‘What is Emotional Health?’ workshop summary

The ‘What is Emotional Health?’ workshop ran on the afternoon of July 4 and brought together the Living with Feeling project team with named collaborators on the grant, plus new contacts made in the previous eight months. There were twenty-three attendees, comprising scholars, consultants, journalists, healthcare professionals and incoming PhD students.

The aims of the event were:

  • To generate positive relationships between the Living With Feeling core team and named and potential collaborators at the outset of the LWF project
  • To initiate discussions about the best way of connecting the LWF themes with contemporary science, medical practice, phenomenology, and public policy
  • To map out opportunities for specific partnerships and projects across the 5-year grant within each strand

In the first session, participants described their interest in emotional health and offered three words that they associated with the concept. Connections were immediately forged: between PhD students and professors, Humanities and STEM, and stakeholders from HEI and non-HEI. We recorded these words on big sheets of paper and stuck them to the walls of the venue to provoke conversation throughout the afternoon – although, as one delegate pointed out, we should have offered a more structured opportunity to unpack these choices of words. There was some repetition but also some divergence, especially across disciplines, and, on table four, a real positive move with words like ‘joy’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘laughter’ and ‘movement’ being flagged.

Words describing emotional health

Words describing emotional health

The second session gave four members of the Living with Feeling team the opportunity to discuss their research projects with their collaborators in small groups: Thomas Dixon on anger, Tiffany Watt Smith on copying and imitation, Jules Evans on ecstasy and Sarah Chaney on public engagement.

In the third session some of the project collaborators introduced their work to participants. Sam Guglani (Gloucestershire Hospitals and Medicine Unboxed) discussed compassion and the patient-doctor relationship in the wake of mid-Staffs. Deborah Swinglehurst (QMUL) and Annalisa Manca (University of Dundee) sought feedback on a project which seeks to explore how patients (especially patients who are also doctors) represent their experiences of diagnosis in blogs. Stefan Priebe (QMUL) discussed social psychiatry and how emotions are produced in dialogue and situationally. Sue Ziebland (HERG, Oxford) described the interviews conducted by HERG of individuals with particular conditions. More information and excerpts are available on their website.

Where Next?

The following ideas were put forward by participants as a starting point for future collaborations.

  • One much repeated idea was for smaller, more focused workshops – thematically arising out of the connections made during this workshop.
  • One proposal was for an equivalent of ‘death cafes’: an opportunity for people to meet and discuss LWF in pubs, cafes etc. perhaps at the local hospice St Joseph’s Hackney.
  • A Medicine Unboxed event on the emotions of the medical encounter.
  • A retreat (48-72h) focussed on specific questions
  • Roundtables and presentation of work in progress by team members
  • Workshops on more practical aspects of collaboration
  • Unstructured discussions run by non-physicians about emotional experiences of healthcare encounters – no end goal but instead value from the discussion itself with regards to emotional intelligence.

Watch this space!

Meet our PhD Students – Edgar Gerrard Hughes

profile2Edgar Gerrard Hughes starts a PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions this week. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust under our Living with Feeling grant.



I studied history as an undergraduate at Hertford College, Oxford. But it was only five years later, during my Masters degree in Intellectual History at Queen Mary, that I started to develop an interest in the history of emotions. When I encountered the recent effusion of academic interest in the nature of feelings, I was immediately excited by the possibilities it offered. I was interested partly by the engagement with an aspect of mental life often neglected by historians, but also by the idea that a greater emphasis on feelings could allow us to engage with individual, subjective and experiences and ideas, while also recognising that these experiences had a powerful social dimension. Having delved into this new history of emotions and written an essay about what it might have to offer intellectual historians, I was of course thrilled to discover the studentships on offer at the Centre for the History of Emotions. I’m very happy to be joining now to begin my PhD.

My project will focus on theories, interpretations and experiences of grief in late-19th century Britain. The Victorian period is often associated with ostentatious mourning rituals and has given us many of our most enduring icons of death and grief: Queen Victoria and her widow’s weeds, black-rimmed letters sent by the bereaved, sorrow-hardened Miss Havisham frozen in the instant of her abandonment. Yet while there have been histories of these symbols and rituals, little has been written on the way in which Victorians experienced and understood the actual emotion of grief. This is the question I intend to address. In my Masters thesis, which looked at conceptions of grief in secular psychologies influenced by evolutionary theory, I have begun to study this issue. I have discovered attempts to create an ennobling narrative of grief and attempts to distinguish between “pathological” and “normal” suffering; I have unearthed a debate over the capacity of animals to grieve and an ambiguity of the meaning of the word “grief” itself. All these are issues my project will explore in far greater depth. And since my period is one in which popular attitudes were still deeply saturated with Christian beliefs, I will of course look beyond the perspective of secular science.

In seeking a greater understanding of Victorian attitudes to grief, my project will also contribute to current debates about emotional responses to death. For instance, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (so-called DSM-5), for instance, intensified a debate within psychiatry about the relationship between grief and depression, and sparked a knotty controversy over whether it is possible to label some responses to bereavement as an unhealthy or excessive. (details here http://www.dsm5.org/Documents/Bereavement%20Exclusion%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf) I hope to uncover the long and complex heritage of debates like this. By studying how people far removed from us in time have interpreted and dealt with this most painful and inevitable of emotions, perhaps we can find new ways of understanding and experiencing grief ourselves.

Meet our PhD Students – Evelien Lemmens

Evelien Lemmens completed her MA History at Queen Mary University of London in September 2013, focusing on gender history and the history of emotions – particularly on eighteenth-century jealousy. Before moving to London in 2012, she read BA History at the Katholieke Unviersiteit Leuven in Belgium. Evelien is Belgian, and has lived in Belgium, Portugal, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London.

In 2016 Europe, we need not look far to be reminded of the integral role that diet and the gut play in determining the quality of our physical and mental health. Superfoods, probiotics, prebiotics, antioxidants, organic, fermented, ‘live culture’, toxins, and ‘Omega 3’: we are bombarded with buzzwords that we are encouraged to live our life by, without fully understanding the intricacies that they encompass. Looking to societies past, historic sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – medical, philosophical, literary, didactic, colloquial – reveal a similar (but very different) historically established relationship between emotions and the body’s digestive organs and processes. Nineteenth-century melancholy and dyspepsia were for example observed to go hand in hand; the result of an overly luxurious diet or sedentary lifestyle.

My research will trace the relationship between diet, digestion and emotion in Britain and the Netherlands between 1850 and 1950. This will include both an analysis of the observed effects of emotions – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – on the gastro-intestinal organs, and a consideration of how digestive disorders could impact on emotional wellbeing. In his A History of the Modern Stomach Ian Miller presents the stomach as a “historic index of social anxiety” in Britain between 1800 and 1950. My research will analyse whether or not a similar trend can be identified in the Netherlands, a country which witnessed different changes at different speeds – thus different causes for “social anxiety” – during this period.

Historical research by Ian Miller, Edgar Jones and Rhodri Hayward will be essential starting points in the case of Britain. While these historians have focused on gastric disorders in British adult males, my research promises to add a comparative and international dimension, and to incorporate an analysis of gender and attention to childhood emo-gastro-intestinal disorders. Reading a vast variety of source material with a broad analysis across gender, class and international borders, I will attempt to bridge the ‘elite’ and the ‘vernacular’ in the history of medicine and emotions.

You might also like to read Evelien’s previous post for us about our launch event ‘What is Emotional Health?’

Meet our PhD Students – David Saunders


David Saunders starts a PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions this week. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and intersects with our Living with Feeling grant.



“Human experimentation” conjures up particular images in the popular imagination: the horrific abuses of totalitarian regimes, the top-secret projects of government laboratories, the landmark legal battles to punish medical abuses and protect human rights. However, in these grand narratives, it is all too easy to overlook the intimate and emotionally-charged interactions that lie at the very heart of medical research: the relationships between medical and scientific experts and the patients, volunteers, and test subjects from whom knowledge is created.

My research, which focuses on the underdeveloped history of human experimentation in twentieth-century Britain, seeks to place the relationships between researchers and experimental subjects at the forefront of discussions about the changing role of medical science in modern society. I first explored these themes in my undergraduate studies at King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London. My final year dissertation, Bore Holes and Dream Machines, investigated programmes of counter-cultural self-experimentation during the 1950s and 1960s. Moving beyond the well-worn clichés of hedonism and mysticism that dominate perceptions of the Sixties, this project instead explored how bohemian artists and writers forged unusual relationships with neuroscientists and cyberneticists as they pursued experimental new methods of consciousness expansion. These ranged from using strobe lighting to produce visionary experiences to undertaking DIY psychosurgeries to attain a lasting high. You can read more about it on the Society for the Social History of Medicine website.

In my recently completed MSc at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) at the University of Manchester, I continued to explore overlooked episodes in the British history of human experimentation. My research, supported by a Wellcome Trust Master’s Award, focused on the Sorby Research Institute in Sheffield, an abandoned suburban house that became the site of unprecedented experiments on human volunteers during the Second World War. The majority of these volunteers were pacifists and conscientious objectors, seeking a humanitarian alternative to military service, and thus offering their bodies for dangerous and unpleasant research exploring everything from parasitic infection to surgical shock. In my MSc dissertation, Voluntary Bodies: Constructing Experimental Subjects at the Sorby Research Institute, I investigated how the unusual domestic environment of the Institute, an intimate and transgressive space in which both researchers and volunteers lived and worked closely together, transformed not merely the production of medical knowledge, but the volunteers’ own notions of selfhood, identity, and their place in the world.

I will continue to explore the social and emotional dimensions of human research in my PhD project, which forms part of the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Living with Feeling’ collaborative project. My doctoral thesis, provisionally titled ‘Restless Tides of Electrical Being”: Epilepsy Research, Neuroscience, and Subjectivity in Post-War Britain’, will explore how post-war neuroscientific research on patients with epilepsy challenged traditional conceptions of emotional health, consciousness, and selfhood. In particular, I will focus on the influence of the patients and volunteers themselves; not merely passive objects of study, these individuals actively contributed to the research and thus profoundly shaped developing neuroscientific models of the brain. Not only contributing to the history of British epilepsy research, this project also seeks to inform current debates about the growing role of the neurosciences in public policy. With governments increasingly turning to neuro-practitioners to maximise the emotional, psychological, and neurological health of their citizens, investigating epilepsy research reveals one outlet by which modern, rational visions of the brain gained political and scientific currency.


“O well-painted passion!”: Colour and Emotions in Shakespeare’s Othello

bridBríd Phillips holds an MA in medieval and early modern studies and BA in Classics and English and Cultural Studies. She is currently a PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She recently spent four weeks visiting the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions. She spent this time working on the final chapter of her doctoral thesis, provisionally titled “Stirring the emotions with colour: an examination of the affective role of colour use in the drama of William Shakespeare.”

Comments or thoughts on colour and emotion in the early modern period are welcome: brid.phillips@research.uwa.edu.au

My research analyses how William Shakespeare employed colour to convey emotion in several of his plays. My aim is to consider the connotations of colour terms in their original context, and to explore the ways in which colour signposting can point to culturally specific representations of emotions. To situate the research in its historical context, I analyse the relationship of colour to emotion through the lens of medieval and early modern ideologies including rhetorical teachings, humoral theory, material culture, physiognomy, and visual culture.

To take visual culture as an example, this was important because in early modern England there was a growing interest in methods of painting. Painting in England had fallen behind interest and methods in Europe but this was changing by Elizabethan times. In 1598, Richard Haydocke translated Lomazzo’s Trattato dell’arte de la pitura. One of the themes in the book associated the use of certain colours with certain meanings. In the Third Booke: Chap. XI Of The Effectes Cavsed By Colovrs, he gives an overview of the function and emotional relevance of colour in art works. He writes,

Becavse all colours haue different qualities, therefore they cavse diuerse effects in the beholders, which arise from an inwarde contrariety of their cavses (as Aristotle teacheth) which I purpose here so far forth to lay open. First therefore blacke light, earthie, lead-like and obscure colours, by reason of their heauy qualities, being apprehended by the eie, doe breede in the minde of the beholder tarditity, musing, melancholie, &c. Blacke, greene, the colour of the Saphire, reddish, or obscure of the colour of gold and silver mixt together as yellow, yeelde a pleasurable sweetnesse. Redde fiery, flame colour violet, Purple, the colour of iron red hote, and Sanguine cause courage, providence, fiercenesse and boldness by stirring up the minde like fire. Gold colours, yellowes, light Purples, and other bright colours make a man vigilant, adding grace and sweetnesse. The Rose colour, light greenes, and bright yellowes yield joy, mirth, delight &c. White ingedreth a kinde of simple attentiō more melancholy then otherwise. […] And these are the qualities of colours, in the disposition whereof we must be careful, that we make no disorder or confusion in the eie of the beholder.

In Haydocke’s chapter on the colour red, some of the meanings listed are revenge, martyrdom, love, charity, ardent affections, nobility (as purple is presumed not to differ that much from red), and courage. Most significantly, red is nearly always associated with strong, bold emotions. These associations were also commonly employed in literary texts. For example in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, Desdemona’s father Brabantio exclaims ‘O treason of the blood’ (1.1.167), allowing for a contextual reading of revenge and possibly martyrdom along with the literal betrayal of bloodlines as Desdemona is committed through marriage to bearing Othello’s children.

Brabantio cannot understand how his ‘maid’, so ‘fair and happy’ (1.2.66), could ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/ Of such a thing as thou? (1.270-1). Here, he uses colour dichotomies to augment previous slurs on Othello’s character, thereby intending to arouse anxiety and fear amongst those listening to him.

The central moment of the play hinges both on a chromatic reference and an emotional state. Iago, with rhetorical command and a reliance in part on accepted chromatic associations, unsettles Othello and warns him,

O beware, my lord, jealousy!

It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock

The meat it feeds on. (3.3.167-169)

Iago warns against what he fully expects and wishes to happen, namely that jealousy will take possession and influence Othello’s more rational parts. Green, which was previously associated with hope, joy, and youth, is now associated not only with jealousy but also with the visual proof of jealousy through references to the eye. Indeed this association between green-eyed and jealousy begins with Shakespeare as until this time yellow was associated with the “covetous wighte”. Such a change in meaning reinforces the need for careful contextual research in order to reflect the nuances as they were understood in the early modern setting.

But, to fix one meaning undermines the complexity of the relationship of green to the emotions implicated by this reference. From the Middle English word grenen comes the hint of emotional desire, as grenen meant not only to become green or grow but also to desire or to long for something. There is too the greenness and immaturity of Othello’s socialization in Venetian society. His eyes are clouded by the green vision of jealousy as the monster, from the Latin monstrare, to show, which demonstrates to him false evidence that obscures reality. The scene continues as a homage to jealousy, which is mentioned five more times in quick succession, as Othello demands ocular proof of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. From this point on Iago is in control, as Othello has been overwhelmed by misplaced jealousy. As Thomas Wright, in The Passions of the Mind in General, says:

[T]he passions not vnfitly may be compared to green spectacles, which make all things resemble the colour of greene; euen so, he that loueth, hateth, or by any other passion is vehemently possessed, iudgeth all things that occur in fauour of that passion.

Every subsequent interaction Othello has with Desdemona will be “coloured” by the jealousy he feels. Much later in the play Emilia reiterates this same point, saying,

But jealous souls will not be answered so:

They are not ever jealous for the cause,

But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster

Begot upon itself, born on itself. (3.4.159-162)

Desdemona reintroduces the colour green when she is alone and preparing for what will be her death. She sings the willow song, ‘by a sycamore tree/ [s]ing all a green willow’ (4.3.39-40). Green, once the colour of lovers, now evokes feelings of sorrow and unrequited love rather than the jealousy described earlier. The changing valence of the colour green coincides with Desdemona’s realization that her fate has been sealed. Her virtue in light of her use of green alludes to the emblem with the motto, ‘Virescit vulnere virtus’ or ‘Virtue thrives from wounds’:

The dockes (thoughe trodden) growe, as it is dailie seene:

So vertue, thoughe it longe be hid, with wounding waxeth greene.

Emblems are another art form that employed colour, and combined text and images, to influence emotions. Geoffrey Whitney highlighted the genre in England with his book, Choice of Emblemes, in 1587. Within this collection there are a number of examples that use colour as an aid to convey their moralising message.

The dier, loe, in smoke, and heate doth toile,

For mourners, blacke, for the religious, white

Which is a signe, of conscience pure, and free.

The greene, agrees with them in hope that liue:

And eeke to youthe, this colour wee do giue.

The yelowe, next vnto the couetous wighte.

And vnto those, whome ielousie doth fret.

The man refus’d in Taunye doth delite.

The collour Redde, let martiall captaine get.

And little boies, whome shamefastnes did grace,

The Romaines deck’d, in Scarlet like their face.

The marriners, the Blewe becometh well.

Bicause it shows the colour of the sea:

And Prophettes, that of thinges deuine foretell,

The men content, like Violet arraie.

 And laste, the poore, the meaner sorte prouide,

The medley, graye, and russet, neuer dyde.

Exploring the relation of colour to affect allows for a lively and dynamic reassessment of the role of colour in Shakespeare’s dramatic texts. Shakespeare’s clarity of colour imagery significantly raises the emotional timbre allowing generous and multiple insights into emotional expression. Although colour remained mutable in meaning, by paying particular attention to contextual clues and cultural situations I hope to elucidate emotional signifiers that are not always immediately apparent to a modern audience.

What is anger? 2. Jean Briggs

Thomas Dixon is Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His new research – part of the Living With Feeling project – explores the history, philosophy, and experience of anger.  

Lebrun Colere

‘La Colère’ by Charles Le Brun

In this, the second in an occasional series asking ‘What is anger?’, Thomas discusses the possible answers to that question suggested by a classic work of ethnography by the anthropologist Jean L. Briggs, who died earlier this year.

He reflects on parallels between history and anthropology, describes the Inuit culture of emotional control documented by Briggs’s in her remarkable book Never In Anger (1970), and finally asks where Briggs’s research leaves the quest for a universal emotion that corresponds to the English word ‘anger’.

As a student of foreign feelings, unfamiliar words, and bizarre attitudes towards emotion found in other cultures, I like to think of myself as something of an anthropologist. The past, as has often been noted, is a foreign country and its inhabitants lived and felt in ways that it takes an effort of scholarship and imagination to recover. The historian of emotions, like the anthropologist, is all too aware of the differences between their own mindset and worldview and those of the people they are studying, while also hanging on to a sense of some shared humanity and the possibility of making real, sometimes emotional connections.

The analogy between cultural history and anthropology is a good one, although I realise with some discomfort that while plenty of historians have described themselves as anthropologists of the past, not so many anthropologists tend to line up to boast that their work is a kind of history. In any case, the parallel only goes so far. In my work as a historian I have never, for example, risked my life in an extreme climate, isolated myself completely from western civilization for months on end, been ostracized by the people I am studying, or tried to subsist on a diet made up predominantly of raw fish. Jean Briggs did all of those things as an intrepid graduate student in the early 1960s in a remote arctic region.  The result was a classic work of ethnography describing the social lives and emotional dynamics of the small group of Inuit among whom she lived. It was published in 1970 and is still in print – Never In Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family.

never-in-angerIt was August 1963 when Briggs arrived in an area of arctic tundra in the Canadian Northwest Territories, northwest of Hudson Bay, to study a community of only twenty to thirty-five individuals, calling themselves the Utkuhikhalingmiut – the only human inhabitants in an area of 35,000 square miles, subsisting through fishing, hunting, and trading. The Utku – Briggs mercifully abbreviates the name throughout – agreed to play host to Briggs, one of the families taking her in as their adoptive daughter. Briggs’ intention was to spend a year to eighteen months studying shamans and shamanism. It was only some time after her arrival, as she started to learn the language and ask more questions, that Briggs discovered that the Utku had in fact been converted by missionaries some decades earlier and were now all devout Anglicans. Indeed, her adoptive father – referred to by the pseudonym ‘Inuttiaq’ in the book – was the religious leader of the group and led regular prayer meetings and religious services.  Without any shamans to study, Briggs had to find a new topic for her research, and she gradually settled upon the emotional dynamics of the group as her main focus.


Briggs’s adoptive father Kigeak (referred to as ‘Inuttiaq’ in her book) in a photo taken by Briggs in the early 1960s. Picture source: Nunatsiaq News

Briggs’s wonderful book is involving for many reasons. The descriptions of the setting, climate, and atmosphere are vivid and evocative, giving a sense of the desolate majesty and danger of the icy surroundings. The domestic details are telling too – from the endless catching, gutting and eating of fish (I started to feel despair, ennui, and nausea after a while just reading about it), to the techniques for scraping and sewing caribou hide, to the personal habits of her charismatic adoptive father Inuttiaq – fond of delivering not only moralistic sermons and prayers but also lewd jokes. The tense relationship between Briggs (known to her adoptive family as “Yinni”) and Inuttiaq is at the heart of the book, and the way that Briggs includes her own behaviour, emotions, and attitudes within the scope of her study is one of the things that made it so unusual and successful as an ethnographic study.

Never In Anger documents, then, not only the prevailing emotional regime among the Utku but Briggs’s attempts (and repeatedly failures) to conform to it. She finds herself, time and again, behaving like a kapluna (that is, a white American outsider) – too often allowing her annoyance, displeasure, and despair to become visible. The resulting tensions finally come to a head when she – believing herself to be expressing Inuttiaq’s wishes – gets into an angry confrontation with a visiting group of kapluna fishermen, who wish to borrow a canoe (having already carelessly damaged the Utku’s only other boat).  Yinni’s anger with the fishermen, and then with Inuttiaq, who undermines and reverses her refusal to lend the canoe, and with herself for her failure of self-control, leads to months of unhappy resentment and ostracism.

Someone like Yinni who could so easily and frequently lose their temper was, in the eyes of the Utku, as bad as a baby or an animal. Indeed this was a standard twentieth-century Inuit belief about kaplunas more generally – that they were loud, irrational, and bad-tempered like the dogs from whom they were descended (pp. 74, 329). In this we see an ironic mirror image of the common belief among western colonizers in the nineteenth century that indigenous ‘savages’, unlike civilized Europeans, were unable to control their emotions.

Learning restraint

Expressions of strong emotions of all kinds were of vanishing rarity among the Utku. Indeed, an anthropologist visiting rural Kent would observe more outbursts of anger and sadness over my family breakfast table on any given morning than Jean Briggs documented in her entire eighteen months among the Utku.  Inuttiaq, for all his emotional intensity, his strange violent fantasies, and his violent beating of his dogs, was a model of restraint when it came to other people.  Inuttiaq’s wife Allaq said of her husband that he was the only parent she had known who never got angry with his children (p. 69). Speaking as the father of two young children, I find this a truly astonishing feat, if true. Briggs wrote that she too never saw Inuttiaq lose his temper with anyone. Even some of the Utku found this extreme restraint troubling. Some expressed the view that a man who never lost his temper could do terrible violence – even murder – if he did once become angry (pp. 46-47).

This Utku ideal of emotional self-control was based on a strong contrast between the rules of expression that applied to young children up to the age of about six and older children and adults. Infants and toddlers were allowed to scream and shout, throw tantrums, weep uncontrollably, and generally create bedlam. Older children and adults, however, were supposed to be in possession of an all-important quality called ihuma, which Briggs translates as ‘mind’, ‘reason’, or ‘will’ (pp. 111-12). The possession of ihuma should lead to emotional containment, self-control, and near-constant outward calm.  Situations that might provoke an explosion of rage from a modern American, Briggs noted, produced nothing more than laughter, a shrug, or a ‘too bad’ from the Utku.


The thriving Utku camp at Back River on a typical day in the early 1960s, in a photo taken by Briggs. The Utku treated Briggs as kin, teaching her their ways and traditions. Picture source: Nunatsiaq News

It was not only anger, but also other commonplace feelings such as love and sadness, that Briggs was surprised to find almost imperceptible among Utku adults. The indulgence of infant emotions extended to their being shown physical warmth and affection by adults, but demonstrative loving gestures such as kisses, embraces, holding hands, or linking arms were never seen between husbands and wives or between parents and their older children (p. 117).  Separations and reunions between loved ones were marked by nothing more expressive than a gentle handshake, if that. Tears too were considered inappropriate for all but the youngest infants.  When a fourteen-year-old boy allowed a tear to run down his cheek when his father was about to be flown to hospital, possibly never to return, his sister laughed with others about this amusingly childish behaviour (p. 258).

In a later book, Briggs has documented the use of imaginary emotional dramas to teach young Inuit children these habits of self-control.1 Adults would provoke and tease children with tests and questions – encouraging them to be greedy, violent, or vindictive – as an indirect way to teach them the opposite virtues of generosity, calmness, and forgiveness.  In a 1994 research chapter entitled ‘“Why Don’t You Kill Your Baby Brother?”The Dynamics of Peace in Canadian Inuit Camps’, Briggs explains that a heightened awareness of the threats of hostility and bloodshed led to the creation of these regimes of emotional education and control among the Inuit.  And of course, of all human emotions, anger is the one most strongly associated with such threats.

Angry Jesus

In a previous post I explored some of the foundational texts of western moral philosophy, as deployed by Martha Nussbaum, as intellectual and moral tools in the restraint of anger. Another great text (or collection of texts) conveying ancient ideas about living with feelings is the Bible. And it was to the authority of God and the Bible that Inuttiaq turned for the underpinning of the Utku emotional regime – a regime which, incidentally, undoubtedly long predated the community’s conversion to Christianity.  One of the recurring themes of Inuttiaq’s stark and direct sermons – one that Briggs couldn’t help but feel was directed towards her – was that God would protect people from the clutches of Satan so long as they prayed regularly and did not get angry, and such people would go to heaven. Those who did get angry, however, would be taken by Satan and used as firewood (pp. 52, 56, 257, 267-8).

Given this use of God and the Bible to justify such an extreme ban on expressions of anger, it is not surprising to learn that Inuttiaq showed some embarrassment when trying to explain the story of how Jesus angrily drove the money changers out of the temple. Jesus only behaved like this once, Inuttiaq pointed out, and the money changers were being very bad (pp. 331-2).

Now this example of Jesus’s cleansing of the temple brings us to the crux of the matter for another reason too.  The Utku term used to describe what Jesus did to the money-changers was huaq – to scold – which is just one of several different words with connotations of anger. Never In Anger demonstrates what happens when someone schooled in one emotional regime has to live under the rule of a quite different regime, and struggles to adapt their beliefs, emotions and behaviours accordingly.  So far, this can be framed in a fairly standard way as an example of how different human societies (whether remote from each other in time, space, or cultural distance) can have different attitudes to the emotion of anger. But of much more importance and interest as far as I am concerned is the way that it can help us to think about whether there is any such thing as the emotion of anger. Briggs herself, for the sake of brevity and convenience, generally refers in her book to people displaying ‘anger’ or ‘bad temper’.  However, these English labels do not have direct equivalents in the Utku dialect.  Never In Anger is a book not only about a culture with a strong apparent aversion to what we call “anger” but also one with no single equivalent concept of “anger”.

Lust in translation

In an appendix and glossary analysing Utku emotion terms and concepts, Briggs makes several observations about the impossibility of making a tidy one-to-one translation between Utku words and English words. Briggs suggests nine broad emotional ‘syndromes’, and arranges the various terms under those headings. One of the nine syndromes is ‘Ill Temper and Jealousy’ and includes eight different Utku terms, five of which relate to aggression and hostility, and three to possessiveness or unhappiness of other kinds (pp. 328-37). The five terms relating to aggression and hostility are  huaq – to scold, as Jesus did in the Temple; ningaq – to aggress physically; ningngak – to feel or express hostility; qiquq – to be clogged up with foreign matter, to feel hostile; urulu – to feel, express or arouse hostility or annoyance (p. 329).

Let me make four quick points about this. First, and most obviously, as I have said, there is no Inuit word for “anger”.  Secondly, it is notable that there is no reference anywhere to the idea that any of these Inuit words includes a necessary reference to revenge or pay-back (which is considered a defining feature of orge – the Ancient Greek philosophical concept of anger adopted by Nussbaum and others). Thirdly these words are primarily, though not exclusively, terms for outward actions – such things as shouting, scolding, threatening, and physically attacking. The Inuit vocabulary as translated by Briggs (and this is reinforced also by another recent linguistic study) is primarily a behavioural one.2 So, whatever it is that is standing in the place of “anger” or “bad temper” in the worldview of the Utku seems to have been more a set of behaviours than a set of feelings.  Finally, Inuit languages do not seem to have an equivalent category to the English ‘emotion’ at all, so their second-order moral and psychological beliefs about shouting, attacking, and hostility will not be based on the same model of the mind as is familiar in modern academic psychology.

The historian of emotions and the anthropologist, then, do have one more thing in common. Each needs to pay close attention to language, to problems of translation and to the multiple meanings of even apparently familiar emotion words if they are going to do justice to the experiences and motivations of the people they are studying. This lesson applies, in fact, even within a relatively short historical period and in a single language, even before facing up to the formidable problems that attend translations of terms across languages and cultures.

We have already seen in these first two blog posts that the simple word ‘anger’ when used by a philosopher, an anthropologist, and a historian may refer to three quite different things. And even that is probably a ludicrously conservative estimate, as future posts will show.

Follow Thomas Dixon on Twitter:@ThomasDixon2016

Learn more about the Living With Feeling project

More blog posts relating to Living With Feeling

Learn more about Jean Briggs:

Obituary of Jean Briggs in the Toronto Globe and Mail

Two hour-long interviews with Jean Briggs – ‘Never in Anger and Beyond’ – broadcast on the CBC ‘Ideas’ programme in 2011 – Part One and Part Two.

Feature article in the Nunatsiaq News about Jean Briggs’s and her four decades of work with the Utku

A Memorial University Gazette article about Jean Briggs’s book Inuit Morality Play


1 Briggs, Jean L. Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old. Yale University Press, 1999.

2 Fortescue, Michael. “The Semantic Domain of Emotion in Eskimo and Neighbouring Languages.” In The Lexical Typology of Semantic Shifts, edited by Päivi Juvonen and Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm. Cognitive Linguistics Research 58. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016, pp. 285–333.

Taster Post: Cry Me A Driver: Why Computers Fail At Detecting Emotions


Richard Firth-Godbehere is a Wellcome Trust-funded doctoral candidate in the medical humanities. This is an excerpt from a recent article on Gizmodo. Richard’s thesis – ‘Understanding the Opposites of Desire and the Prehistory of Disgust, c.1604 – c.1755’ – explores how people tried to make varying sense of aversions as ‘the opposite of desire’ across a time of huge intellectual, political, religious, social, and cultural change, finally resulting in something akin to the modern notion of ‘disgust’. Twitter @AbominableHMan

According to proponents of Affective Computing, the days when machines have emotions are much closer than the twenty-fourth century … These gadgets and platforms all claim to be able to recognise emotions through facial recognition and speech analysis.

All this might muster up visions of a terrible dystopian future, in which our slave-like vacuum cleaners buzz around the floor sucking up the stale crumbs from last night’s Quattro Formaggi pizza with more enthusiasm than is comfortable. A world in which Siri sulks, refusing to talk to us for days every time we suggest that our iPhone might work better as a projectile, and our car autopilots wake up in a particularly bad mood. Thankfully, Affective Computing is a long way from creating machines that feel the way humans do because of three main problems.

To read the whole article, click here.

The Objects of Our Affection

This is a guest post by Melissa Dickson, a Postdoctoral Researcher on Diseases of Profile Pic Melissa DicksonModern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives, an ERC funded project based at St Anne’s College, Oxford, investigating nineteenth-century cultural, literary, and medical understandings of stress, overwork, and other disorders associated in the period with the problems of modernity (ERC Grant Agreement Number 340121). Her main research interests are in Victorian literature and material culture, and in nineteenth-century constructions of the Orient and industrial modernity. Follow her on Twitter @melissaldickson

Over the last decade, the field of Victorian Studies has seen something of what has been termed a ‘material turn’, that is, an upsurge in interdisciplinary, collections-based research, which enriches our understanding of Victorian Literature while also allowing us an insight into the diverse material culture of the period. Things are the new objects of research, and much critical attention has been paid to their role in nineteenth-century literature and culture. In A Sense of Things (2003), Bill Brown argues that we have always asked things ‘to make meaning, to remake ourselves, to organize our anxieties and affections, and to sublimate our fears and shape our fantasies’. He calls attention to the myriad ways in which materiality was implicated as a constitutive force in both the literary and the social life of nineteenth-century America. But, removed from their social and cultural contexts and their ‘normal’ uses and relocated to the museums and archives of today, these objects of the past, distinguished by us as objects of interest, come to signify in new contexts, and are made to speak in new ways, through new critical lenses and through our own voices. For researchers and curators, they become objects of mystery, confusion, frustration, and joy in what are perhaps less visible webs of relations. Edwina Ehrman alluded to something similar to this, explaining that any given collection may be mediated by the idiosyncrasies and preferences of its curator. By this logic, then, we become shaping elements in our objects’ histories and how and when they are told.

Ehrman’s remarks were made during the Objects of Research: The Material Turn in Nineteenth-Century Literary Studies workshop, held at the Senate House Library in London on Monday 18th July. The workshop’s stated goal was to share knowledge about the nature and methodologies of current object-led research in Victorian Studies among researchers and curators working in this field. We asked questions about how to ‘read’ objects, how to access them, how to situate such materials within a broader historical context, and how to construct arguments drawn from object-based research. It became increasingly clear throughout the day that, as Elaine Freedgood has argued in The Ideas in Things (2006), there is a kind of history that is potentially ‘stockpiled’ in objects, and, from hats to novelty books, to railways stations and Victorian machinery in motion, our speakers demonstrated the range of emotions and the various kinds of social and cultural knowledge that become available to us through studying particular objects and their intersections with literature and people. In so doing, however, they also revealed the physical and often far more personal pleasures which are frequently implicated in this kind of research – in the proximity, the touch, and the sight of our raw materials – and the emotional and psychological connections that we, as researchers, can forge with our objects of research.

Peeps into Fairyland: A Panorama Picture Book of Fairy Stories (1895), with thanks to Rosie White

Peeps into Fairyland: A Panorama Picture Book of Fairy Stories (1895), with thanks to Rosie White

Generally, researchers purport to be objective. The objects of our research and the sensory and emotional ways we engage with them, however, raise the possibility that our subjectivity may not always be a liability. It can in fact be to our benefit, if we consider that the significance that material objects often come to hold in the intellectual and emotional life of the researchers who work with them is an interaction that not only contributes to the shaping of our ideas, arguments, and research pathways, but it becomes part of our own identities as researchers. We are, in fact, significant components in the network of social and cultural relations through which our objects function.

For more on the Objects of Research event, see the Storify here.


Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

The Two Dogmas of Disgust

To close Disgust Weekin which a group of scholars from a range of disciplines has explored different aspects of disgust, the Centre’s own Richard Firth-Godbehere critiques the two dogmas that are often assumed, and why these are important in a historical approach.

9-Aug-Richard-Godbehere-200-160x300Richard Firth-Godbehere is a Wellcome Trust-funded doctoral candidate in the medical humanities. His thesis – ‘Understanding the Opposites of Desire and the Prehistory of Disgust, c.1604 – c.1755’ – explores how people tried to make varying sense of aversions as ‘the opposite of desire’ across a time of huge intellectual, political, religious, social, and cultural change, finally resulting in something akin to the modern notion of ‘disgust’. Twitter @AbominableHMan

During a re-read of the brilliant 1951 essay “The Two Dogmas of Empiricism” by Willard Van Orman Quine, it occurred to me that disgust has two of its own.1 I believe that it’s important to keep these in mind when investigating disgust in history, as they are so ingrained in culture, that they are often assumed. These are the Dogma of “Universal Disgust’ and the Dogma of “Dirt Means Disgust”.

W. V. O Quine, Passport Photo.

W. V. O Quine, Passport Photo.

  1. The Dogma of “Universal Disgust”.

Just last year, I was sat with a non-English work colleague discussing my research. When I suggested that disgust was an emotion, she looked confused. To her, disgust was not an emotion at all, but a description of a bodily function, like hunger. Another non-English academic, Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, seems to agree with my colleague. Judith Toronchuk and George Ellis wrote a paper suggesting that Disgust should be one of his basic emotion systems. Panksepp asked ‘why not include hunger, thirst, fatigue and many other affective states of the body as emotions?’2 The notion that disgust is an emotion, basic or otherwise, seems to be lost in translation.

The problem appears to be one of language. Some might dismiss this as just semantics, but there is growing evidence of a deep interaction between emotions and the words we use for them.3

The German word Ekel regularly becomes ‘disgust’ in English translations, but the concepts, feelings, and actions associated with the two terms are different. Anna Wierzebicka pointed out that Ekel has no gag reflex, but is instead ‘an impulse to recoil’.4 She goes on to write that ‘German dictionaries usually describe Ekel as Abscheu or Abneigung, that is, something like “aversion” rather than “disgust.’ Other German works on Ekel have caused similar confusion. In Der Ekel, Aurel Kolnai appears to describe something very disgust-like as ‘the disapproval of some alien action with an additional intention towards oneself.’5 The English version of this work also translates Ekel as ‘disgust’. However, Kolnai believed that ‘somatic “nausea” could be entirely free of [Ekel]’. What Ekel is related to, he claimed, is an excess of that which reminds us of death: foodstuffs and the putrefied waste they turn into, strong smells, the excessively slimy, and even sex through its ability to produce ever more life, ready to begin its trajectory toward oblivion.6 In a later, English, work, Kolnai split the aversions he had formerly lumped together as ‘Ekel’ into fear, disgust and hatred. English disgust was, to him, ‘Avulsion, or Specific Aversion’; a recoiling or turning away.7 Similar conceptual differences apply to French equivalents such as Degoût, which from as far back as Descartes has incorporated the element of Ennui – a listless wearisomeness or boredom –   into its phenomenology.8 Even older English words, as demonstrated by Benedict Robinson earlier in the week, describe concepts that were different to modern disgust.

Adriaen Brouwer, Der Bittere Trank, UM 1636-38, Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Adriaen Brouwer, Der Bittere Trank, UM 1636-38, Städel Museum, Frankfurt

It may be that a sensation of revulsion is an evolved trait that is felt by all, and that all cultures have words that relate to that trait. However, it is not the case that this can always be understood through the lens of modern English disgust. The closest words other languages have to ‘disgust’ are conceptually different, often describing a near-alien sensation. Disgust, as we in the Anglocentric academic world understand it, may not be as universal or as clear cut as we like to think. This difference bleeds into the second dogma of disgust.

  1. The Dogma of “Dirt means Disgust.”

Uncleanliness, filth, excrement, dirt are clearly disgusting, aren’t they? The Pathogen Avoidance Theory (PAT) has been put forward as the evolutionary driver of disgust, and the Anterior Insular Cortex lights up like a Christmas tree when people see yucky images.9 Putting Coprophagia, Scatolia, Scatalogical humour, and those who revel in getting filthy, such as attendants at obstacle races, to one side for now, the problem is that it is easy to take the things that we find disgusting and assume that they caused disgust in other historical periods.

Filthy 5k Dominion Riverrock

Filthy 5k Dominion Riverrock

Dirt is a classic example. The best-known investigation into dirt is Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. To her, dirt becomes that which lies outside boundaries but has the potential to violate them. Not all boundaries are overtly medical: ‘if we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of matter out of place.’10 Dirt, then, is that which can pollute. The function of this polluting dirt is to enhance the pure elements within a structure: ‘a rule of avoiding anomalous things affirms and strengthens the definitions to which they do not conform.’11 These things ‘can be labelled dangerous’, and placed within a structure of their own, a structure of prohibition.12 Douglas’s suggestion that pathogenicity and hygiene are not necessary puts her at odds with PAT. Moreover, even though Douglas’s work appears in a significant number of works on disgust, she never mentioned disgust herself. On the one occasion that she broached the subject of dirt, emotion, and pollution beliefs – the 1968 article “pollution” – she said that ‘there is no justification for assuming that terror, or even mild anxiety, inspires them any more than it inspires the housewife’s daily tidying up.’13 The housewife may not be the only concept left behind in that era: Douglas does not seem to have even considered disgust as an option for pollution beliefs. This might seem a little odd to a twenty-first-century reader. Could it be that the assumption that dirt means disgust does not even go as far back as the now morally disgusting (in some parts of the world, at least) expectation of a stay-at-home wife? This possible change in the relationship between dirt and disgust is something that requires further study, but Douglas’s article certainly gives the impression that attitudes to dirt and its associated emotions were different, at least to her.

Job on a diseased on a dunghill. Folio 46r from the Syriac Bible of Paris (Bibliothèque Nationale, MS syr. 341)

Job on a diseased dunghill. Folio 46r from the Syriac Bible of Paris (Bibliothèque Nationale, MS syr. 341)

Going further back in time, it seems more likely that disgust and dirt are not immediately related. This disconnect may be because older categories of the ‘out of place’ were somewhat different. According to Mark Jenner, hygiene as currently understood was an eighteenth-century invention that coincided with a shift in the locus of medical policing from that found outside the body to that which might contaminate the inside and surface of the body – hygiene.14 Instead of being unhygienic, ‘filth’ and similar terms such as ‘unclean’ were defined by a category known as ‘nuisances’. Emily Cockayne describes this group as external objects or actions that made people ‘feel uncomfortable around other people‘ due to their disorderliness.15 Nuisance was a common-law term that encompassed a wide-ranging set of injurious or harmful practices.16 On one hand, it included what a modern observer might well find disgusting, such as excrement and foul-smelling waste. On the other hand, a much larger part of this category consisted of elements alien to modern notions of disgust. This category included ‘disorderly alehouses, building unlawful cottages, eavesdropping […] using a speaking trumpet […] unkempt pavements […] potholes’, the ‘sense of being squeezed’ and ‘gloominess and darkness’.17 Additionally, unexpected behaviours that did not fit with a person’s ‘rank, station, gender, [or] age confronted the senses’ and were considered nuisances.18 It’s hard to imagine a way in which the modern emotion of disgust might be a reaction to all of these triggers. It is possible, perhaps, that such nuisances caused passions similar to disgust, as in the passion of abomination found in the phrase ‘filthie dunghill of abomination’.19 Nuisances may well have also triggered aversion, eschewing, horror, loathsomeness and other similar passions. However, as the first dogma explains, these passions were not necessarily the same as disgust.


The moral of the piece is that those of us who work in the field of disgust ought to keep these two dogmas in mind. To sum up briefly (or TL;DR for the younger reader): their ‘disgust’ might not be our disgust, and they might not consider their dirt disgusting. The dogmas may not always apply, but we overlook them at our peril. Presentism and Anglocentrism are quiet, creeping contagions that can infect us without our realising, and pollute the strongest and most brilliant works on the subject. However, if we treat these dogmas as if they are disgusting, we should be fine.

1 Willard Van Orman Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 20–43.

2 Jaak Panksepp, “Criteria for basic emotions: Is DISGUST a primary ‘‘emotion’’?’”, Cognition and Emotion, 21 (8), (2007), 1819-1828, 1819.

3 See, for example, Kristen A, Lindquist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Eliza Bliss-Moreau, and James a Russell. “Language and the Perception of Emotion.” Emotion (Washington, D.C.) 6, no. 1 (February 2006): 125–38.

4 Anna Wierzbicka, Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 75.

5 Aurel Kolnai, “Disgust.” In On Disgust, edited by Barry Smith and Carolyn Korsmeyer. (Chicago: Open Court, 2004), 46.

6 Ibid. 62-79.

7 Kolnai, Aurel. “The Standard Modes of Aversion: Fear, Disgust, and Hatred.” In On Disgust, edited by Barry Smith and Carolyn Korsmeyer, 93–110. (Chicago: Open Court, 2004),

8 René Descartes, Les Passions de l’Ame. (Amsterdam: Louys Elzevier, 1649), Art. 67.

9 Valerie Curtis, and Adam Biran. “Dirt, Disgust, and Disease: Is Hygiene in Our Genes?” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44, 1 (2001): 17–31; Nader Amir, Heide Klumpp, Jason Elias, Jeffrey S. Bedwell, Nathan Yanasak, and L. Stephen Miller. “Increased Activation of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex during Processing of Disgust Faces in Individuals with Social Phobia.” Biological Psychiatry 57, no. 9 (May 1, 2005): 975–81.

10 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1970), 48. The phrase ‘dirt is matter out of place’ is often attributed to Douglas, but she got it from William James, it appears to go back much further.

11 Ibid. 52.

12 Ibid. 53–4, 18.

13 Mary Douglas, “Pollution.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences [Online], (1968). [Accessed 12/01/2014], http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/pollution.aspx.

14 Mark S. R. Jenner, ‘Early Modern English Conceptions of Cleanliness and Dirt as Reflected in the Environmental Regulation of London, C. 1530-C. 1700’. Dissertation, University of Oxford, 1992, 38.

15 Emily Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, 1-2; Jenner, ‘Cleanliness’, ‘262’.

16 See ‘Alfred’s Law’ in Edward Coke, The Reports of Sir Edward Coke, Knt. Edited by John Henry Thomas and John Farquhar Fraser. Vol. 5. J. Butterworth and Son, 1826, 103-4.

17 Cockayne, Hubbub, 180, 204–5, 206–7, 213, 217, 220, 223.

18 Ibid. 230.

19 John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, (London: Iohn Daye, 1583), 648; Williams Perkins, A Golden Chaine:[Cambridge]: Iohn Keget, 1600, 613; John Andrewes, Christ His Crosse, (Oxford: Ioseph Barnes, 1614), 29.

The Deep, Modern, and Extremely Recent Histories of Disgust

We follow the bank holiday weekend with the final two posts of Disgust Weekin which a group of scholars from a range of disciplines explore different aspects of disgust. First, a guest post by Daniel Kelly, on very recent histories of disgust.04-alum-kelly-daniel-250

Daniel Kelly is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at Purdue University. He is a founding member of the Moral Psychology Research Group, and his research interests are at the intersection of the philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and moral theory. He is the author of Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, and has published papers on moral judgment, social norms, racial cognition, and cross-cultural diversity.

The history of disgust reflects our humanity in a range of interesting and perhaps unexpected ways. It is both universal and unique to humans, but it is composed of elements similar to those that can be found in a wide range of other animals. At the heart of the emotion are two key components with overlapping but distinct prime directives. On the one hand is what can be thought of as the poison mechanism. Its core job is to monitor what we eat, and to protect against consuming anything that is likely to, or has in our personal past, caused symptoms of what we would now call food poisoning – vomiting, nausea, getting sick specifically to our stomach. The other key component of disgust has a slightly broader mandate. Its core job is to protect against parasites and infectious diseases more generally. Disgust is thus a part of our immune system, but in contrast to, say, the battles happening at the level of bacteria and antibodies, the strategy it enacts is pre-emptive. Rather than fighting infiltrating microbes on a cellular level, disgust influences our behavior and judgment in such a way as to minimize our chances of getting infected in the first place. It pulls this off by making us sensitive to cues in the environment that typically correlate with infectious diseases, helping us to keep track of their movements and contagious influence, and generating aversion and motivation to help us steer clear of these kinds of potential threats.

This view of disgust sees it as a piece of the psychological architecture common to all humans. Moreover, since it traces its historical origins to two distinct components and adaptive problems, it is able to make sense of the clustered set of affective, cognitive, and behavioral properties that together characterize the disgust response, what happens to you when this emotion is triggered. The response typically includes the mild, nausea-like feeling one has in experiencing disgust; the familiar gaping ‘disgust face’ that automatically flashes across one’s face, and that is so easily recognized by others; as well as the more cognitive thoughts about contamination and impurity that accompany those feelings and behaviors. The dual origins account also sheds light on the types of things likely to trigger this emotional response, and on how and why people come to be disgusted by some things and not others. For example, there’s a good case that a core set of cues are innately disgusting, and that this set reflects the emotion’s two prime directives, and so contains mostly cues reliably correlated with bad food or infectious microbes: rotten fruit, spoiled meat, fetid garbage, feces, and other people who appear feverish, sneezy, or otherwise sick or disfigured in visible ways. On the other hand, the psychological system is also flexible enough to allow for a fairly large range of variation in what’s considered disgusting. This too can be traced back to the emotion’s two prime directives, together with the evolutionary trajectory our species has taken over the course of its history.

The expression of disgust, from Darwin's 1872 'The Expression of the Emotions' Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The expression of disgust, from Darwin’s ‘The Expression of the Emotions’ (1872)
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Humans are extremely social, are extraordinary cooperators, and groups of humans have found ways to thrive in a remarkably wide range of habitats, from the deserts to the rainforests, and from the tundra to the modern urban jungle. Our eating habits reflect and enable this; we are omnivores and generalists, and so can take advantage of the different resources and dietary options offered by these wildly differing habitats. Our disgust systems can be calibrated in several ways, thus providing several routes for eliminating what might look like promising dietary possibilities. You can learn from your own past experience and culinary mishaps, acquiring an aversion to some type of food that’s previously made you sick to your stomach. But you can also learn from others, and this emotion includes a subtle signaling apparatus that allows us to easily soak up information concerning what the people around us find disgusting, and refuse to eat. Social learning of this sort is equally important for calibrating one’s disgust to the cues indicative of the threat of infection, since such threats make up a motley collection, and do not present a uniform or universal face from one habitat to the next. Individuals can learn from their parents and peers what to be disgusted by and what the most important visible cues are to keep track of, and in doing so they attune their own defenses to the local conditions.

The upshot is that disgust has some humanly universal, innately shaped features, but it is sensitive to social influence, and thus culturally variable in many ways as well. This blend of uniformity and malleability enabled it to be recruited into additional roles, thus extending its scope beyond just protecting against poisons or parasites, and at some point in our history the influence of disgust bled into our social interactions and cooperative enterprises as well. Sociologists like Norbert Elias have seen an important role for disgust in the long, slow grind of what he called ‘the civilizing process’, marking divisions between different classes and social positions, especially as societies became more complex and the division of labor required of the populous became more pronounced. More specifically, disgust has been commended for giving a vivid kind of force to manners, etiquette, and other rules of conduct that help organize societies and coordinate complicated social interactions. Recent empirical psychological research on “moral disgust”, broadly construed, has shown how disgust does indeed animate not just table rules, but a broader subset of social norms, often called “purity norms” that can include those governing sexual propriety, ritual behavior, sacredness and sacrilege, and the proper preparation and consumption of food.

Disgust is also an emotion that helps police the boundaries between social groups, especially those that differ along class and cultural lines. In each case, the involvement of disgust colors the judgments made about the subject matter: violators of purity norms can come to seem morally tainted or spiritually impure, and the symbols of especially vilified social groups can come to seem loathsome and contaminating, with the individual members of those groups becoming the target of a dehumanizing stigma. Like the cues indicative of poisons and parasites, the relevant norms, social positions, and ingroup/outgroup boundaries vary greatly from one culture to the next. The malleability of disgust allows this piece of a person’s psychological repertoire to be socially calibrated along these “moral” dimensions as well, ensuring that she is properly enculturated as she grows up, and so becomes attuned to the important features of the normative framework that governs whatever social niche she happens to be born into.

As slick as the evolutionary/engineering solution at the heart of this dual origin, recruitment and expansion history of disgust might be, I’ve argued at length elsewhere (see also ‘Against the Yuck Factor’) that the picture it paints should be taken as a warning sign, and that today we should do our best to minimize the role we allow disgust to play in the social and moral realm. The dehumanizing stigma associated with disgust makes it too easy to demonize at risk groups of people, which in turn makes it too easy to treat them horribly, and certainly unethically. I’ve also argued that disgust should be given no weight in moral deliberation. As intuitive and powerful as the impression can be from the first person perspective, the mere fact that something, be it a behavior or practice, a meal or a person, “seems gross” to you or to anyone else is not a good reason to think that it is therefore morally bad or wrong.

A rich couple walk away in disgust at the feeding of poor and hungry soldiers in Paris (Illustrated London News) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A rich couple walk away in disgust at the feeding of poor and hungry soldiers in Paris (from the Illustrated London News)
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Indeed, at our current moment in history, I think we have even more reason to be wary of the influence that disgust can have on our moral cognition, because we have good reason to be wary of the influence our contemporary culture can have on disgust. I mentioned above that humans are able to thrive in a remarkably wide range of habitats. This is in part because we, like other species but to an arguably much greater extent, do not passively occupy pre-fab habitats as we find them in nature, but actively shape and build the niches in which we live. These days, the network of physical and social niches that make up the urban jungles in which over 50% of humans live are radically, almost entirely constructed, and the reach of modern culture goes far beyond those cities, pumped through our unprecedentedly sophisticated communication networks. Disgust is sensitive to social influence, and social influence is now on steroids. The connected, media saturated environments in which we now live are also filled with ‘supernormal stimuli’, a range of cultural artifacts that incorporate exaggerated versions of cues designed to push different psychological buttons, and thus elicit stronger and more exaggerated versions of the response associated with each button. Cheesecake is a common example: an artificially concocted, exceedingly rich concentration of dessert type sweets that triggers intense feelings of pleasure and deliciousness. Other elements of the contemporary world – advertising, marketing, political messaging – are onto the trick, and the cultural niches in which we now live and act are absolutely filled with supernormal stimuli intentionally designed and deployed to nudge behavior, trigger different responses, push emotional buttons, and shape moral attitudes. History has always given us demagogues skilled at manipulating the passions, but in the current hyper-constructed world similar tactics have been refined and rationalized. Given the ubiquity of media and the sophistication of modern image producing technology, attention capture strategies, and narrative crafting techniques now vying for our emotion responses, the situation seems crucially different from before. Among other things, it suggests that the normative significance granted to any moral judgment accompanied by the activation of this powerful emotion needs to be thought through very carefully before it is acted upon. With all this moral cheesecake around, we should be especially suspicious of any intrusion of disgust and its dehumanizing, potentially destructive influence into our best moral thinking.