Gut Feelings Week: Dyspepsia and Navigating Nineteenth-Century Health

This guest post by Evelien Lemmens is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Evelien Lemmens is a PhD candidate researching the relationship between diet, digestion and emotional health in Britain between 1850 and 1937. She is part of the Wellcome Trust funded ‘Living with Feeling’ project at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Emotions. Her research interests include history of emotions, social history of medicine, and gender history.

How do you solve a problem like dyspepsia?

Dyspepsia, as a term used in lay literature and endorsed by the non-medical community, experienced its glory days during the nineteenth century. Gaining traction from around 1800 onwards, the term’s use was spurred on by the growth of the British press, significant attention to the ailment by manufacturers of patent medicine, and an increased demand for public education on topics of diet, cooking, and domestic science. By the 1880s, self-proclaimed “dyspeptics” were found, as per the physician Thomas Clifford Allbutt and fellow commentators, on every street-corner and formed a real nuisance for the medical community. However, throughout its rise and fall, and up until today, the term ‘dyspepsia’ remains a vague and flexible term.

Early example of a published monograph showing ‘dyspepy’ on its title page. James Rymer, A Treatise Upon Indigestion, and the Hypochondriac Disease, 5th edn (London, 1789).

Dyspepsia (as dyſpepſy) first made an appearance in an English-language publication in 1661, but it was not until the 1780s that it appeared in the title of one. Originally limited to use in medical and academic texts, ideas of dyspepsia steadily infiltrated lay literature, gaining increased momentum from 1800 onwards. This increased awareness resulted in a wider cultural attention for and appropriation of dyspepsia. During the first half of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia transformed from a disorder of the intellectual elite to the national disease of Britain and America. This was allowed for by a broadening of dyspepsia’s aetiology, which came to comprise every possible cause: mental overwork; emotional agitation; poor ventilation; substandard food quality and preparation; improper dietary habits and lifestyle; tightly-laced corsets; poor oral hygiene and so on. The breadth of dyspepsia’s aetiology meant that anyone could fall victim to it, and it became a perfect disorder for ‘cure-all’ patent medicines to target.

Despite its prevalence in publications, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century, dyspepsia has remained a difficult ailment to grasp. By its most basic definition, dyspepsia equates to indigestion. However, the term’s meaning increased in breadth and complexity at the start of the nineteenth century, and the surge in attempts to delineate dyspepsia resulted in a critical blurring of the ailment entailed.

This blurring of dyspepsia contributed to divergent judgements of the ailment. On the one hand, dyspepsia could be accepted as an objective and legitimate category of diagnosis, as it was used in official medical reports, court cases, and parliamentary records. Dyspepsia could alter how an individual’s actions were judged, especially if these were considered erratic or out of character. For example, an 1894 inquest into the suicide of Captain Charles Ernest Cureton – an occasion of “considerable gloom” – offers a verdict of “suicide while temporarily insane” resulting from his dyspepsia, hypochondria, and depression “in spirits.” Here, dyspepsia connotes more than a failing of digestion.

Frontispiece of Sydney Whiting’s Memoirs of a Stomach, showing a man suffering from dyspepsia and indigestion resulting from over-indulgence and faulty habits.

On the other hand, dyspepsia was often depicted as a woolly excuse of a condition, amounting to little more than indigestion following one’s own faulty eating habits, accompanied with unwarranted self-pity. These “martyrs to dyspepsia” became a favourite target of satire in periodicals like Fun and Judy, and fear inciting advertisements for dyspepsia remedies, which presented the ailment as life-wrecking, were criticised as “puffery.” The social acceptance of dyspepsia was dependent on the interpretation of the term, and fluctuated over time, genre, class, and gender.

Today’s dictionaries continue to exemplify this difficulty, as is demonstrated by definitions of dyspepsia in the Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. The CMD, a standard reference guide for medical practitioners, defines dyspepsia as:

(indigestion) n. disordered digestion: usually applied to pain or discomfort in the lower chest or upper abdomen after eating and sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or a feeling of unease or fullness after eating.

Meanwhile the OED, the accepted authority on the English language, defines dyspepsia as:

Difficulty or derangement of digestion; indigestion: applied to various forms of disorder of the digestive organs, esp. the stomach, usually involving weakness, loss of appetite, and depression of spirits.

While both present dyspepsia as disordered digestion, the CMD mentions nothing of the accompanying mental and emotional dimensions that are present in the OED. Furthermore, while the CMD focuses very much on symptoms post-eating, the OED highlights a loss of appetite. The difference is striking: a sufferer of dyspepsia in the OED is inflicted with weakness and poor emotional health, as well as a lack of interest in food, whereas the sufferer in the CMD predominantly has digestive complaints following the intake of food.

Similarly, dyspepsia is still included in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) today. However, the diagnosis of dyspepsia is splintered and occurs in a myriad of diagnostic categories: a disease of the digestive system (K30); symptoms and signs involving the digestive system and abdomen (R10-19); or somatoform disorders of nonpsychotic mental, behavioural of neurodevelopmental symptoms (F45.8).

This splintered and dynamic nature of medical diagnoses, past and present, highlights the value of medical anthropology in studying the cultural and social history of medicine and health. In The Body Multiple, Annemarie Mol presents an ethnography of the day-to-day diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis, a comparatively straightforward ailment. Following “objects while they are enacted in practice,” which she terms praxiography, she notes the significant discrepancies between different specialisms (surgeons, physicians, internists, radiologists, pathologists) in diagnosing, explaining, and treating atherosclerosis. Though these discrepancies complement each other and can work together, they offer different interpretations of the disease and require tools of translation between them. In this study, Mol clearly demonstrates that medicine “has gaps and tensions inside it. It hangs together, but not quite as a whole.” Her approach – tracing the enactment of pathology – offers a new way for historians to approach the history of medicine through practice theory, which will illuminate dynamic tensions within and between historical ailments.

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Gut Feelings Week: The Bitter Taste of Rationing

This guest post by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger, MD PhD (History), is a resident physician in the combined Internal Medicine-Pediatrics program at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She is co-author of an interdisciplinary monograph on memory formation, Individual and Collective Memory Consolidation: Analogous Processes on Different Levels (MIT Press, 2012); is an Editor for H-Nutrition at the H-Net Commons; and blogs as Frau Doktor Doctor.

During and after World War I (1914-1918), the Allied Powers enforced an increasingly strict trade embargo against the Central Powers, restricting the importation of not just ammunition and metal but also food, fertilizer, clothing, fuel—anything that could be construed as contributing to the war effort. With human and animal power diverted from farms to urban factories and to the fronts, the German food system was severely underproducing. Not only did large military purchases and housewife panic drive up prices, but an absolute food shortage developed. In January 1915, just five months into the conflict, the federal government instituted bread rationing. Later that year potatoes were rationed, then butter, meat, milk, cheese, eggs, pasta, beans barley, and oats. (By the end of the war, clothing, shoes, soap, coal, and oil were also regulated with coupons.) The German Empire was divided into rationing districts that overlapped with both political states and military departments. More rural districts such as Bavaria and East Prussia were expected to provide agricultural products to more industrial areas, such as the Ruhr Valley. Unsurprisingly, Germans developed strong feelings about who got to eat how much of what. In Saxony, the single most common sentiment about the wartime food economy was bitterness (Erbitterung).

Saxons apparently were willing to tolerate the terrible food situation itself—probably not least because many helped themselves extra-legally—but they could not abide the thought that other Germans were not suffering as much as they were. In a February 1917 meeting of the Saxon Nutrition Advisory Council, the industrial miller Erwin Bienert (1859-1930) from Plauen “confirmed from his own experience that bitterness prevailed among the workers, not solely due to the lack of food and to the high prices, but above all because the state of affairs was better in other counties; in particular the munitions and war material workers were so much more privileged.” The common folk in Dresden were bitter that colonial wares shops continued to display unrationed luxury goods in their windows that they could ill afford. Housewives were bitter that vegetables found their way to public soup kitchens but none were available for purchase at the markets. Those who had been sick were “bitterly disappointed” that there was not enough “nutritious and easily digestible food” available to fuel a quick recovery. Urban consumers were bitter that premiums for grain farmers had increased the price of bread, while agricultural workers were “more than bitter” over the epithets applied to them by leftist newspapers and politicians. “Is it any wonder that a starving Saxon’s temper flared when he heard that the Bavarian allegedly sat down to dishes full of meat?” asked one observer later. Finally, (perceived) preferential treatment of the inhabitants of the capital of Berlin embittered both the public and government officials in Saxony.

At a time when food and eating were of nagging and growing importance, Germans expressed their anger, fear, and frustration as the taste of bitterness. This shared emotion united consumers against government regulators, city dwellers against rural food producers, and Saxons against their fellow countrymen and –women to the west and north. Although World War I-era rationing enacted the ideal of a paternalistic government caring for its citizens on an unprecedented scale, “fair” did not and could not mean “equal” distribution of foodstuffs, due to the diverse geography and demography of the German Empire. Critics like the ones quoted here expected a more even exchange of Saxony’s munitions manufactures for other states’ agricultural abundance, but no authority was willing or able to wring sufficient supplies from surplus-producing areas like Silesia. When they were asked to depend on and provide for each other, social bonds broke down under the mental and physical stresses of war and deprivation. “Ja, ja: Germany should be united,” scolded a socialist columnist in July 1918. “Every German wishes all Germans well—but the best for himself!” Cynical envy was a tenuous and combustible basis for national solidarity, and it eventually exploded in the 1918 November Revolution that brought down the Empire and ended the war. Unfortunately for hungry Germans, the Allies refused to lift most trade restrictions until the Treaty of Versailles had been signed in June 1919, and due in part to reparations paid to France, domestic food production remained low into the 1920s. Defeat was bitter indeed.

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Gut Feelings Week: Neurasthenia – a disorder of the gut?

This guest post by Kristine Lillestøl is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Kristine Lillestøl has a background as a medical doctor. She has a PhD in medicine, on a project about psychological and immunological factors in irritable bowel syndrome. Her current project is about the history of neurasthenia, mainly in the Norwegian context, and she currently holds a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Community Medicine and Global Health, at the University of Oslo. She receives funding from the SAMKUL programme of the Norwegian Research Council.

Neurasthenia, literally meaning “want of strength in the nerves”, was a widely used diagnostic label during the decades around 1900. As the name suggests, the condition was perceived as some kind of “weakness” of the nervous system, but the exact disease mechanisms were unknown.

The popularization of neurasthenia was initialized by the American physician George Miller Beard (1839-1883). In his classic work A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion (1880), Beard described a wide variety of possible symptoms of neurasthenia, including headache, widespread pain, insomnia, drowsiness, mental irritability, inability to concentrate, morbid fears, and hopelessness, to mention but a few.

Beard also presented several suggestions when it came to possible causes of the “lack of nervous force” in neurasthenia, and he became particularly famous for his portrayal of neurasthenia as a product of the rapid societal changes and hectic American modern life at the end of the nineteenth century (See George M. Beard, American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, 1881). Other authors emphasized other causal explanations, such as the French professors of medicine Gilbert Ballet and Adrien Proust, who warned against “over-pressure” on the brain, including “moral over-pressure”:

The depressing emotions, that is to say, vexation, anxiety, disillusions, remorse, thwarted affection, in a word all states of sorrow and disquiet – these are the usual causes of nervous exhaustion. (The Treatment of Neurasthenia, 1903)

The history of neurasthenia has been widely studied during the last three decades, but few scholars have focused on the gastrointestinal aspects of this history. The digestive apparatus was, however, a site of special interest to many physicians during the heyday of the diagnosis, in Europe as well as in America.

Symptoms relating to the gut, such as constipation, heartburn, belching, abdominal pain, nausea, and loss of appetite, were generally considered to be very common features of neurasthenia. Some authors even argued that it would be useful to single out patients with predominantly gastrointestinal symptoms as a distinct subgroup that should be labelled “neurasthenia gastrica” or “digestive neurasthenia”. The gut was also perceived as important when it came to the pathophysiology of neurasthenia, and the various understandings of the possible interplay between the gut and the “nerves” in this condition became hot topics for debate in the medical literature.

One frequently recurrent question in these debates, was that of the possible role of so-called “gastroptosis”. Many physicians had observed an association between neurasthenia and what they perceived to be an abnormal “sagging” of the stomach. In some cases, this sagging also involved the intestines and even other organs of the abdominal cavity, and was then referred to as “enteroptosis” or “visceroptosis”, respectively. This downward displacement of the stomach and intestines was frequently assumed to be associated with a loss of tone (“atony”) of the respective organs, and consequently with slow emptying of the stomach, reduced intestinal motility, and “stagnation” of the intestinal contents. This stagnation was in turn assumed to increase the risk for “intestinal autointoxication”, where the absorption of toxic products from an abnormal fermentation process in the bowel could cause systemic disease, including a wide range of neurasthenic symptoms.

Visceroptosis is also known as Glénard’s disease, named after the French physician Frantz Glénard (1848-1920)

Although it seems to have been widely accepted among medical authors that there had to be some kind of close interaction between the “nerves” and the gut in neurasthenia, there was considerable debate about the nature and direction of these interactions. Of course, not everyone agreed that neurasthenia could be understood primarily as a disorder of the gut. In the case of gastroptosis, for instance, there was disagreement as to whether this should be interpreted as the primary cause or a secondary effect of the general weakness of the nervous system in neurasthenia. Differing views in this respect could lead to quite different therapeutic recommendations. If the gut-related signs and symptoms were perceived as a consequence of neurasthenia, the treatment was directed towards the general condition, for instance by means of rest cures, hydrotherapy or electrotherapy. On the other hand, if a sagging stomach or a toxic bowel was perceived as the primary cause of neurasthenia, this could prompt more radical and invasive treatments, such as surgery.

In 1903, Ballet and Proust concluded that none of the available pathogenic theories of neurasthenia at the time were altogether satisfactory. Many would agree with them. Nevertheless, the gastrointestinal history of neurasthenia is an intriguing one, which also serves as an important precedent for our current debates on brain-gut interactions in health and disease.

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Gut Feelings Blog Take Over: Diet and Brain Work in Nineteenth-Century France

This guest post by Manon Mathias is part of Gut Feelings Weekin which a group of scholars participating in the conference Gut Feeling: Digestive Health in Nineteenth-Century Culture explore different aspects of digestion.

Manon Mathias is Lecturer in French at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on the relations between the novel and the natural and medical sciences in the nineteenth century. She is the author of Vision in the Novels of George Sand (OUP, 2016). Her current project, funded by the Carnegie Trust and the British Academy, examines digestive health in nineteenth-century culture.

France led the way in the publication of ‘hygiene treatises’ from the 1800s, when ‘hygiene’ was understood as the preservation of health. These texts place great emphasis on the stomach in maintaining a healthy body, but their interest in digestion is in fact a means of elevating the mind.

Hygiene treatises in this period advocate harmony, especially between the brain and the stomach. Réveillé-Parise argues, for instance, that one cannot deny ‘the effects of the viscera on the brain’ (Physiology and Hygiene of Men Devoted to Labours of the Mind, 1834), and the harmony between ‘the functions of the cerebral organ and those of the nutritive system’ must, he argues, always be maintained.

Figure 1: Physiology and Hygiene of Men Devoted to Labours of the Mind

Yet in the case of the man of letters, the health manuals foreground an imbalance between the stomach and the brain in ways which venerate this condition. Étienne Brunaud notes ‘the exquisite frailty and sensitivity’ of the scholarly stomach (Hygiene for the Man of Letters, 1819), and Réveillé-Parise suggests that digestive breakdown raises the scholar ‘beyond other mortal beings’ (Figure 1).

Such preoccupations are also seen in many novels of the time which show particular interest in the viscera. Zola’s Belly of Paris (1873), for example, is a novel in which ‘the stomach dominates the action’ (Zola) (Figure 2).

But in Zola’s novel, food is a form of dirt, putrefaction and decay and a solid digestive system — linked with middle-class complacency — is ultimately a form of death. The novel ends with the bourgeois shopkeeper, the embodiment of greasy health, standing ‘lifeless’, still, and ‘motionless’.

Figure 2: The Belly of Paris

If digestion is equated with literal and moral decay for Zola, the inability to digest is inversely elevated. This is particularly the case for Florent, who barely eats and is plagued by nausea and stomach pains. One of the few characters to show strong moral values, Florent represents the scholarly figure and embraces the realm of thought rather than that of the body.

Florent not only rejects the processes of digestion but, when engaged in deep thought, becomes almost disembodied: ‘his feet seemed not to touch the ground, as if borne aloft by his desire to pursue justice’.

This ideal of scholarly transcendence is taken further by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel, Against Nature (1884) (Figure 3). Huysmans’ central character, Des Esseintes, admires a condensed form of literature which he describes as a ‘highly refined juice’, echoing debates on the ‘restaurant’ or restorative broth in the 1760s. This dish reduced meat to a simple essence and liberated the body from its digestive duties. Des Esseintes’ predilection for such essences shows his yearning for disembodiment.

Figure 3: Against Nature

More specifically, Des Esseintes’ preference for ‘concentrated’ writing shows his ambition of transcending the body through art. He imagines a novel which could concentrate into a few sentences ‘the distilled juice of a hundred pages’, and in which every adjective would open such vistas that ‘the reader could […] ascertain the present, reconstruct the past, and divine the future’. This literature reduces the material to its purest essence, beyond the earthly limitations of time and space.

A novel written in this style would also lead to ‘a communion of thought’ between the writer and the reader, ‘a spiritual collaboration’ bringing together ‘superior beings scattered across the universe’. The novel thus leads to an untethering from the binds of worldly existence and specifically leads to a union of minds.

Such writing, however, is summed up as ‘the osmazôme of literature’, the term for concentrated meat juice as used in gastronome Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste (1826) (Figure 4). Des Esseintes thus draws on the terminology of the medico-culinary sphere in order to transcend the body, in a paradoxical co-dependence.

Figure 4: Physiology of Taste

This co-dependence surfaces in other ways. Against Nature, for instance is peppered with allusions to food as excrement and excrement as food — a meat bouillon is a ‘salty, muddy’ substance and horse droppings are the colour of gingerbread — and this digestion/excretion pairing is linked with the process of writing.

The narrative constantly alternates between Des Esseintes’ reflections on literature and comments on his digestive difficulties, and throughout the novel, literature is discussed in digestive terms: one writer’s work ‘indigestible’ and another’s is a form of ‘constipation’.

Moreover, Against Nature ends with Des Esseintes stating that ‘the waves of human mediocrity are rising up to the sky and will engulf the refuge whose floodgates I unwillingly open’. The opening of the gates is a reference to the ‘health regimen’ advocated by his doctor which requires des Esseintes to re-connect with the ‘filth’ and ‘slime’ of society.

Zola’s novel also ends with the dominance of dirt as Florent is overwhelmed by ‘the mud from the greasy streets rising all around him’. Florent, representing the writer, is immersed in the filth he has tried to avoid.

By drawing attention to the scholar’s inability to digest, the hygienists and novelists of nineteenth-century France set this figure apart from the rest of society and make the gut a central element in the thinking man’s identity.

This identity, however, is based on an impossibility, as the characters in Zola and Huysmans’ novels fail in releasing themselves from dirty corporeality. The authors thus attempt to transcend the body whilst at the same time revealing an essential link between writing and digesting.

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99.9% of humans are mentally unwell

It’s been a tough week for the UK –  mental illness went up 164%. Previously, mental health charities assured us that one in four people have been diagnosed with a mental illness in their life.  But this week, abruptly, one mental health charity suggested as many as two in three adults will suffer from some mental health problem at some point in their life, whether that’s a panic attack or a period of depression.

I never liked the ‘one in four’ statistic. It may have been a useful strategy to draw public attention and get funding, but it also seemed to emphasize that the mentally unwell were a minority, a separate unlucky group from the 75% who are fine and dandy.

It seems to me that everyone has mental illness. And everyone has mental health. Everyone is on a continuum from well to unwell, and moves up and down that continuum all the time. A person could move from very unwell to very well in a day.

The most popular therapeutic interventions today – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness  therapy – are deeply influenced by the ancient spiritual traditions of Stoicism and Buddhism. And both Stoicism and Buddhism insist that pretty much the entirety of humanity is mentally ill. Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, agreed: ‘We’re all out of our f****g minds!’

In both Stoicism and Buddhism, 99.9999% of humans are ignorant of our true nature and lost in ego-delusions which make us suffer. Only the sage is truly sane and well. And the sage – the fully enlightened being – is a very rare creature.

How rare? The Buddha supposedly told a story – imagine the entire world was one ocean, and on that ocean was thrown a floating ring. And in that ocean is a blind turtle, who once every hundred years swims to the surface and pokes his head out at some random spot. The probability of an enlightened being coming into existence is the same as that blind turtle happening to poke his head through the ring.

The rest of us are unenlightened. We don’t know who we are, we’re lost in ego-delusions, swung from happiness to misery and back again by each passing occurrence.

We’re convinced that the aim of life is to have a secure, successful and admired ego which has amassed a pile of money and plaudits by the time we die. We spend each day trying to add to our pile of money and approval. We feel happy when the pile goes up, and sad when it goes down. That’s what we call mental health.

We are all of us dreaming. We call those who are presently having happy dreams ‘the well’, and those who are presently having scary dreams ‘the unwell’. The Buddha or Plato would say:  you’re all lost in delusions.

Do you think that 75% of humans in our society are sane and well? Or even 30%? Look around you. We’re all a bit mad. We’re all blindly following ego-delusions – ambition, pride, vanity, the need for the approval of strangers, addiction, restlessness, constant dissatisfaction. Our therapists, philosophers, psychiatrists, life-coaches and mindfulness gurus are just as sick, just as self-obsessed, just as ego-deluded. Believe me, I’ve met them. They’re just as messed up as you and me, possibly more so.

A wife sits at home with depression and alcoholism, while her husband spends all day chasing money and status in a bank. She is clinically unwell, but is he well? Is he not just as sick, just as caught in ego-delusions? He may fit in better with society, but that doesn’t mean he’s well.

Our definition of sanity is fitting in with social norms. How sane is our civilization? We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, every reputable climate scientist tells us we’re heading for significant global warming which is likely to cause massive suffering, social disruption and death and possibility endanger our survival within the next few decades. And we’re in complete denial. We’re endangering our existence and the existence of other species, and we’re refusing to face up to it. If our civilization was a person, it would be sectioned.

Even our obsession with well-being is a bit mad. It’s become the rational secular replacement for religion. We become restless well-being evangelists – there’s an epidemic! Let’s fix this! Let’s talk about it! Let’s introduce a national plan to eradicate suffering! Every week is another ‘mental health week’. The more we talk about it, the bigger the ‘epidemic’ grows.

We endlessly confess to feeling unwell, and congratulate each other for our courage in speaking out. Certainly, stigma around mental illness can worsen our suffering. But what if one of our deepest sicknesses is our bottomless need for attention and approval? When Prince William and Lady Gaga get millions of hits for their online chat, are they freeing us, or deepening that addiction to attention?

I’ve campaigned for a decade for better access to therapy and better well-being education. I know that therapy and education can help free people from acute suffering, and even an article, a conversation or a book can be tremendously healing.

But the root of our suffering is the ego, and it’s a tricky thing to shake off. If we’re serious about moving our society towards flourishing and sanity, we need to realize how unwell we all are, and how unhealthy our normal reality is.

New Publications January – March 2017

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from January to March 2017.

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 7 July 2017.

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




  • Douglas Cairns, ‘Metaphors for Hope in Early Greek Literature’, in R. R. Caston and R. A. Kaster (eds), Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 13-44.
  • Douglas Cairns, ‘Clothed in Shamelessness, Shrouded in Grief: The Role of “Garment” Metaphors in Ancient Greek Concepts of Emotion’, in G. Fanfani, M. Harlow, and M.-L. Nosch (eds), Spinning Fates and the Song of the Loom: The Use of Textiles, Clothing and Cloth Production as Metaphor, Symbol, and Narrative (Oxford: Oxbow, 2016), 25-41
  • M. Gendron and L. Feldman-Barrett, ‘Facing the Past: A history of the face in psychological research on emotion perception’ in The Science of Facial Expressioneds. James A. Russell and Jose Miguel Fernandez Dols (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Helen Hills, ‘Miraculous affects and analogical materialities. Rethinking the relation between architecture and affect in baroque Italy’ in Emotion, Ritual and Power in Europe, 1200-1920, eds. K. Barclay & M. Bailey (Palgrave, 2017).
  • Anna Koivusalo, “‘He Ordered the First Gun Fired & He Resigned First’: James Chesnut, Southern Honor, and Emotion,” in The Field of Honor: Essays on Southern Character & American Identity, ed. John Mayfield and Todd Hagstette (University of South Carolina Press, 2017).
  • Oliva López, ‘Los significados médicos de las emociones en las enfermedades psiquiátricas en México. La histeria y la epilepsia (1900-1930)’, in Marina Ariza ed. Emociones, afectos y sociología Diálogos desde la investigación social y la interdisciplina (Mexico, 2016)
  • Charlotte-Rose Millar, ‘Over-Familiar Spirits: Seventeenth Century English Witches and Their Devils’ in Emotions in the History of Witchcraft, ed. Laura Kounine and Michael Ostling, (London: Palgrave Studies in the History of Emotions, 2017)



Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural: The Concealed Revealed Project

Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, and a Co-investigator on the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900’ project.

Twitter @odavies9


Ceri Houlbrook is an Early Career Researcher in Intangible Cultural Heritage at the University of Hertfordshire, primarily interested in British rituals and folklore, from the early modern period to the present.

Twitter: @CeriHoulbrook


Project website:

Project Historypin site:

When Phil Bradley first found the bones, he thought they belonged to a child. The initial wave of horror subsided when he realised it was the skeleton of a cat, but there were still questions to be answered. Why was there a cat skeleton beneath the hearthstone of his 17th-century Cumbrian cottage? It couldn’t have become trapped in that airtight space by accident, so why would somebody put it there?

Left: Phil outside his 17th-century Cumbrian cottage; right: the hearth beneath which the cat skeleton was found

Had this cat been a one-off, we might contend that it was the sentimental interment of a household pet. But this isn’t the first cat to have been found hidden away within the fabric of a building, and nor is it likely to be the last. Cat remains have been found bricked up in walls, laid beneath floorboards, and placed in ceilings, in buildings that range in date from the 16th century to the Victorian period. And it isn’t just cats. Rats, chickens, horse skulls. Shoes, breeches, pantaloons. Poppets, bottles, and clay-pipes. A vast variety of objects, often dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, have been found in unusual locations: under floorboards, thresholds, and hearthstones; within walls; above ceilings and doors; up chimneybreasts; in the roof and thatching. Such odd places that many of them can’t have ended up there accidentally. They must have been deliberately secreted away many years ago.

58 shoes and 189 leather fragments found up the chimney and in the fireplace of a farmhouse in Nant Gwynant

But why?

It seems that very little was written about this practice at the time, so we have no text explaining exactly why these objects were being concealed; what the concealers were hoping to achieve; why those specific objects and those specific places were chosen. Without the written or oral testimony of the people who were concealing these objects, how can we hope to understand what beliefs motivated them? How can we access the emotions behind the custom?

I argue that we can’t possibly hope to know why people concealed these objects. But we can propose theories based on the body of evidence we have: the material culture of the hidden objects themselves. This is why the Concealed Revealed Project (sub-project of ‘Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900’), University of Hertfordshire, has been gathering as much data as possible on these objects. Trawling through old archaeology and folklore publications, digging through Northampton Museum’s index of close to 3000 concealed shoes, and searching for obscure references online, a growing archive of hidden objects is being compiled. It’s being transferred to a freely accessible Historypin site, and members of the public are encouraged to pin their own finds of concealed objects.

The map of pinned finds on the Concealed Revealed Historypin collection

Finders and scholars alike have been tossing around theories about concealed objects since the mid-20th century. The most popular proposal is that these items were hidden away to protect both home and occupants from malevolent forces, either natural or supernatural. Fire, disease, vermin; demons, witches, ghosts, and fairies. According to this theory, these items were apotropaic devices: objects used to avert evil forces.

The question remains: why would such items be considered effective supernatural safeguards? Concealed objects range from the mundane (shoes) to the distasteful (animal remains), but they certainly don’t seem inherently magical. Yet people went to the trouble of tucking them away up chimneybreasts, bricking them up in walls, or laying them beneath hearthstones. They must have invested them with some significance, some power.

Theories abound. Were shoes and other garments considered powerful because of their close association with their wearers? Were they imbued with the person’s agency? Did they act as supernatural surrogates for the people they represented, protecting the vulnerable points of a house through a process of distributed personhood? Or were they decoys, intended to lure and trap malevolent forces? And what of animal remains? Were they intended to repel vermin? If so, was it of the natural or supernatural variety?

A concealed cat found in the chancel roof space of a church in Cumbria, Keswick Museum

As you’ll no doubt have noticed, we have more questions than answers. And as I said above, we can’t hope to know why people in the 18th and 19th centuries were hiding these objects: whether it was fear that motivated them or some other emotion.

It wasn’t only the original concealers of these objects, however, who engaged with them. People are frequently finding these objects in their homes during renovations, and unsurprisingly such encounters engender a range of reactions. Horror at the bones under the hearthstone. Curiosity at the shoe up the chimneybreast. Excitement at the poppet balanced on the roof beam. Anxiety over the broken bottles hanging in the attic. Even when a concealed object is discovered, its biography continues. It carries on generating emotions in people.

Three broken glass bottles found – and left – hanging in the roof space of a 16th-century inn in Kirton, Lincolnshire

And so the Concealed Revealed Project is just as concerned with the objects’ contemporary finders as with their historical concealers. How do people react when they find such odd items within the fabric of their homes? What do they do with them? Do they believe in the objects’ efficacy – even on a subconscious level? And what might this tell us about how people today engage emotionally with objects – and, through these objects, with the people who once owned, wore, used, and concealed them?

Returning to Phil and his cat, I interviewed him back in February 2016, and when I asked why he believed somebody had concealed the cat beneath the hearthstone, this is what he said: ‘the idea of burying a cat skeleton to keep the house rodent free. And there’s never been a mouse in there, in those buildings, we’ve never seen any. We’ve had rodents in here. So we thought it maybe worked. So when we re-laid the floor we just kind of put it back again. Because it seemed to be the right thing to do I think. It had been there for 200 years plus maybe, I don’t know, so it just seemed right to put this little skeleton back and we buried it. And the interesting thing is this was probably 15 years ago and we’ve still not had a mouse in there, so we’re still convinced it works.’

Further reading

Hoggard, B. 2004. The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic. In Davies, O. & de Blecourt, W. (eds.) Beyond the Witch-Trials. Manchester University Press, Manchester: 167-186.

Houlbrook, C. 2013. Ritual, Recycling, and Recontextualisation: Putting the Concealed Shoe into Context. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23 (1), 99-112.

Howard, M. M. 1951. Dried Cats. Man 51, 149-151.

Hutton, R. (ed.) 2016. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford, London.

UFOs and the Historians

Greg Eghigian is Associate Professor of Modern History at Penn State University (USA). He specializes in the history of the human sciences and medicine. His most recent books include The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health (2017) and The Corrigible and the Incorrigible: Science, Medicine, and the Convict in Twentieth-Century Germany (2015). He is presently writing a book on the history of the UFO and alien contact phenomenon. His blog on the history of UFOs can be found at

Find out more! QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions is hosting a free talk by Professor Eghigian on 4 May, from 6pm. Register online here.

For several years now, I have been studying the history of unidentified flying objects and claims of alien contact since World War II. One of the most puzzling things I have encountered, however, is not a specific sighting of some odd aerial phenomenon, not a photograph of a flying saucer, not a report about being abducted by extraterrestrials. Rather, it is this: why have academic historians all but neglected this subject?

For seven decades, claims of UFOs from outer space and encounters with aliens have inspired amateur research, enthusiast periodicals and organizations, extraterrestrial contact support networks, government investigations, scientific and clinical research, bestselling books, news coverage, television shows, films, and websites across the globe. Surely a cultural phenomenon this large warrants our attention.

Yet, the last and only time a university professor of history published an English-language book on the history of UFOs was in 1975. This was former Temple University professor David Jacobs, and the book was The UFO Controversy in America, published by Indiana University Press. Jacobs, in fact, went on to become a leading proponent of the notion that aliens were in fact kidnapping people in order to colonize earth by breeding human-alien hybrids. While his subsequent involvement with “abductees” has brought him considerable ridicule from his academic peers, his monograph continues to stand alone as a well-researched history of the UFO phenomenon.

The absence of historians from the study of postwar interest in flying saucers and extraterrestrial visitors is even more glaring when you take into consideration that researchers in other fields have taken up the issue since the 1960s. Folklorists, psychologists, sociologists, religious studies scholars, anthropologists, political scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and journalists have all embarked on any number of research projects designed to understand and explain the perceptions, attitudes, and institutions that have gone into the making of the UFO craze.

I would argue, however, that historians have something unique to contribute to the discussion. One of the things we specialize in, for example, is the use of historical sources to explain social and cultural change. And archival sources clearly show that, while interest in the possibility of there being and in communicating with intelligent alien civilizations dates back to ancient times, stories of mysterious flying rockets, saucers, and discs had an identifiable beginning (the two summers following the end of World War II). Records also show that the stories about and responses to the UFO and alien contact phenomenon have changed over time. And in fact, there is reason to believe that interest and involvement in the world of UFOs has eroded over the past two decades. Thus, we need to explain how this all began, how it has changed, and why it may be dissipating at this time.

Another thing to explain is the phenomenon’s remarkable resilience. Folklorists, for instance, have sometimes relegated flying saucer sightings and alien abduction reports to the status of “urban legends.” This may well be true, but in my view, only in part. We have to acknowledge that the UFO and extraterrestrial contact phenomenon has flourished in a categorically different way from things like Slenderman or Satanic ritual abuse, for example, by giving birth to and sustaining a host of long-lasting, influential preoccupations, pastimes, and institutions. Somehow, the obsession with UFOs did not unravel over the years, despite numerous obstacles. How do we account for this?

Finally, there is plenty for the historian of emotions to explore as well. What kinds of anxieties, enthusiasms, and disappointments helped shape and sustain UFO buffs? What kinds of different affective registers did groups like the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA), the Raëlians, and Budd Hopkins’s Intruders Foundation call on to solidify their communities? To what extent have fears about changing political and social circumstances played a role in feeding conspiracy theories among ufologists?

So why then have historians been so silent on this topic? It’s difficult to say with any certainty. The experience of David Jacobs may be instructive. Throughout its history, the study of UFOs and aliens has been roundly dismissed by the academy as pseudoscientific silliness. To get near the subject makes one in some way suspect. I myself have experienced this at times with colleagues when I tell them about my research: some have asked if I am “one of those people,” while others have warned me to beware of “going native.” But as I noted earlier, a host of academic researchers from other disciplines have delved into the subject without any adverse repercussions. So professional stigma alone seems insufficient to explain historians’ silence. It would appear, then, that their silence also requires historical explanation.

Why getting out of our heads is good for us

At the end of last year, an unusual article appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. A single dose of a drug appeared to dramatically reduce anxiety and depression in those suffering from life-threatening cancer, far better than any other treatment. The drug was psilocybin, the psychedelic found in magic mushrooms.

The two trials, by NYU medical school and Johns Hopkins medical school, are the latest in a series of recent studies which claim psychedelics have remarkable therapeutic powers, helping people overcome chronic emotional disorders and addictions. So how exactly does a single dose of a psychedelic drug create such radical personality changes?

The Johns Hopkins study wrote: ‘This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness.’

Come again?

A late 19th century photo from the Salpetriere hospital showing a hysteric patient in ecstatic attitude

For over three centuries, western science – and in particular, psychiatry – has tended to pathologize ‘mystical experience’, to reduce it to a delusion or mental illness. In the Enlightenment, natural philosophers called it ‘enthusiasm’, and blamed on an over-active imagination or an over-warm brain. In the late 19th century, psychiatrists labelled it ‘hysteria’. In the 20th century, spiritual experiences were (and still are) reduced to brain disorders like schizophrenia or epilepsy.

The consequence of this long pathologization of ecstasy is that there’s a taboo around such experiences. As Aldous Huxley put it: ‘If you have an experience like this, you keep your mouth shut, for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst’, or, in our day, a psychiatrist. And the result of that taboo is that western culture has become spiritually flat, afraid to let go, stuck in our heads and our egos, lacking a window to transcendence.

In the last few years, however, a consensus has begun to emerge in psychology and psychiatry that ecstatic experiences – moments when we go beyond our ordinary ego and feel a connection to something bigger than us – are often good for us.

Scientists can’t agree on what to call this sort of experience – it’s variously studied as self-transcendence; flow; mystical, religious, spiritual or anomalous experience; altered states of consciousness; or (my preferred term) ecstasy. But scientists do agree that it’s an important human experience that can be very healing. This is a big shift for western science, and western culture.

Breaking the mental loop

Ecstasy is good for us because it gets us out of our head. Emotional disorders like depression, anxiety and addiction are perpetuated by rigid and repetitive patterns of thinking, feeling and acting. We get stuck in loops of negative rumination, endlessly thinking about ourselves and our imperfections. We can free ourselves from these rigid mental habits by using rationality to unpick our beliefs – this is what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does.

But we can also get out of these loops by shifting our consciousness. To use the terminology of the New Testament, we can have sudden epiphanies which break us out of the tomb of our egos, giving us the experience of being born again. Being reborn – suddenly reconfiguring the self – is a fundamental human capacity, not found only in followers of Jesus.

There are shallower and deeper forms of ego-loss. At the lighter end of the spectrum, there are the sort of ‘flow’ states which we might find each day or week, where we lose ourselves in reading a good book, or walking in the park, or going for a run. These activities settle and absorb our consciousness, taking us out of the loop of rumination, helping us forget ourselves in the moment (here’s an interview I did with flow psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi on flow and ecstasy).

Iris Murdoch called it ‘unselfing’. She wrote:

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals our world…The most obvious thing in our surroundings which is an occasion for ‘unselfing’ is what is popularly called beauty…I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind…Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel.

Nature is the most reliable route to this sort of ego-dissolving wonder. When we go for a walk, run, ride or swim in nature, we might discover what Wordsworth called ‘the quiet stream of self-forgetfulness’. We get into the ‘reverie’ that Rousseau wrote about when he went walking, feel a mind-expansion at the beauty of the landscape, and this breaks the loop of rumination. Here’s a 2015 study on how a 90-minute walk in nature reduces rumination.

The arts can do something similar – absorb our consciousness so that we lose ourselves in the moment, in the book, poem, play, painting, song, cathedral etc – and this shift in consciousness breaks the loop of rumination and takes us somewhere quieter, better, more spacious. A 2016 mass survey by Durham University found reading and nature were our favourite ways to rest – and switching off the restless ego-mind is an important part of that. Likewise, meditation and prayer can help us find the space between our ruminating thoughts. Many of us use sport as a way to get out of the noise of our head and into our bodies.

Such moments of absorption can be very socially connecting. Suddenly, we’re taken out of our ego-loops and joined in what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called ‘the hive mind’. That’s a great antidote to the chronic western affliction of loneliness. We might get that experience singing, dancing, marching or playing music together, which studies shows helps to synchronize people’s breathing and even heart-beat. We might get collective flow from playing or watching sport together, or participating in a concert or political rally. Or – the oldest route – we might get it by worshipping the divine in some form or other.

The deep end of absorption

And then there are deeper moments of self-transcendence, which the mystics call ‘ecstasy’, in which one becomes so absorbed in a moment or activity that one’s identity and conception of reality are radically altered, perhaps permanently. Such moments are rare, but they can be life-changing. At this deeper end of what I call the ‘continuum of absorption’, one finds experiences like strong psychedelic trips, moments of deep contemplation, spontaneous spiritual experiences, and near-death experiences.

Take spontaneous spiritual experiences. In surveys, between 50% and 80% of people say they have experienced a moment of ecstasy, where they’ve gone beyond their normal sense of identity and felt a deep connection to something greater than them. Here’s one example:

During my late 20s and early 30s I had a good deal of depression. I felt shut up in a cocoon of complete isolation and could not get in touch with anyone…things came to such a pass and I was so tired of fighting that I said one day, ‘I can do no more. Let nature, or whatever is behind the universe, look after me now.’ Within a few days I passed from a hell to a heaven. It was as if the cocoon had burst and my eyes were opened and I saw. Everything was alive and God was present in all things….Psychologically and for my own peace of mind, the effect has been of the greatest importance.

In a survey I did, agnostics and atheists also reported moments where they felt a deep connection between themselves and all things – indeed, arch-rationalist Bertrand Russell had a mystical moment where he suddenly felt profoundly connected to everyone in the street. He said that experience turned him into a pacifist. We might make sense of such moments of connection differently, but they seem very common, and on the whole good for us.

Psychedelics are similarly effective at giving people a sense of spiritual connection and oneness. Comedian Simon Amstell has spoken of how a psychedelic brew called ayahuasca, found in the Amazon jungle, helped him overcome depression: ‘Before I left I felt broken. After I came back, I didn’t feel broken anymore…I felt like I was part of the world, not disconnected from it.’

After 40 years in the wilderness, psychedelics are rapidly returning to the mainstream of western medicine. Just this month, the Lancet published a trial showing the effectiveness of ketamine at treating chronic depression, while BBC One’s main daytime TV show, Victoria, had a segment on the benefits of LSD microdosing in managing emotional problems. Other trials have found psychedelics effective at treating depression and addiction.

One of the most powerful forms of ecstatic experience is the ‘near-death experience’. Thanks to improved resuscitation procedures, NDEs are increasingly common and there are several academic research units studying them. They seem to share common features, particularly an encounter with a white light and a sense of being profoundly loved. People typically return from NDEs less afraid of death, because they no longer think it’s the end. I had an NDE myself when I was 21 – that’s how I became interested in this topic – and it helped me recover from PTSD. After five years of feeling my ego was permanently broken, I realized there was something within me bigger than my ego, which was loved and OK.

Other forms of ecstatic experience seem to work in a similar way – they take people beyond their constructed ego and give them a sense of love-connection to some greater whole. In the trials I mentioned at the start of this article, psilocybin seemed to give the participants an NDE-type experience. Here’s the report of one participant in the NYU study:

For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving. I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realize all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.

Now, this poses a challenge for western science. It appears that moments of ecstasy or ‘mystical experiences’ can be very therapeutic. But are they true? Are we really connected to all beings and the universe in some kind of psychic love-connection? Is there really a loving God beyond our ego? Tucked away in the formal language of the Johns Hopkins study is the comment that one psychedelic trip increased people’s belief in the afterlife (see the passage below), and this was one of the factors in the reduction of death-anxiety:

Remarkable: a material that makes us believe in the immaterial. But is that just a placebo-delusion?

We don’t know. Maybe such experiences give people an insight into a genuine connection between our consciousness and all things, a connection that materialist physics doesn’t yet understand but might in the future. Or maybe the experience of oneness is really in our head – recent studies appear to show that both LSD and meditation improve brain connectivity, so parts of the brain that don’t normally talk to each other come online and connect. Maybe that’s what the blissful feeling of oneness ‘is’. We don’t know. But we do know such experiences are often healing.

However, there are risks to ecstasy as well. Ego-dissolution is a form of radical surgery, as it were, which shakes people out of their usual habits of thinking and feeling and allows them to press re-set. That can be dangerous if it’s not done with proper therapeutic support. It can release buried trauma, or latent psychosis. It can be difficult to go back to one’s previous life.

I’ve had personal experience of the negative effects of psychedelics, for example, after I had a bad LSD trip when I was 18 which left me struggling with paranoia and post-traumatic stress for several years. Scientists have also studied frightening experiences of ego-loss that emerge from meditation. Spontaneous spiritual experiences can be terrifying and hard to integrate or explain to other people, particularly in a highly secular and ecstasy-averse culture like Europe.

Even some communities which put a positive value on ecstasy can be harmful. New Age or charismatic Christian communities are one of the few places in western culture where we still have permission to trance out and dissolve our egos. But such communities can put a rigidly dogmatic interpretation on ecstatic experiences – either they’re Jesus, or the Devil. They may foster an ecstatic sense of togetherness, but at the cost of demonising outsiders. They may lead to the toxic worship of a guru-figure who triggers the ecstasy. They may cash in on people’s craving for exaltation.

Having studied ecstasy over the last five years, I’ve come to two conclusions. Firstly, we need a more balanced relationship with ecstasy. We shouldn’t be averse to it or embarrassed to talk about it. Ego-transcendence is not bonkers, it’s natural and good for us. But we shouldn’t get hung up on it either, and start thinking we’re incredibly special for having a spiritual experience (we’re not). They’re just part of the long journey towards awakening.

I feel like western culture is a bit like a balloon – because there’s such a flattening of the ecstatic in the mainstream of our culture, it bulges out in other areas (the New Age, charismatic Christianity), in which there’s too strong an emphasis on it.

Secondly, we need to develop controlled spaces to lose control. That’s what religious rituals have provided humans for millennia, and what the West lost in the Reformation and Enlightenment. Since then, we’ve improvised many new places for transcendence – from cinema to New Age cults to acid house to football hooliganism. But not all of these new places are healthy.

One new place for ecstasy is therapy and medicine. Ecstasy is returning to the mainstream of western culture thanks to medical research in fields like psychedelic science and contemplative science, which shows ecstasy is healing. The benefits are potentially huge, but the risk is that scientists become priests, and the Gospel of Mindfulness or Psychedelics becomes the new dogma.

A second new ‘space’ for ecstasy is the internet, where people come together to share their ecstatic experiences online. We’re in an era of mass experimentation in ecstasy – rather than look to priests or gurus, we self-experiment, then sharing our results with others through online and offline communities like, where users share their trip experiences; or meditation sites like; or in self-help groups like the Hearing Voices network.

Such communities are an example of a new, wired spiritual democracy: no one is in charge, everyone is an expert. I imagine virtual reality will take this online mass ecstasy one stage further – though here the replacement for the church will be the corporation (Facebook etc) which manages and monetizes the online communion. And there’s a risk that, in our desperation to share our ecstasy online, it ends up being just another selfie.

Alongside these new spaces for ecstasy, I think we in the West need to find a way to re-engage with existing religious traditions, particularly our inherited tradition of Christianity, which we mock in public while endlessly stealing from the backdoor. Christianity, for all its flaws, teaches us how to embed ecstasy in an ethical context of humility, charity and surrender to Something More than the self.

Some modern forms of ecstasy – the New Age, the occult, the human potential movement, transhumanism – often encourage humans to get pumped up on ecstasy to try and become super-powered gods. This seems like dangerous ego-inflation to me. We have something godlike within us, but the way to connect to it is not by flying off into ungrounded superhero fantasies, but by sitting down quietly and accepting our weakness and imperfection. ‘We descend by self-exaltation’, said St Benedict, 1500 years ago, ‘and ascend through humility.’

This article summarises some points from my new book, The Art of Losing Control, which explores how people find ecstasy in modern western culture. You can buy the book here (it’s also available in Kindle and paperback).