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:

Informal enquiries to Professor Thomas Dixon:

Sadness on the Big Screen: London SadFest March 3-5

This is a guest post by Dr Åsa Jansson, an associate member of the Centre for the History of the Emotions. Her research explores the history of “disordered” or “pathological” emotions since the 1800s, and the different ways in which modern medicine has tried to label and categorise our emotions as normal or deviant in different contexts. For more details about Åsa’s research, including publications, please see her Academia page.

We seem to be scared of sadness as a society, we’re always running away from it. I think we need to stop running and instead face up to and even embrace sadness. It’s a big part of being human and I think it’s at the heart of compassion.” Steve Todd, organiser of London SadFest

Why do we love sad films? What is it about sitting in a dark cinema (or in front of the TV at home) crying your eyes out that’s so appealing? Isn’t sadness supposed to be a negative emotion, especially in contemporary society? In many ways, contemporary cultural messages seem to tell us to avoid sadness at all costs, that happiness is both the ultimate life goal and an individual choice.[i] Happiness has even become a political objective: in 2011 the government rolled out the Happiness Survey (formally entitled ‘personal well-being in the UK’) in an attempt to measure how happy the British public are.

However, as Rhodri Hayward noted when the first results of the survey were published in 2013, the government’s focus on ‘individual’ happiness at a time of growing inequality and job insecurity highlights a fundamental division in contemporary British politics between a rights-based approach to well-being and one that focuses on internal emotional states.

Another problem with the twenty-first century preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness is that  sadness is, of course, unavoidable. There are times when we will feel sad, despite our best efforts to be happy. However, the way in which we’re drawn to artistic representations of sadness suggests that this emotion is not only unavoidable, but at times desirable. So, can sadness be a positive emotion? Can it be enjoyable? Useful?

These are some of the questions that inspired London SadFest, a film festival that explores and celebrates sadness on the big screen. The festival runs over three days, March 3-5, at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End, and brings together scholars, poets, artists, and, of course, sad films.

Each film screening is followed by a short talk and discussion around some of the themes invoked by the film. The festival kicks off on the Friday evening with a viewing of David Lynch’s classic film The Elephant Man, which is based on the true story of Victorian ‘freak’ Joseph Merrick (called John in the film). Merrick’s story deals with themes that resonate with most of us: loneliness, compassion, fear, and the desire to belong.

Joseph Merrick, also known as ‘the Elephant Man’ in 1898. British Medical Journal. Credit Wellcome Library, London

After the film I will briefly speak to the audience about sadness in relation to one of the film’s central themes, compassion. The Elephant Man asks us to feel empathy toward the film’s protagonist – to feel with him, not just for him. We are invited to recognise our own humanity in this visually monstrous figure, to see him not just as our equal but as our potential self. The idea of compassionate sadness suggests that sadness has important uses as a basis for social relations. I will explore the question of useful sadness within the context of the history of sadness and melancholy in modern Britain, inviting the audience to consider whether the twenty-first century pursuit of happiness and our growing aversion to sadness prevent us also from feeling compassionate sadness, the kind of sadness that inspires us see past that which divides us and reach out to our fellow human beings.

After the talk, the audience can proceed to drown their sorrows at the bar, which will also host a number of live performances on the sadness theme.

The theme of the second day is ‘love, friendship and vulnerability’, with screenings of Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) and Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), as well as more performances. Kes is followed by a talk by Sarbijt Samra, who will be speaking to the audience about some of the issues highlighted by the film. Sarbijt’s talk will suggest that the authenticity of Kes comes from the fact that the film doesn’t compromise. Rather, it faces head on difficult questions about social class that are at least as relevant today as when the film was first released – if not more so.


The final day of London SadFest continues to explore sadness, through ‘tragic decisions and historical forces’. The first screening is of Pakula’s 1983 film Sophie’s Choice, after which literature and drama scholar Jennifer Wallace will invite the audience to think about what constitutes a ‘tragic film’. Traditionally, since the ancient Greeks, tragedy has been thought to be the province of the theatre. But can we speak about a tragic film? And how would we define it? Jennifer Wallace offers a whistle-stop tour through some essentials of tragedy – choice, recognition, pity and fear, fate, catharsis – guide our assessment of ‘sad’ films.

The festival closes with Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009), which will be introduced by Marcia Harris. Marcia will discuss some of the issues that made the film controversial when it was released, and which divided critical opinion. Marcia has a background in child psychology and community work and holds a core belief that agency and power, especially a child’s, grows strongest when nurtured from within, rather than bestowed upon us by acts of benevolence.

London SadFest will be a weekend full of emotion, but it also promises to be a thought-provoking event. The tensions, or contradictions, in how sadness is perceived and experienced are not specific to our time period. For instance, Erin Sullivan has highlighted the complex place of sadness in Shakespeare’s England, suggesting that:

“No passion was believed to harm the body more than sadness – according to contemporary mortality records it was responsible for more deaths than all the other passions combined – and yet none was linked so consistently with spiritual repentance and conversion”.[ii]

A woman’s face expressing sadness. Engraving by M. Engelbrecht (?), 1732, after C. Le Brun. 1732. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This contrast between sadness as harmful and sadness as useful might resonate with current ideas about sadness as pathology versus sadness as cathartic (e.g. watching a sad film and “having a good cry”), but Sullivan’s remark also speaks to view of the emotions that holds these to be historical events. Emotions take different forms and have different cultural significance in different time periods, and some emotions disappear entirely, while new ones emerge. The sadness of Early Modern England is not the sadness of twenty-first century society – for instance, sadness is not considered a common or barely even possible cause of death today. To the question of whether sadness is useful or harmful, then, we must also add the question of whether it’s a universal emotion.


If you’re curious about the place of sadness in contemporary (and historical) society, or if you simply enjoy sad films, come along to London SadFest. Just don’t forget to bring tissues!

Tickets for London SadFest are on sale now. You can read more about the festival and book your tickets here on their website.

[i] E.g.;

[ii] Erin Sullivan, Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 14.


Medical humanities in India: a field ripe for development

I’m travelling through India for three months. While out here, I’m doing some work exploring emotional health in India, and some of the fascinating intersections that take place between the UK and India in health – from western tourists travelling here for cheap operations or ‘yoga holidays’, to Indian doctors travelling to the UK to work (25,000 Indian doctors practice in the UK, helping to make India the largest exporter of doctors in the world).

I’m five weeks into my trip, and finding it exhilarating.  I particularly like the relaxed spiritual pluralism here. In the UK, secular materialism is very much the dominant metaphysics, and if you start talking about ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ or even ‘God’ you immediately feel you’re on the lunatic fringe of things. I have a book coming out in May on ecstatic experiences, and I’m somewhat dreading the publicity tour, because such matters feel so off-the-beaten-track in British culture.

By contrast, in India, spirituality is more mainstream. That’s not to say India is one big ashram – it’s also an incredibly materialist, scientific, status-obsessed place. But the spiritual coexists with the material here on more equal terms. For example, I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s equivalent of Hay, where there were the usual novelists, historians and pundits, but also gurus like Sadhguru, a motorbike-driving yogi, who talked about his own ecstatic experiences like it was the most normal thing in the world. Someone like him wouldn’t get on the programme at Hay, or onto Radio 4. He wouldn’t be considered sufficiently intellectual.

Ram, a spiritually-pluralistic rickshaw driver

We’re suspicious of the spiritual and religious in the UK because we don’t want anyone forcing their beliefs onto us. And we like clarity in our beliefs – either you’re an evangelical, or you’re a skeptical materialist. In Indian culture, it appears to be less either / or, and more both / and. Take Ram, a rickshaw driver who ferried me around Jaipur. Ram worships Ganesh on Tuesdays, Hanuman on Wednesdays, and goes to Catholic church once a month. He’s also head of the communist rickshaw union. ‘God is one, but takes many forms’, he told me.

One finds a similar sort of relaxed pluralism in Indian health. At the Jaipur Festival, I met Aarathi Prasad, a scientist at UCL and the author of In The Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine. She spoke of India’s unique health system, in which there are seven officially-recognized types of healthcare – western, Ayurvedic, Yoga, Siddha, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, and Unani (the last originated in ancient Greece).

In her travels, Prasad saw modern, educated Indians happily mixing their health approaches – they might go to a biomedical doctor, and / or to a Sufi shrine, and / or a Christian exorcist, and / or a Ayurvedic healer. Whatever works.

I’ve seen a similar pluralism from Western tourists coming to India for ‘spiritual tourism’. In Goa, I stayed at a yoga retreat where young Western women trained in yoga and Ayurvedic medicine, solemnly learning the Sanskrit terms for various asanas, and practicing arcane purging techniques like pouring salt-water up their nose.

There are all kinds of weird contradictions or absurdities in this, as was pointed out by a group of educated young Indians sitting in a nearby beach-bar sipping Pina Coladas at 11am. ‘Why come all the way to India to learn yoga from a Westerner?’ asked one. They were also bemused by Western spiritual tourism to India, and the naïve exoticist projections we bring. They, by contrast, admire the secular urban sexually-liberated culture of London (two of them are about to move there). One of them pointed at a sign outside the yoga centre, which said ‘cleanse your soul here’. ‘I like my soul dirty’, she said, sipping her cocktail.

Another of the paradoxes of western spiritual tourism to India is that we often come with a solemn sense of the ancient spiritual practices we are learning, when in fact a lot of it is a recent invention. At Jaipur Festival, I met James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, two academics based in London who recently published The Roots of Yoga, one of the first serious studies of the history of yoga. They’ve found that most of the modern postures we know – the sun salute, the downward dog, the warrior and so on – evolved around a century ago, partly in response to foreign practices like Swedish gymnastics. Ancient Indian yoga was much more focused on breath-training,  mind-training, and the channeling of semen.

But so what? Just because modern yoga is not two millennia-old, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. ‘I still do the sun salute every morning, even though I know it’s a recent invention’, Mallinson told me. ‘It still feels good.’ He’s also relaxed about the multiple goals people bring to modern yoga, from spiritual liberation to stress relief to a sexy bum. ‘There’s an ancient text which says it doesn’t matter if you’re a Brahman or Buddhist or Jain or even atheist, if you practice yoga assiduously it will bring success. Of course, what ‘success’ means is another question.’

Yet one of the risks of Western spiritual tourism to India is that, in our enthusiasm, we throw out any critical skepticism and embrace all kinds of nonsense, some of which may be harmful. At my yoga holiday, we were all encouraged to do shoulder stands, even though this posture can often lead to serious injuries and shouldn’t be practiced without supervision.

We can also ignore the misogyny and class hierarchy of some Indian religion. I went to a Tantric course, which was mainly filled with Chinese housewives joyfully journeying to India for a sexual holiday (the neo-Tantra of Osho is apparently catching on among affluent Chinese). The Westerners there swallowed the New Age Tantra completely – one of them even had the seven chakras tattoed on his back. ‘Men are rational and discriminative, women are irrational and passionate’, we were taught by the course leader, a Russian. When I suggested this was misogynist nonsense invented by male priests, he replied ‘No! This is ancient wisdom!’

We can end up credulous spiritual consumers. I found myself visiting a psychic guru in Jaipur, who also runs a jewel shop. ‘You are 38’, he told me confidently. I’m 39. ‘You have three siblings.’ I have one brother. ‘You work as an independent creative…you’re a coach, you write beautiful philosophy.’ Hey, one out of three ain’t bad! He advised me that my heart chakra was blocked because I worry too much about rejection, and suggested I purchase an emerald pendant to unblock it. I’m wearing it now, fairly confident it’s glass.

I wonder what Indian health can learn from the UK, and vice versa. From the UK, Indian health could learn to be more evidence-based. Yoga and meditation emerged from India, yet almost all the recent evidence-based trials of it have taken place in the West, mainly in the US. There is room for a richer dialogue between spiritual practices and evidence-based trials. Indeed, I visited a GP in Chennai who runs a company called Mediyoga. He sent me round the corner for an MRI (private medicine is remarkably quick and cheap in India) and then diagnosed me as suffering from chronic degeneration of a back disc. He prescribed a few basic yoga postures to help me. I welcome this sort of combination of the biomedical and the ‘alternative’.

India could also learn from Western public health, particularly mental health services. The reason alternative health is so huge in India is there is very little state-funded health – India only spends around 1% of its GDP on health. For a country obsessed with well-being, there is a remarkable lack of psychiatrists and therapists. Mental illness is still a taboo. I am sure the Indian government could benefit from links to the NHS’ Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme, particularly with advice on therapy and counseling apps, which would be the easiest way to roll out mental health services in India. My next stop is a conference on Indian public health in Goa, organized by UCL.

From the other side, the UK could learn a lot from India about how to integrate mental health and physical health. Biomedicine has often left out the mind (never mind the soul), and we’re only just learning how connected mental and physical health are. Mental treatments like meditation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are beginning to be used in the NHS not just for emotional disorders but also for physical complaints, to help with the mental side of recovery.  We could also learn from India the power of cultural contexts for health – the power of ritual, of music, of festivals, of prayer, of pilgrimages. We could learn the healing power of non-rational states of consciousness, like trance, absorption and ecstasy (even as I write this, I feel how far away this is from British public health!)

Medical humanities, finally, is still very much a nascent field in India, although a journal dedicated to it launched three years ago. I would suggest the field has a lot of potential, as a meeting place where we can engage in dialogue about the pluralism of Indian health – the history, the culture, the arts, the spirituality, and the encounters with foreign consumers and foreign markets in the globalization of health and well-being. There’s a lot to be explored.


James Mallinson, the sadhu-academic

Dr James Mallinson is unique among British academics. Not only is he a widely-respected Sansrkit scholar at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, he’s also the only Westerner ever to become a mahant – a senior sadhu [ascetic holy man] in a sect of yogis, which he has spent time with since he was 18. He’s recently co-authored (with Mark Singleton) a book called The Roots of Yoga, which is the first academic book to investigate the historical roots of yoga.I met him at the Jaipur Literature Festival and asked him about his journey.

I watched the BBC documentary West Meets East, in which you and your friend the actor Dominic West went to the Kumbh Mela, the enormous gathering of sadhus that happens every three years. It was a fascinating insider look at that world – how 120 million people gather in one place and organize themselves, how the different sadhus distribute money to each other, and also the rivalry between different sects, which sometimes descends into fist-fights. Did that gang-war aspect of this huge spiritual gathering disillusion you?
I still find it hard to understand, but the sadhus don’t see it as a big deal. There’s a clear split between the yogis and the fighters. There was one incident, about 20 years ago, when my guru and another sadhu ended up fighting over me. I was lying back, having been drinking bhang [marijuana] all day, and it suddenly kicked off. It didn’t last very long, some other yogis jumped on the other guy, but some people asked me ‘why didn’t you jump in too?’ And my guru said, ‘he’s a scholar, he doesn’t fight’. I was quite relieved by that.
What have you got from your yoga practice over all these years?
A lot of it is just being part of this tradition, hanging out with the sadhus. As for the physical practices, I’ve only started practicing them more assiduously 10 years ago when I was working more as an academic and I started to get a stiff back. Since then I’ve become more religious, as it were, about doing it every day. I still sit down and meditate occasionally. It makes me feel good, happy, balanced. In this day and age, just sitting quietly and not reaching for your smartphone every minute is a good thing.
What do you like about the sadhu community in which you’ve spent so much time?
My guru never ceases to amaze me with his energy, his ability to be on it, despite hardly ever eating or sleeping, he’s always happy, never perturbed. As for the wider community, although they’re joyful and happy, deep down they see the material world as pointless. They don’t want to be a part of the world outside their religious round, their whole lives are predicated on being dissociated from it.
Do you find that detachment refreshing?
Yes. It’s got to be good for one’s mental level of happiness to completely experience a totally different way of life. You can go back to your life [working as an academic and living with his wife and two children in the UK]and realize some of the things you get wrapped up in aren’t that important.
Do you think your attraction to that world was partly a rejection of your background, growing up in England and going to a stuffy boarding-school?
It might have helped – I found myself once again in an all-male community governed by arcane rules.
Do you feel there is a lack of spiritual options in the West today, like the option to be a complete renunciate and for that to be an accepted social choice?
Yes I do. Just the other day I was speaking to a rather annoying young sadhu who was desperate for me to take him back to the UK so he could get followers. My guru has no interest in that, because he knows people just wouldn’t understand the life of renunciation. I suppose one option is to go and live in a monastery, but that’s not the same enjoyable, colourful life as at the Kumbh Mela.
But of course a lot of Indian gurus have gone to the West and become rock-star gurus. What do you think of them?
It doesn’t really rock my boat. The sadhus in the tradition I belong to explicitly shun that behavior. Some do public teachings, but I was told that if they’d done that 30 or 40 years ago they’d have been beaten up. Because it’s meant to be complete renunciation. The irony is, the more you renunciate, the more people give you material possessions. But the sadhus never build up a big storehouse of wealth, they tend to give it away. So those rock-star gurus like Osho, who accrued 95 Rolls Royces, that’s a different world.
But sadly those gurus who want to become rock-stars tend to be the most visible and famous. I suppose they’re not part of a tradition – they’re freelance gurus, with no one to answer to.
Those big-shots think they should get a big tent at the Kumbh Mela. But they can’t get a good spot, they have to camp out right at the outskirts, unless they pay a lot of money. They’re not respected by sadhus. Quite the opposite. My own guru couldn’t care less about publicity. I showed him the BBC documentary we made about my initiation at the Kumbh Mela, and after two minutes he stopped watching. He wasn’t interested at all, which is the perfect response.
What does a day at the Kumbh Mela look like in your community of sadhus?
You get up in the morning, do your ablutions, bathe – there’s a lot of bathing – then sit down and maybe start smoking, drinking chai. The ultimate behavior for a sadhu is to sit around and chat for hours and hours. Talking, chatting, gossiping, telling stories. There’s not much philosophical discussion.
Tell me about the new book, The Roots of Yoga.
It’s a relief it’s over. It was five years hard work, involving the translation of over 100 texts, in 12 different languages. It’s the book I wish existed when I started exploring yoga. Nothing like it previously existed. A few books would have translations of a handful of texts but they wouldn’t be dated correctly and there was no understanding of how texts related to each other.
How does it change our understanding of the historical roots of yoga?
The conventional history is that yoga begins with Patanjali in the fourth century CE. That’s what most practitioners of modern yoga learn. My co-author Mark Singleton has written about how 95% of modern yoga is not from that. Much of it is more recent – many popular modern postures, like the sun salute, are only around 100 years old, and grew out of a number of influences, including Swedish gymnastics. In Patanjali, there’s almost nothing on physical postures, and it’s mainly 12 sitting postures to prepare you for meditation and breathing exercises. And there’s stuff on yoga earlier than that – Buddhist texts, Jain texts, some writing in the Mahabharata which has been almost entirely ignored, and some writing in the Upanishads. Yoga was practiced in a wide range of traditions with many different viewpoints. They all agree that ‘yoga works’.
But what does that mean, ‘work’? That it makes you healthy, or brings longevity, or grants enlightenment, or magical powers?
There are different interpretations, including of the word yoga or yuj itself. It can mean to concentrate or to unite. There’s a passage I often quote from one ancient text, which says, ‘whether you are a brahman, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, or even an atheist, if you practice yoga assiduously, it will work, you will attain siddhi’ – that can be translated as success or magical powers.
What do you think of the huge popularity of yoga in the West, and increasingly in India?
From a mercenary level it’s good for me. It means it’s easier for me to get funding. It’s nice to have a wider audience for your work. Is it a good thing in general? I think it probably is. One valid criticism is that it’s quite selfish. People do it for personal reasons. But even there, it’s beginning to mature. In the US, there are people trying to bring more social awareness back into yoga. People are also becoming more critically aware, they won’t accept from their guru that the asanas they practice are 5000 years old.
But that critical awareness hasn’t undermined your enthusiasm for the practice itself?
No – I’ve come across practices from the past that I try out. And I still begin with the sun salutation, even though I know it’s a modern innovation. It still feels good.
Finally, yoga is obviously being promoted by the Indian government, which has some ties to Hindu nationalism. Has it been at all controversial for you to decide that the earliest written texts on yoga are actually Buddhist?
No one’s noticed. We were nervous. But I don’t think they’re that interested in our scholarship.

This has been reposted from Jules Evans’ website Philosophy For Life

‘Doleful Groans & Sad Lookes’: Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England

Hannah Newton is a historian of early modern medicine,Photograph of Hannah Newton - head and shoulders shot emotion, and childhood. Her first book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (2012), won the EAHMH 2015 Book Prize. In 2011-2014, Hannah undertook a Wellcome Fellowship at Cambridge, and researched her next monograph, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (forthcoming). She is now a Wellcome University Lecturer at Reading.

Why is the sound of sniffing so irritating? As I write this, my attention is drawn to the unremitting snorts and splutters of a fellow passenger on the train. It seems that I’m not alone: in one recent survey, sniffing was ranked one the top 20 most annoying noises by Britons.[1] But perhaps we’re overreacting. After all, sickness can give rise to far worse sounds, as I’ve begun to realise since embarking on a new Wellcome Trust project, ‘Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England’. Taking the dual perspectives of patients and their loved ones, the project investigates how the five senses were affected by serious physical illness and medical treatment, and uncovers the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the seventeenth-century sickroom. My ultimate goal is to reach a closer understanding of it was like to be ill, or to witness the illness of others, in the past. I also seek to unravel the relationship between the senses and the emotions in early modern culture. While historians have undertaken valuable work on how the senses were involved in theories of disease causation, diagnosis, and treatment, the sensory experience of illness itself has been largely overlooked.[2]

Sepia print showing 5 figures: a seated man vomiting and 4 others behind him holding their noses.

Figure 1: ‘The Sense of Smell’, 1651; by P. Boone; Wellcome Library, London. A man vomits, while those around him hold their noses. It is noteworthy that the only female in the image – possibly a nurse – is not holding her nose. Could this be because the artist assumed that women’s work desensitised them to bad smells? This image could equally have been used to illustrate the sense of hearing or vision.

I became interested in this subject whilst researching for a previous book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England. I noticed that for parents, the greatest source of grief was not so much the death of a child, but was rather hearing and seeing their offspring in pain. During the sickness of his baby daughter Mary in 1669, the Suffolk clergyman Isaac Archer (1641-1700) lamented, ‘Oh what griefe was it to mee to heare it groane, to see it’s sprightly eyes turne to mee for helpe in vaine!’[3] In fact, so acute was the distress occasioned by these sensory stimuli, parents frequently claimed to feel something alike to the emotional and physical suffering of their sick children. This phenomenon was known as ‘fellow-feeling’ in the early modern period, a concept which meant ‘to partake in another person’s occasions, either of joy or sorrow’. Explanations for fellow-feeling centred on the emotion of love. The French philosopher and theologian Nicholas Coeffeteau (1574-1623) averred that a ‘signe of true Love…[is that] friends rejoice & grieve for the same things’.[4]

What were the sounds of the sickroom? The diary of the newly married gentlewoman, Mary Penington (c.1623-1682), provides poignant insights. She recorded that the groans of her sick husband ‘were dreadful. I may call them roarings’. Forty years later, she still remembered his groans, and added another auditory memory: the sound of his convulsing limbs as they slammed against the bed in his fits:

[H]e snapped his legs and arms with such force, that the veins seemed to sound like the snapping of cat-gut strings, tightened upon an instrument of music. Oh! this was a dreadful…sound to me; my very heartstrings seemed ready to break, and let my heart fall from its wonted place.[5]

By applying the metaphor of breaking strings to both her own emotions and her husband’s fits, Mary conveyed the depth of her fellow-feeling – her heart was mimicking his experience. To explain the emotional impact of sound, contemporaries referred to the link between the ear and the heart. The priest Thomas Wright (d. 1624), explained that the ‘shaking, crispling or tickling of the air’ – what we would call sound waves – ‘paseth thorow’ the body ‘unto the heart, and there beateth and tickleth it in such a sort, as it is moved with semblable passions’.[6] Personified as a sensitive creature, the heart generated passions that resembled the movement of the vibrations it perceived, which in Mary’s case was violent grief. It seems fitting that the words ‘hear’ and ‘ear’ are contained within ‘heart’.

Colour painting of a man grimacing, holding a bottle of medicine

Figure 2: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; Städel Museum, Germany. The man’s face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion after tasting the bitter medicine. In this period, bitterness was a sign of the drug’s potency.

Sights as well as sounds contributed to the agony of witnessing a loved one’s illness. One of the most heartrending sights was the facial expression of the sick person, typically grimaced in pain, or contorted through crying.[7] Timothy Bright (1551?-1615), a physician from Sheffield, provides a vivid picture of the ‘deformitie of the face in weeping’ in his treatise on melancholy. He wrote, ‘The lip trembleth’, the ‘countenance is cast downe’, and ‘all the parts [are so] filled with…moisture…that not finding sufficient way [out] at the eyes, it passeth through the nose’.[8] Relatives commented particularly on the look in the patient’s eyes, a tendency which reflects the entrenched belief that the eyes were the windows of the soul.[9] A poem composed by the Devonshire gentlewoman Mary Chudleigh (c.1656-1710), concerning her gravely ill daughter, Eliza Maria, encapsulates this experience:

Rack’d by Convulsive Pains she meekly lies,
And gazes on me with imploring Eyes,
With Eyes which beg Relief, but all in vain,
I see, but cannot, cannot ease her Pain.[10]

This mother’s inability to relieve her child’s sufferings accentuated her distress. Sight functioned in this context in a cyclical manner: the agony conveyed in the patient’s eyes pained the observer, and the observer’s pained expression added further grief to the patient. Relatives also mourned the loss of their loved one’s natural beauty and colour. Addressing the friends and relations of the sick, the London clergyman Timothy Rogers, asked ‘Where is his former Comeliness and Beauty…his lovely Features? You can…have no mind to look upon that very person that…a while ago, was the Delight of your Heart’.[11]

To conclude, witnessing the illness of a loved one was a deeply sensory experience in the early modern period. For those involved in the care of a sick or elderly relative, it may still be today. This blog has focused on just a few of the most frequently mentioned sights and sounds; my wider project also examines the smells, tastes, and tactile sensations that accompanied disease and treatment.

[1] (accessed 10/01/17)

[2] For example, William Bynum and R. Porter (eds), Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge, 1993), explore the role of the physicians’ senses in diagnosis. On the contested role of touch in diagnosis, see Olivia Weisser, ‘Boils, Pushes and Wheals: Reading Bumps on the Body in Early Modern England’, SHM, 22 (2009), 321-39; Patrick Singy, ‘Medicine and the Senses: The Perception of Essences’, in Anne Vila (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment (2014), 133-53. On the role of bad smells in causing disease, see Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (Illinois, 2014), ch. 6; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore, 2011), 97-125. On the role of scents in healing, see Jennifer Evans, ‘Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England’, Historical Research, 86 (2014), 423-43. On the benefits of pleasant smells and sights, see Carole Rawcliffe, ‘“Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles”: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England’, Garden History, 36 (2008), 3-21. On the role of sound (music) as therapy, see Peregrine Horden (ed.), Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity (Aldershot, 2000).

[3] Isaac Archer, ‘The Diary of Isaac Archer 1641-1700’, in Matthew J. Storey (ed.), Two East Anglian Diaries 1641-1729, Suffolk Record Society, vol. 36 (Woodbridge, 1994), 41-200, at 120.

[4] Nicolas Coeffeteau, A table of humane passions. With their causes and effects (1621), 111-12, 117-19.

[5] Mary Penington, Experiences in the Life of Mary Penington Written by Herself, ed. Norman Penney (London, 1992, first publ. 1911), 70-71, 93.

[6] Thomas Wright, The passions of the minde (1630; first published 1601), 169-70.

[7] On facial grimaces, but for a later period, see Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford, 2014), ch.6.

[8] Timothy Bright, treatise of melancholie (1586), 153-54.

[9] Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford, 2007), 11.

[10] Mary Chudleigh, On the death of my dear daughter Eliza Maria Chudleigh, in her Poems on several occasions (1713), 95.

[11] Timothy Rogers, Practical discourses on sickness & recovery (1691), 228-29.

“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”: Psychic Driving at the Museum of the Normal

David Saunders started his PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions in October 2016. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and intersects with our Living with Feeling grant.



On 24 November 2016, seventy-three individuals entered a small room on the third floor of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and disclosed their hopes, fears, and anxieties to a tape machine. Attending the Museum of the Normal, an event organised by Queen Mary’s Centre for the History of the Emotions, these “subjects” had been taken away from the bright lights and greenish specimens of Bart’s Pathology Museum and led into a darkened clinical room, where a silent, mechanical therapist was waiting to hear their confessions. Taking a seat under harsh lamplight, these individuals had volunteered to take part in a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving.

man in a lab coat sitting at a desk with a tape recorder in a dimly lit room

The “Psychic Driving” apparatus. (Cred: Stewart Caine)

“Psychic Driving,” as explored previously on this blog, was a radical therapy developed in the early 1950s by Dr Donald Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. For Cameron, talking therapies had failed to stem the tide of psychiatric illnesses; instead psychiatrists needed to embrace new technologies to mechanise the process of psychological healing. Cameron’s imagination had been captured by one piece of technology in particular: the tape machine. By taping positive messages and replaying these to his patients on a never-ending loop, Cameron believed he could destroy their pathological memories, beliefs, and behaviours, and reprogram them into productive, well-adjusted members of society. The power to wipe clean and rewrite the memories and personalities of citizens was a powerful fantasy in the Cold War environment, and soon Cameron’s research drew the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who began to covertly fund his work. Ultimately, psychic driving was a complete failure as both a therapeutic tool and a weapon of mind control. Patients forced to listen to Cameron’s looping messages for weeks and even months on end experienced disorientation, hallucinations, and severe memory loss.

It would perhaps be all too easy to cast off psychic driving as yet another “stranger than fiction” tale from the Cold War, another example of military and scientific excesses fed by paranoia, suspicion, and nightmares of nuclear destruction. Yet many of the motivations sustaining Cameron’s research remain entrenched in contemporary therapeutic culture: the endless search for “normality” and “equilibrium”, the modernist faith that technology can provide the solution to daily woes, the continuing obsession with “quick-fix” solutions. How, then, might the history of psychic driving point to the unexpected and troubling ramifications of our search for easy answers? Given the opportunity, what attributes and behaviours might we wish to “program” into ourselves?

These very questions were explored by visitors to the Museum of the Normal. Left alone with the tape machine, all participants were asked to respond to the same question: if they could change one thing about their lives overnight, what would it be? Their responses – disarmingly honest and frequently surprising – have been drawn together into a single “self-help” tape, accompanied by an ambient soundscape inspired by recordings used for guided meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. The tape thus stands as a collaborative exploration into our assumptions, desires, and fears about what it means to be “normal”.

This track contains some strong language.

Responses to the psychic driving installation varied immensely, often with no clear patterns or trends. However, a number of tentative observations can be made:

  • The majority of responses (58%) focused on a desired change of attitude towards life and its challenges. These frequently involved wanting to worry less, appreciate positive things more, and seize opportunities.
  • 31% of responses involved anxieties about time in some form. Most of these referred to fears surrounding procrastination, or a desire to use time more efficiently.
  • Only 7% of responses referred to relationships with others. Overwhelmingly, responses focused on the individual, often in isolation.
  • The vast majority of responses (76%) concerned abstract aspirations, such as working harder, enjoying life more, or becoming more motivated. A much smaller number of responses put forward specific goals (24%), which ranged from learning languages to quitting smoking.
  • In general terms, 60% of responses were framed in a positive manner – broadly defined as a desire to improve or augment certain attributes or characteristics. Meanwhile, 40% were framed in a negative manner – as corrections to perceived flaws or prohibitions of perceived bad habits.

The psychic driving apparatus has returned to its laboratory in Peckham for recalibration. A second test is currently under consideration.

The Team would like to thank all those who took part in the Psychic Driving installation at the Museum of the Normal.

New Publications, October – December 2016

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from October to December 2016.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to before 2 April 2017.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions:






New podcast: the politics of well-being, with Richard Layard and William Davies

Here’s the second episode of our podcast, with Jules Evans interviewing Richard Layard,  former government ‘happiness tsar’ and the creator of the NHS talking therapies service; and Wiliam Davies, author of The Happiness Industry.

You can listen to the previous episode, an interview with author Geoff Dyer about peak experiences, here. And you can now subscribe to our podcast on iTunes here.