, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. It might be disconcerting to have another book on ecstasy published two months before my own, but actually I’m glad others are walking the same path and coming to similar conclusions. I disagree on one or two points the authors make, however. The book isn’t out until later this month, but I heard them on The Psychology Podcast. Great podcast by the way.

So why did these two coaches, who specialize in teaching ‘flow’, start talking instead about ecstasy, or ‘ecstasis’ as they call it in the ancient Greek word. Kotler says that they started coming across similar experiences across a whole range of domains – meditation, psychedelics, the arts, sex, extreme sports. ‘It was a broader category of which flow is a subset.’ In fact, the Positive Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli developed his concept of flow (i.e moments where we’re blissfully absorbed into a challenging activity) out of the idea of ecstasy, as he told me in this interview.

Nomenclature is tricky for this domain of experience. William James and Alister Hardy wrote of ‘religious experiences’, defining them as ‘individuals standing alone in relation to the divine’ – but that ignored collective ecstatic experiences, and the fact atheists also have moments of self-transcendence. Durkheim spoke of ‘collective effervescence’ which sounds like a bubble bath. Abraham Maslow wrote of ‘peak experiences’, but that ignores the fact these experiences are often terrifying, and occur to people in life-crises. These days, the few psychologists who explore this terrain still haven’t agreed on nomenclature – some study ‘self-transcendence’, others ‘out-of-the-ordinary or anomalous experiences’, others ‘mystical experiences’, or ‘altered states of consciousness’. Not to mention the related research fields on hypnosis, trance and possession. The topic is so interdisciplinary – from aesthetics to sex to sports to politics – and the authors are to be applauded for recognizing that and not being deterred.

Personally, I’ve also gone for ‘ecstasy’ as my preferred term, because it’s got the longest history. But the risk of that is people think you mean either MDMA or ‘feeling very, very happy’. The authors make the mistake too of describing ecstasis as ‘north-of-happy states’. No! As Gordon Wasson, who reintroduced magic mushrooms into western culture, wrote: ‘In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. The vulgar abuse the word: we must recapture it in its full and terrifying sense.’ Another risk, which I may have fallen into, is that talking about ‘ecstatic experience’ makes it all about something happening within oneself, something one ‘has’, rather than something transpersonal happening beyond you, an encounter or realization rather than an experience (which sounds more like a thrill).

The altered states economy

The authors are coaches who make a lot of money giving talks and workshops to companies and CEOs on flow and peak performance, so they are quite focused on the practical business applications of ecstasy. They speak of the ‘altered states economy’, and suggest that today we spend around $4 trillion a year trying to get out of our heads and beyond our egos. ‘That’s insane, and no one’s talking about it’, says Wheal. To get to this figure, they added up all that we spend on, say, legal and illegal drugs, the alcohol industry, extreme sports, gaming, immersive arts like IMAX or festivals, gambling, self-help and psychology, and so on. It’s a bit rough-and-ready, but their basic point is right – the human desire for self-transcendence and ego-loss is fundamental, and late capitalism has found many ways to make money from it, including addictive behaviours like drugs and gambling. I’ve also written about what I call (in a nod to Joe Pine’s idea of the experience economy), the ‘ecstatic experience economy‘. There is also a political economy of ecstasy – states and empires use awe and wonder to increase their power, and now corporations like Disney, Cirque du Soleil and Magic Leap sell us enchantment and transcendence.

Tony Robbins and the human potential movement helped to instrumentalize ecstasy as a tool to capitalist success

The authors also want to convince us of how ecstasy leads to peak performance. This is very much in the tradition of human potential coaches like Anthony Robbins, who teaches how ecstatic or peak states can unlock our life-potential (hence his use of fire-walking, pumping techno, trampolines and so on). They’re particularly interested in how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs used meditation and psychedelics to unlock their creativity. They quote life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss: ‘The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.’ Tune in, turn on, get rich!

This weird fusion of the ecstatic and the capitalist goes back to Stanford Uni in the 1970s, when pioneers of the digital economy like Jobs, Stewart Brand and Douglas Engelbart mixed coding with Bay Area spirituality. Engelbart introduced LSD boot-camps at his Stanford research unit (after one trip he invented a toilet that played music when you peed in it). This led to the idea that the main route to ecstatic experiences would be the start-up, the dot.commune, the guru-CEO creating a new utopia in cyberspace. A great introduction to this is Fred Turner’s history, From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

I guess my issue with the selling of ecstasy as a way to peak capitalist performance is that, historically, ecstatic experiences have involved a revolution in the self and a revolution in values. St Paul is utterly transformed after his Damascene moment, his values are utterly transformed – he has died, someone new has been born. The instrumental use of ecstasy for conventional goals of success and power seems to me closer to the magic of Simon Magus or Aleister Crowley. But it’s often there in religion too – what is the Prosperity Gospel if not the instrumentalization of ecstasy for worldly aims?

The risk of the psychology or neurobiology of ecstasy is it leaves out the ethics. Most spiritual traditions emphasize that ecstatic experiences are at best a distraction and at worst a serious risk if they’re not grounded in strong ethics. Later psychologists have come to this conclusion too – William James suggested we evaluate religious experiences based on the ‘fruits’. I think the authors understand this, they speak of the ‘dark side’ of ecstasy, and warn it often leads to unbridled hedonism. But that’s not the main risk, historically. The main risk is that ecstasy without humility leads to pride, the feeling that you’re special, chosen, elite, Crowleian supermen. Kotler and Wheal’s book, talking about the special ‘Prometheans’ or ‘supermen’ whose ecstatic experiences prove how wise and advanced they are (and rich! did we mention they’re rich?), could feed this tendency.

The four drivers of ecstasis

The authors argue we’re at a special moment in history, when suddenly we understand ecstatic experiences better than ever, and can get them ‘at a flick of a switch’. Why now? Because of four drivers. Firstly, psychology. Kotler says that, after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, psychology took a ‘hundred-year detour’ and focused on psychopathology. Altered states of consciousness were dismissed or pathologized, but in the last decade psychologists like Czikszentimihayli and David Yaden have realized they’re actually good for us. This is not quite right – as co-author Jamie Wheal notes, ecstatic experiences were hugely studied in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, particularly through the human potential movement and transpersonal psychology. What’s really happened in the last decade is that transpersonal psychology has gone mainstream, thanks to the rise of contemplative science and the return of psychedelic science.

Secondly, neurobiology. Brain-scanning techniques have enabled scientists to take ecstasy more seriously. Before, it seemed a very flakey topic for research, that led into career cul-de-sacs like parapsychology or after-death-investigations. But look, a brain-scan – something really is happening! This was reassuring for the Doubting Thomases in academia. Now, there is interesting neurobiology on ecstasy done by scientists like Andrew Newberg, Richard Davidson and Robin Carhart-Harris, showing the neural correlates of states of ego-loss and deep absorption.

There is a risk that these very early insights are then uncritically seized upon to argue that ‘the mystical is now neurobiological’, as Wheal puts it, or that the mystical has now been ‘decoded’ as Kotler says. In other words, because something happens in the brain, mystical experiences are nothing but brain events. This would be a big mistake by psychiatry – it has a 300-year bad record of pathologizing and ignoring these experiences, to the great harm of many people and of western culture in general, for which no one has ever apologized. Now, when it starts seeing the positive side of these experiences, it again rushes to a triumphalist scientistic interpretation.

As the podcast presenter, Scott Barry Kaufmann, who researches in this field, points out: ‘Everything is biologically mediated, so that statement is not as exciting as you think. There’s so much we don’t know – we’re at the start, not the end point.’ He’s quite right. Andrew Newberg, for example, has found that ecstatic experiences involve the emotional processing areas of the brain. Well, no shit! How is that useful, besides as a way of getting sceptical scientists to take ecstasy seriously?

The third driver the authors outline is pharmacological – particularly the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ today. No arguments there, though again it’s very very early days in the research. And the fourth driver is technological. New technology makes ecstasy more widely available than ever before, they argue. For example? New amplification technology makes music concerts better. In the old days it was just the Grateful Dead, now we have huge EDM festivals. Uh huh. And new skis make powder skiiing easier. Right….I’m not entirely convinced. Just because electric guitars are more advanced now than the 60s, doesn’t mean people play them better than Hendrix did, or that the experience of the audience is more intense than it was at Monterey or Woodstock (who really thinks that?) It’s partly the shock of the new that creates the ecstatic – the shock of, say, the first use of the Roland 303 in acid house. I’d say humans are constantly inventing new technologies and scripts for ecstasy, from cave paintings to virtual reality. Our age has developed some new scripts, but so did every age before us.

I also think that, like many secular psychologists and neuroscientists, the authors don’t entirely get the connection between ecstasy and ritual. Like Sam Harris, they’re impatient with ritual, which is all woo-woo. They want an entirely stripped-down, rationalist, flick-of-a-switch mechanistic ecstasy, one liberated from middle-men. Wheal says:

For folks who have mythological or mystical explanations and assumed [ecstasy] came from grace or adherence to religion, we can say, here are the mechanisms. It cuts out the middlemen, the priest class, those who presume to tell us how to get it. This is our human birthright. Mystical experiences can be demystified and we can create them a hell of a lot more often than when people are bowing and scraping to Mecca.

Kumbh Mela. Low-tech ecstasy

Never mind the casual insult to 1.6 billion Muslims, this fails to understand the power of rituals – including pilgrimages – to bring us to ecstasy. You think westerners now have more ecstasy than ever before? Compared to the Middle Ages? Compared to, say, Indian culture today? OK, Burning Man now attracts thousands and thousands of people…The Kumbh Mela in India attracted 120 million people in 2013, and they had no more technology than tents, chillums, bhang and a river. And what the Sixties showed us is you can do away with the ‘middlemen’ of Christianity, but often new middle-men rise up – gurus, artists, politicians, rockstars, dare I say it, even self-help coaches, who ‘presume’ to tell us how to find ecstasy and what it means.

I also think the authors miss out an important cultural driver for why we are talking about ecstatic / spiritual experiences today. The main reason, I think, is the decline of organized religion in the west. This has created a large group of ‘nones’ or ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, who are just as hungry for spiritual experiences, perhaps even hungrier than before. Hence the fact that, while attendance at church is going down, the number of people who say they have had spiritual or mystical experience in the US and UK is going up.

But a spirituality based on ecstatic experiences and detached from moral dogma and community can make us overly attached to them, so that we fetishize them, we make them the goal of the journey, rather than something which may happen along the way. What then is the better goal? Love and awakening to our true selves, I would say. Transhumanists, life-hackers and human potential coaches always speak of ‘peak performance’, and rarely about love, vulnerability, openness. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’

Having said that, there’s much that I agree with in Kotler and Wheal’s analysis, particularly their insight that the internet has allowed an open-source big data approach to ecstasy, a ‘crowd-sourced Bible’ – the exact phrase I’ve used in my book! I didn’t copy you, guys, I swear. I’ll definitely give the full book a read when it’s out later this month.

Enjoyed this? Read more about Jules’ research trip to India on the blog.

Colonial Anxiety and Vulnerability in British India

This is a guest post by Mark Condos. Mark obtained both his BA and MA at Queen’s University in Canada. In 2013, he received his PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he worked under the supervision of the late Professor Sir Christopher Bayly. In 2014, Mark was awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship at Queen Mary, University of London. His current research examines how different forms of legal and extrajudicial violence were incorporated by the British and French empires in their attempts to police different frontier regions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also written extensively on the history of ‘fanaticism’, colonial law, and violence.

In an essay written just a year after the suppression of the great Indian Rebellion of 1857, an officer within the Punjab administration named R.N. Cust bragged that, ‘It is the remarkable phenomenon of the English Rulers in India that they have no fear; either from ignorance, or the high spirit of youth, or the innate nobility of the conquering race, they go about alone among the people.’[1]

In many ways Cust’s statement was a typical example of what was known as the ‘Punjab School’ of colonial governance. This was a ‘rough and ready’ system of rule in which colonial officers were meant to live daily among their people, constantly touring their districts on horseback, while transacting their judicial and executive business with aplomb. These swaggering, swashbuckling figures projected an image of raw British power and invincibility that was meant to overawe their colonial subjects and cow them into submission.

Figure 1: Robert Needham Cust, c. 1840. From Robert Needham Cust, Memoirs of Past Years of a Septuagenarian (Hertford: Stephen Austin and Sons, 1899).

Cust was an archetypal Punjab School administrator, and his comments are a testament to this cult of the district officer: the mighty and courageous colonial administrator who shows no fear and never backs down. His statements also evoke a much wider culture of British sang froid where coolness, and stoic determination in the face of adversity and danger were prized above all else. Perhaps best epitomized by Kipling’s enduringly popular poem, ‘If—‘, the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ was one of the central conceits by which Britons imagined themselves from the mid-Victorian period onward.[2] In the imperial world, this British coolness became even more pronounced when contrasted against the supposedly ‘excitable,’ ‘hysterical,’ ‘childish,’ and excessively-effusive colonial subjects they encountered.

Yet for all of its bluster, this valorization of masculinity, self-control, and emotional restraint was ultimately an untenable imperial phantasmagoria. Kipling, for instance, was not always the unequivocal, jingoistic imperial cheerleader that his later incarnations seem to suggest he was, and many of his earlier stories actually evoke instances of colonial fallibility, frailty, and failure in India.[3] Even Cust himself raised some unsettling doubts about the supposed indomitability of British power. In the same essay cited above, Cust described how both his superior officer and assistant had been assassinated, and how he had been compelled to keep a loaded revolver in his desk by day, and under his pillow at night. Though he insisted he never had a ‘bad night from anxiety, or felt the necessity of beating a hasty retreat,’ he warned that if the British ever lost their prestige — their image of invincibility —— that colonial authority would collapse.[4]

Such an assertion was all the more poignant in the immediate aftermath of the 1857 Rebellion, which had shattered in spectacular fashion the notion of British invincibility. Far from being a simple expression of the bold self-confidence and swagger of the Punjab School and colonial rule more generally, then, Cust’s statements actually evoke a troubling and uncomfortable realization that British colonial power was fundamentally dependent on the illusion of its own strength.

Figure 2: ‘Unrest in Bengal’, from the cover of Black & White, 13 July 1907. This image poignantly conveys the British sense of being under ‘siege’ in India during a period of heightened anti-colonial resistance.

Imperial ideologies championing the strength and indomitability of the British conquering spirit, therefore, tended to obscure the fundamental doubts and uncertainties that were actually quite central to the colonial experience. This is the starting point for my most recent work, which explores the ‘dark underside’ of the ideologies that sustained British rule in India. The British, I argue, lived in a terrifying world, and were plagued by an unreasoning belief in their own vulnerability as rulers. Surrounded and outnumbered by strangers whom they did not fully understand, dependent on the loyalty of groups they were not always sure they could trust, and confronted with various forms of resistance on a regular basis, it is no surprise that the colonial regime spent so much time fretting about its own safety. These enduring anxieties, in turn, precipitated, and justified, an all too frequent recourse to violence, joined with an insistence on untrammelled power placed in the hands of executive (men like Cust).

While it would be a great overstatement to claim that the prevailing British experience in India was defined by a sense of weakness, or that the colonial state was somehow ‘powerless’, there was an abiding sense among Britons that India was an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous place. The British remained an exposed ruling minority and were very much alive to the danger that Indians might someday ‘call the bluff’ of their colonial overlords and rise up against them. In this anxious and fevered climate, dangers — both real and imagined — had a powerful impact in shaping the ways that colonial statecraft operated.


[1] Robert Needham Cust, ‘The Indian District’, Linguistic and Oriental Essays: Written from the Year 1840 to 1897, 2 vols. (London: Luzac & Co., 1898), vol. 1, p. 245.

[2] Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford: OUP, 2015), chap. 14.

[3] See Rudyard Kipling, ‘Thrown Away’, Plain Tales from the Hills (1888; London: Macmillan and Co., 1920); and ibid., ‘On the City Wall’, In Black and White (New York: The Lovell Company 1899).

[4] Cust, ‘The Indian District’, p. 245.

No love lost: Antipathy, antagonism and anger in Singles magazine, 1977-1982

This is a guest post by Zoe Strimpel, a third-year doctoral student at the University of Sussex, where she holds the Asa Briggs PhD scholarship in Modern British History. Her thesis explores the relationship between the British matchmaking industry after 1970 and changing romantic norms and gender dynamics. She has written two non-academic trade books about dating and gender: What the Hell Is He Thinking: All The Questions You Ever Asked About Men Answered (Penguin: 2010) and The Man Diet: One Woman’s Quest to End Bad Romance (Harper Collins: 2012).

Change can be confusing and frightening, particularly when it feels like control – however tenuous – is slipping away. And when people are confused, scared, or feel they’re losing their grip, they get angry. And they write angry things. In my view, hot emotions such as anger not only provide a framework for considering the affective drivers of everyday experience but they act as a flare on the horizon, alerting us to areas of sensitivity we might otherwise miss. Sore spots nudge us to think about the usual historical narratives from a different point of view.

One plum opportunity I’ve had for doing this recently concerns the reactions of a group of largely conservative single people around 1980. Men and women countrywide of different incomes and ages, the diverse feelings of these lonely hearts are accessible through the numerous letters they penned to a national solos’ magazine called (shockingly) Singles. Many were divorced – swept up in the soaring divorce figures of the 1970s, when marriage terminations tripled, the women often struggling to raise children single-handedly. But many were also in their 20s and early 30s, people who found (or felt) themselves still standing when the music stopped. The never-marrieds were hardly alone either – the number of single person households (though this includes widows and widowers) was the fastest-growing type after the 70s.

Singles reader letters are curiously, depressingly addictive – the sheer intensity of sexually acrimonious feeling kept me reading and reading. They also made me think in new ways about the legacies of the 70s. Before, I’d tended to think about the decade’s sexual progress as inexorable, while also wondering how the explosion in feminist discourse fit within the larger moral and emotional landscape of a Britain whose adults had been born in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.  These letters prompted me to reckon with all those who experienced feminism on a daily basis as a source of vexation, disagreement and confusion.

When Singles was launched in 1977, readers had been what they often called ‘subjected’ to nearly a decade of sexual liberation movements. Women’s liberation had introduced a whole new vocabulary, and whether or not its ideas and goals were agreed with, there was no getting away from the fact that ‘equality’ – in the bedroom, at work, at home, in childcare – was at the heart of a growing discourse that appeared everywhere from high politics to TV to Cosmopolitan magazine. The actions and calls of feminists were a media mainstay. Nor was it all talk – as Carol Dyhouse has chronicled, the expansion of higher education saw huge take-up of university places by women in the 70s, and more women were working in a (still limited) variety of jobs. By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, it seemed like women had gained power across the board at a break-neck speed, their rights to succeed enshrined in the Equal Pay (1970) and Sex Discrimination Acts (1975). And having been in universal circulation for over a decade, the Pill had changed the entire relationship between sex, gender and family in ways not everybody was happy with. There were raw feelings about female sexuality and motherhood, which – in Singles letters – often took the form of accusations of women’s greed, selfishness and unreality.

But among Singles readers, feelings about women’s changing economic status prompted some of the most heated exchanges. Money was a cipher for power, and the easiest way into the question of how power was being reconfigured between the sexes was often through something as seemingly trivial as who paid for what on dates. But men’s feelings about women’s economic status were complicated, hedged on one hand by the sense that women had enough money of their own now to mean they (men) no longer had to pay for dinner, but also that women had actually become more money-grubbing at the same time. The idea that women had cried equality, got it and all its trappings (eg good jobs and good incomes) and still expected men to pay for them on dates was extremely galling to many. This was a moment in which the strength of the emotional response was the flare on the horizon rather than the perception contained within it. After all, the latter had little in common with reality as most women experienced it.

Here’s an example of anger about women and money. In the November 1978 issue, bachelor Noel Shaw wrote in the lonely hearts ads at the back of the magazine. ‘It will be found that roughly one in three women include in their requirements, one or more of the three words, “business”, “professional”, and “executive”. Using your red felt-tip, mark these “grabber”, “climber”, “leech”, 'When writing your ad' guidelineswhatever takes your fancy. Also, look for those including such phrases as “financially sound”, “wealthy”, “reasonably rich”, “successful”, “solvent”, “generous” and the like. Mark these “G/Digger” or with just a plain “£” or “$” sign. …. actually there may be some justification here, if there is any truth in the rumour that some women can only achieve orgasms in a bedroom with a £20 note pasted to the ceiling’

Weaving between the insulting and the sexually explicit, this kind of invective was fairly commonplace in the letters pages of the magazine, and underscores the kind of muddled feelings about women’s changing status – and the perceived attack on male resources – I’ve been talking about. Not all men were so crude, but letter after letter from men spurned in the lonely hearts pages essentially blamed the march of women’s rights for creating ‘a new breed of female predators’ that no man would ‘even want to marry, let alone live with’.

But what about the women? They in turn found their opposites unreliable, oafish, poor and shirking of their domestic and financial responsibilities.  A Ms M.P. of Surrey’s response to Noel Shaw’s letter was particularly passionate. Defending female terminology in the lonely hearts pages, she argued that it wasn’t women who were to blame, but the reality of experience with modern men that induced women to take semantic precautions.  Indeed, her profound dissatisfaction with contemporary gender relations pivoted on an idea of a better, vanished past. She fumed: ‘“Professional’ man is stipulated in order that unwashed unshaven and part dressed yobs don’t appear for meals and also to intimate that the advertiser would like to meet a male with a wider topic of conversation than football and bars.

As the testimony of the Singles readership suggests, the feelings that many daters brought to the courtship table ­– whether they were divorced or never married – were not those of love, affection, romantic sentiment and seductive ambition. Rather, faced with their opposite numbers at the end of a decade of unprecedented sexual change, singles vented anger, frustration, resentment, economic anxiety and sexual antipathy.  Being attentive to these feelings allows us to see a fuller picture of British emotional and relational life at this time, foregrounding the widespread backlash that would become so visible in the 1980s and unfortunately, in the age of Trump, so visible once again now.

Meet Our PhD Students: Jane Mackelworth

Credit: Joanne O’Brien

Jane Mackelworth is a PhD student in the Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Centre for Studies of Home

Jane Mackelworth is in the final stages of writing up her PhD thesis: ‘Sapphic Love and Desire in Britain, 1900-1950.’ Her PhD is funded by the Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Centre for Studies of Home. Her research looks at how a small number of British women wrote about Sapphic love and desire in diaries, confessional memoirs and letters in the first half of the twentieth century. Her research suggests that we must look beyond the language and conceptual framework of sexology when seeking to understand how women represented and understood their same-sex love affairs in the first half of the twentieth century. Prior to her PhD Jane obtained an MA in Historical Research at Birkbeck, University of London. She did her MA dissertation on the subjectivity of suffragette and actress Vera ‘Jack’ Holme (1881-1969) who also features in her current research.

Jane is also an assistant editor at NOTCHES; the peer-reviewed, collaborative and international history of sexuality blog. She is also a co-convenor of the London based IHR History of Sexuality seminar series. In February 2016 she co-edited a special edition of the Women’s History Review: ‘Love, Desire and Melancholy: Inspired by Constance Maynard’ and co-wrote the introduction to the special issue: ‘Inspired by Constance Maynard: exploring women’s sexual, emotional and religious lives through their writing.’ The special issue will shortly be published in book form by Routledge. Jane is also interested in public engagement. She developed and set up the award winning ‘Love in Objects’ project and exhibition in collaboration with artists at the Bromley by Bow Centre in east London. In 2015 she worked in partnership with Dr Sally Holloway to set up the Reading Emotions community book group in east London. The group read popular and forgotten novels by women on the subject of love over the last three hundred years.

Prior to starting her PhD Jane worked in the charity sector, and has many years’ experience in developing projects and securing funding from statutory sources, individuals, companies and, charitable trusts. She worked most recently as Development Director at the Bromley by Bow Centrein east London.

Her research interests more widely are the history of gender and sexuality; the history of the emotions; the history of magic and magical beliefs; the significance of material culture in historical research; and the history of beliefs.

Mental illness: challenging the stigma around India’s big secret

Last week I was at a panel on mental health in India, at a conference in Goa organized by UCL. The speaker – Ratnaboli Ray, who runs a mental health NGO called Anjali in West Bengal – asked for anyone in the audience who’d ever had mental illness or been on psychiatric drugs to raise their hands. For a few seconds, no one did. And then about 15 of us did, in a room of around 100.

It felt strange to me, raising my hand, in a way I’m not sure it would anymore in the UK – it felt like I was risking my status, pushing against a wall of shame and secrecy. In fact, I only raised my hand because the lady next to me did first.

This is the paradox: that a culture with such a huge focus on health, well-being and spiritual wisdom should see mental illness as so taboo. If Prince Siddhartha hadn’t had a breakdown, India would have never given the world Buddhism, yet this is a country where mental illness is simply not discussed.

Why? My tentative initial answer is that India (like the UK) is a country obsessed with status and hierarchy. Mental illness is still seen as a terrible blot on one’s status, and therefore a risk to one’s career advancement, one’s marriage prospects, one’s place on the social scale, and above all to your family’s social prospects.

It’s also a threat to your rights. If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, it can affect your ability to open a bank account, to get a driving license, to maintain custody of your children. Until 1976, it was accepted as grounds for divorce.

To protect the family status, the mentally ill are often abandoned in over-crowded psychiatric care facilities, where they can be ‘treated worse than animals’, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Mental illness is also hiding in plain sight in India. According to two recent surveys, between 130 million and 150 million Indians are suffering from a mental illness, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. I’ve met successful young Indians on my travels who are clearly stressed, over-worked, and in need of help. But mental illness is seen as a terrible curse, not something that pretty much happens to everyone in varying degrees of intensity.

As the Buddha put it, life is suffering – having a mind means you sometimes experience mental distress, and there are techniques we can learn to mitigate that, both psychological and pharmaceutical. Indeed, Buddhism is one of the major influences on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which the NHS has put over one billion pounds into providing.

Yet in India, 90% of those with mental illness receive no treatment at all. India has 0.3 psychiatrists per 100,000, one of the lowest figures in the world. And they’re almost entirely in big cities. (Here’s a graph about that:)

Even among the urban affluent, very few seek therapy because of the stigma attached. I sat next to one lady on a plane and said I wrote about mental health. She told me of her ex-husband, who refused to admit he had depression. I didn’t like to ask if they had divorced or he was one of the 250,000 Indians who kill themselves each year.

Soumitra Pathare, an academic who drafted a new Mental Health Act, says: ‘There is institutionalized discrimination against the mentally ill. If they were a caste or women, we would be doing something for them, but we do nothing.’

Things are finally beginning to change. The new Mental Health Act is due to be made law this parliament, and will legally guarantee Indians’ right to treatment, and also to refuse treatment if they don’t want it (many inmates are in asylums and given Electro-Shock Therapy without consent).  There are new initiatives to train community health workers to give brief psychological therapies.

There are several new apps and websites that offer counseling and therapy online. In Chennai, India’s third biggest city, I saw adverts for private counsellors and a wall painted with a big sign: Depression Is Treatable. There’s even a sex therapist in Bangalore (something so unusual it was written up in the media).

There are signs of a new openness around mental illness and wellbeing – last year, there was even a Bollywood film, Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression from a kindly therapist. Imagine if one of India’s cricket superheroes opened up about mental illness – something several western sports stars have begun to do.

Still from Dear Zindagi

At the UCL conference, I spoke to Vikram Patel, a Wellcome-funded psychiatrist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has pioneered training rural community care workers in the delivery of brief psychological therapies, who was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world (he points out the leader of Boko Haram is also on the list).

Why are there so few psychiatrists in India?

There’s a bottleneck problem in training – only accredited teachers can train new psychiatrists and there are very few accredited teachers. There’s also a stigma around being a psychiatrist, compared to say a neuroscientist. And there’s a huge distribution problem too – most psychiatrists work privately in big cities. In rural India, there could be a region with 10 million inhabitants and no psychiatrists.

Your approach is to train community ‘health visitors’ to give brief therapy?

Yes, we’ve trained health workers to give specific treatments for specific conditions. We found it worked very well when they were trained just for that, in controlled conditions. We now need to see how it works out in the field, in frontline primary care, where health workers treat not just mental but physical illness. The treatment of both in fact uses similar skills – lifestyle support, behavioural change support, the promotion of self-care.

And they give similar sorts of psychological therapies to western psychotherapy? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, interpersonal counseling etc?

Yes, similar therapies, but briefer and simpler. The most profound discovery for me is that the theory of psychological mechanisms is universal. Cultural factors play a role in the metaphors you might use. Say you train people to use meditation and yoga in the treatment of anxiety. You could train them to breathe in, and then breathe out saying ‘om’, or a prayer to Jesus if they’re Christian. Those cultural factors make a difference because you’re tapping into hope, which is a very powerful healer.

Is depression and anxiety treated here?

Hardly at all. I thought the ‘worried well’ was a Western phenomenon but it exists here too. The majority could recover with some form of self-care, but some need more clinical interventions. But depression and anxiety are not even seen as illnesses. It’s just your social situation. It gets somatized, as fatigue or insomnia for example. And doctors would also not recognize they’re actually treating depression, they would treat it with painkillers or sleeping pills. People criticize me for medicalizing people’s experience, but these people are already in clinics, they’re just not getting the right treatment.

So nothing like the NHS’ psychotherapy service exists here?

Nothing remotely like it. We recently published a trial of psychotherapy in the Lancet- that was the first ever trial of psychotherapy in India. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the NHS’ therapy service, which was too professionalized. We want more self-care and community care – my dream is to be able to train someone off the street to treat someone else for depression.

Do you think computerized-CBT apps could be a way of getting therapy to more people?

Yes, I’m bullish on technology, it will transform healthcare in general. But there are limits on access to the internet, particularly for the poor and women.  But we’re beginning to see things like Facebook pages for people with schizophrenia.

Are there charities and NGOs lobbying for improved mental healthcare?

There are, but they’re small, very local, and not yet working effectively together in the way we’ve seen, for example, in the treatment of HIV.

Could online media – blogs etc – play a role in opening up the conversation and getting rid of stigma?

Definitely. In fact, we’re launching a website in April which will encourage people to share their experiences online through various social media. You can watch Vikram’s TED talk online.



Blog Round-Up November 16 – January 17

In case you’ve missed any blog posts, here’s a round-up from November 16 to January 17 (you can read previous round-ups too). These are listed in chronological order by month of publication.


Music and Emotions Concert – Part 1 by Helen Stark

Music and Emotions Concert – Part 2 by Helen Stark

Our Museum of the Normal series: Normativity November:

The History of Being Normal by Sarah Chaney

Psychic Driving: Therapy, Mind Control and Programming the Normal by David Saunders

Defining the Archeological Normal by Stacy Hackner

From Tears to Laughter: Normative Emotion and the Man of Feeling

How the Alt-Right Emerged from Men’s Self Help by Jules Evans

The Lingering of the Lost Self. Review: Deborah Lutz’s ‘Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture’ by Tiffany Watt Smith


In our series ‘What is Anger?’

Angers Past or Anger’s Past? by Thomas Dixon

Translating ‘Anger’ in the Sixteenth Century: A response to Thomas Dixon (Kind Of) by Kirk Essary

Farts and Friars, Rebellion and Wrath: A Response to Thomas Dixon by Paul Megna

Do Psychedelics Make the Terminally Ill Believe in the Afterlife? by Jules Evans 

Dumb Witnessing: Good Old Boys and Canine Grief by Margery Masterson

New podcast: the politics of wellbeing, with Richard Layard and William Davies by Jules Evans

January (2017)

New Publications, October-December 2016 by Sarah Chaney

‘Stop Thinking About Death … and Stop Shouting at People’: Psychic Driving at the Museum of the Normal by David Saunders

‘Doleful Groans and Sad Lookes’: Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England by Hannah Newton

James Mallinson, The Sadhu-Academic by Jules Evans






Wellcome Trust University Award Candidate in History of Emotions, Health, and Medicine  

The School of History at Queen Mary University of London seeks to identify an exceptionally strong candidate to sponsor as an applicant for a Wellcome Trust University Award in Humanities and Social Science.

The selected individual will be an outstanding researcher in the fields of history of emotions, health, and medicine in the early modern or modern periods, with specialism in any geographical area. They will hold a PhD and have built up a competitive track record in a relevant area of research. They will not currently hold a permanent academic post.

We seek an applicant who can demonstrate their commitment to collaborative research and to imaginative engagement with contemporary culture and politics. They will be expected to play an active role in shaping, strengthening, and leading the research, engagement, and teaching activities of the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions, including contributing to undergraduate and MA teaching and PhD supervision.

A University Award provides support for up to five years. During its first three years, the award allows a focus on research rather than teaching and administration. At the end of the five-year award, the award holder will be appointed to a permanent post in the QMUL School of History at lecturer, senior lecturer, or reader level, as appropriate.

Prospective applicants should study the Wellcome Trust’s own guidelines on University Awards in the Humanities and Social Science and familiarise themselves with the work of the QMUL “Living With Feeling” project.

We particularly welcome applications from black and minority ethnic candidates, who are currently under-represented within QMUL at this level.

The Centre for the History of the Emotions will support the selected candidate in working up a preliminary application to the Wellcome Trust by 6 July 2017 and, if successful at that stage, a full application by 21 September 2017.

Please send expressions of interest by email, attaching:

  • CV
  • one sample publication (article or chapter)
  • summary of your research and engagement plans for the next five years (up to two sides of A4)
  • names and contact details of three academic referees

Closing date for expressions of interest: Friday 24 March 2017.

We will shortlist and interview during April 2017 with a view to selecting one candidate by the end of that month to support in the Wellcome competition in July.

Send your expression of interest and supporting materials, by 24 March 2017, to Dr Helen Stark: h.stark@qmul.ac.uk

Informal enquiries to Professor Thomas Dixon: t.m.dixon@qmul.ac.uk