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History of Emotions

How can we make sense of revelatory experiences?

Yesterday I went to an excellent conference on revelatory experiences at the Institute of Psychiatry, which brought together neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, historians, theologians and members of the public (many of whom had revelatory experiences – turns out they’re pretty common!)

The conference tried to approach and talk about revelatory experiences from two main directions: history and neuroscience. So, first of all, we heard from two research teams – one led by Dr Quinton Deeley at KCL, the other by Professor David Oakley at UCL – who are studying the brain-imaging of hyponotised people. They’re trying to understand the phenomenon of ‘automatic writing’ – the feeling of some external being controlling one’s hand or even guiding one’s thoughts, as in the Caravaggio drawing of St Mark and the angel, on the right.

The researchers have done interesting work in finding the neural correlates of hypnotised and dissociative states. But I think there’s a difference between being hypnotised and having a revelatory experience. People who are easy to hypnotise are typically easily suggestible and socially conditioned, while people who have revelations are (to generalise) often quite socially dysfunctional, stubborn misfits. And of course, in the UCL and KCL experiments, we know where the suggestions are coming from – from the scientists. We don’t know where the external suggestions are coming from in revelatory experiences.

We then heard a fascinating presentation by a young neuroscientist called Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, who is working with Professor David Nutt at Imperial on the well-publicised research into the neural imaging of psychedelic experience (you can watch a video of Robin presenting his work here). Robin said the imaging suggests a decrease in filtering or connecting activity in the brain when people are on psychedelics – not opening the mind, so much as closing down some parts of it so that other parts of it can be released.

And his team also noticed an unusual relationship between the default brain network (DBN) – the system we are in usually, where our consciousness free roams inside our head, day-dreaming and introspecting – and the task-positive network (TPN), which we use more occasionally to focus on external stimuli. Usually these two systems are anti-correlated. But during psychedelic experiences, they appear to become correlated, aligned and synchronised – we are both externally focused and day-dreaming, so that the outer and inner worlds become fused. The ego boundaries are dissolved. We return to a state of infant wonder, projecting the shadows of our dreams onto the cave-walls of external reality.

Robin noted that, for many participants in the Imperial study, and in another project running now at John Hopkins, the psychedelic experience in the laboratory is one of the most meaningful and spiritual experiences of their lives. In the John Hopkins study being run by Roland Griffiths, for example, 70% of participants report mystical experiences, and 60% describe it as the most spiritually meaningful experience of their lives. That’s pretty remarkable.

We then had some historical perspectives on revelatory experience. Dr Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, presented her work on the Panacea Society – a religious community that sprang up in Bedford during World War I around the figure of Mabel Bartlerop, who announced one day she was Octavia, daughter of God, and who claimed to receive dictation from God every afternoon at 5.30.

And then Dr Phil Lockley, part of the same ‘Prophecy Project’ at Oxford as Dr Shaw, gave a useful talk outlining how recent historians have tried to contextualise revelatory experiences, in works like Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem (1983), Phyllis Mack’s Visionary Women (1992), Diane Watt’s Secretaries of God (1997), and (going back a bit) Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957).

Dr Lockley showed that historians can tell us interesting things about how revelatory experiences are culturally constructed and influenced by their time. For example, Dr Shaw told us how the language of inspiration in the Panacea Society was inspired by the invention of the wireless – the mediums talked of ‘tuning in’ to God – a phrase which was subsequently taken up and popularised by Timothy Leary and the LSD counterculture. The movement was also part of the ferment during World War I – it was fiercely patriotic, and members of it lobbied the Archbishop of Canterbury to open the ‘sealed box of prophecies’ left by the 18th century visionary Joanna Southcott, which she said should be opened in a time of national crisis by the 24 bishops of the nation (here’s the box on the left). I personally think the opening of the box should be the climax of the Olympics inauguration ceremony.

Both these approaches – the neuroscientific and the historical – tell us some fascinating stuff about revelations. But it seems to me that both approaches leave something out. There is the important question of the quality of the revelatory experience. Academia often leaves out such qualitative questions – for example, academics are so busy contextualising a novel, say, or a therapy, they won’t ask if it’s any good, which is really the most important question. They say it’s ‘interesting’, by which they mean it is useful for their particular line of research.

There’s a value judgement we have to make about revelatory experiences – both other people’s, and our own.

I come from a Quaker family, and I remember my great-grandmother telling a story about a woman standing up during a Quaker meeting, moved by the Holy Spirit, and proclaiming: ‘Raspberry ripple with a cherry on top’. Well, yes, I mean, absolutely, I’m all for raspberry ripples, particularly with a cherry on top, but that’s not a revelation I will spend much time studying or following, because of my own value judgement about its quality or meaningfulness.

I asked Dr Shaw why, if Mabel’s inspired poetry wasn’t much good in her estimation, had she spent years studying it. Did she think it was actually from God? She said she was a historian, so couldn’t answer that. But later on, she came back to the question, and said she thought Mabel did have a ‘spiritual authority’, which was apparent in her letters to her flock more than in her inspired writing. Dr Shaw made a value judgement about the quality of Mabel’s work – which involved an evaluation of Mabel’s relationship to God. That was at the foundation of her enduring interest in the Panacea Society.

So in general, can we make value judgements about revelatory experiences? I mean, besides going and asking God if he really did send this message or if we should put it in the spam folder.

Yes, I think we can.

Firstly, we can make judgements about truth-claims that prophets make. For example, Mabel of the Panacea Society claimed that members of the Society would never die. Turns out she was wrong. That, to my mind, reduces her authority and the authority of her experience. There’s that amazing scene in The Brothers Karamazov where the dead body of the inspired priest starts to decompose and smell, thereby conflicting with the spiritual tradition that the bodies of the inspired don’t decompose. Well, that undermines the spiritual authority of that charismatic tradition. It shouldn’t have made those claims.

Secondly, we can make aesthetic judgements about the quality of inspiration. Is it complete gibberish? Or is it incredibly beautiful? Rosemary Brown, an uneducated housewife from Balham, claimed in the 1960s to be a medium in touch with the spirit of Liszt and various other composers. The BBC went to interview her and asked ‘Liszt’ to come up with a composition. And eventually s/he did – and, according to a psychiatrist who was at the conference, the piece she wrote was incredibly complex, with the left hand playing in 5/4 and the right in 3/2 – far beyond Rosemary’s technical ability to play, and the sort of thing that scholars say Liszt might have written. The aesthetic quality of the composition makes her claims to inspiration more credible, in my view. Or at least, more interesting (there’s that academic word again).

Thirdly, can the person make sense of their vision, can they articulate it, can they defend it? Think of the young Jesus holding his own in the Temple against the elder authorities. Think of Socrates – inspired by his daemon, yet capable of rationally articulating his beliefs. I know Kierkegaard would argue that revelation is irrational, that the whole point of it is you can’t articulate it, you can’t make sense of it or defend it. Well, I think part of the challenge for someone who has a revelatory experience is to try and make sense of it and communicate it, to carry it down from the mountain. That also means you need to be able to defend its ideas, without simply saying ‘an angel told me’.

Fourthly, does it lead to human flourishing – your own, and other people’s. One of my friends is schizophrenic, and is sure the voices he hears are angelic. But the voices are very mean to him, they block his flourishing. Of course, he would say to me ‘how do you know? How can you tell the state of my soul or your soul?’ I’m not sure how to answer that question. But we can test out what the voices say and show they don’t always tell the truth, for example. In which case we grant them less authority.

And we can see if they cause us distress and suffering, or if they help us. Professor Philippa Geraty of the Institute of Psychiatry, who works with people experiencing psychotic episodes, presented some fascinating research (a lot of which was done by Dr Emanuelle Peters of KCL), which showed how common psychotic experiences are. Yet they’re not always distressing. In particular, research has shown people in new religious / evangelical communities are more likely to experience psychotic symptoms and beliefs than the general population, but less likely to see them as problematic or distressing than isolated individuals. In the words of Dr Quinton Deeley of KCL, they have constructed ‘a shared context and a shared meaning’. They have socially framed a psychotic experience in such a way as to recover from it, find meaning in it and even draw strength and joy from it. (On that subject, check out this support organisation – the spiritual crisis network.)

Both Geraty and Deeley spoke of helping people find meaning in their psychotic experiences, which apparently is central to the ‘recovery movement’ in psychosis treatment. One of the delegates told me about the work of Rufus May, a clinical psychologist in Bradford who was sectioned in the 1980s. Check out his website – it’s absolutely fascinating about how social support networks like Hearing Voices help people find meaning in psychotic experience. He writes: ‘Being given a diagnosis of schizophrenia was not helpful for me. It created a learned hopelessness in me and my family who resigned themselves to the established belief I would always be ill, unable to work and always need antipsychotic medication. There is a deeply held assumption that schizophrenia is a disease-like degenerative process. Thus the category of schizophrenia is associated with a failure to recover and a gradual deterioration in social functioning. It is more helpful to see each individual’s mental health as a unique and evolving story, which is importantly influenced by social and relational experiences.’

Perhaps it doesn’t matter where revelatory experiences come from, it’s what you do with them and what they lead to. What is the quality of the work you go on to do? How much does it help people? How much does it help you? It is difficult to evaluate this, in the absence of a scientific measurement device that measures godliness (a sort of spiritual Geiger counter). Yet as humans we do evaluate the quality of various revelations, and our evaluations decide what revelations we use to guide our life. I’m not into the Panacea Society, for example, while I am interested in Plato, Rumi, the Buddha and other inspired writings, because of my own qualitative evaluations about the writing and the organisations they inspired, evaluations which I am prepared to defend rationally.

Take Alcoholics Anonymous. It was inspired by a religious vision experienced by Bill W. when he was on belladonna, which he took as part of a radical psychedelic cure for alcoholism. OK, that’s interesting. But it’s more interesting what he did with it, the work he did, the movement he constructed, which I think is one of the most interesting and successful movements of the 20th century, in terms of the human suffering it reduced and the flourishing it increased. You can qualitatively evaluate the work without having to evaluate if Bill’s vision ‘really was’ from God.

The world is full of people who claim to have received messages from God. They often think they have been uniquely blessed with this message and get rather grandiose about it. Well, you’re not that special – many people have such experiences. Some of those messages seem useful, others less so. We need some kind of spam filter, and a way of evaluating the quality of the message without relying solely on the purported address of the sender (contact@God.org).

Roy Porter: The Musical!

I went to see some modern dance at Sadlers Wells last night – not my usual evening out but a friend dragged me along (and I’m glad they did: thank you friend!) It was the latest dance from a choreographer called Wayne McGregor, who is, my friend assures me, the hottest choreographer out there – he works with the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi and, er, Thom Yorke (he choreographed Thom Yorke’s dance in the Lotus Flower video, which I assumed was some kind of seizure).

His latest show, FAR, was pretty avant-garde as Monday evenings go: men and women writhing and contorting against a bank of kinetic white lights (the lights designed by the art collective Random International) while Ben Frost’s electronic score screeches and blips. At times it felt like a Guantanamo interrogation – but it was always interesting. Every gesture, every move, was unusual and startling. There wasn’t a single physical cliche in there.

Afterwards, McGregor gave a talk, and revealed – somewhat to my surprise – that the inspiration for FAR was Roy Porter’s final work of medical and emotional history – Flesh in the Age of Reason. It made sense in retrospect – the gangly, ungainly, almost abortive figures the dancers created at the beginning of the piece, like creatures from Bedlam, occasionally stretching into grace and harmony, then shivering into curled-up Francis Bacon balls of anxiety and paranoia before the wall of examining lights. And the fascination with each other’s bodies, pointing at each other, moving each other’s limbs, referencing the rise in anatomy and the new interest in the material body, the limbs, the innards, dissection. At other times the bodies writhed on top of each other while the music snarled and burped – animal sex in an age of flesh and reason, the frank exploration of each other, the use of each other for pleasure, the absence of God. And the body as object, to be carried, placed, poked, positioned, looked on, suddenly resisting and becoming the body as subject, autonomous, suffering, worthy of dignity (but why, if it has no soul?)

Anyway, below is a video of some of the dancing, and below that is McGregor talking about Porter and also his interest in cognitive science. He says cognitive science helped him understand the construction and deconstruction of habits, including physical habits – he tries to get his dancers to become aware of their physical habits in order to unpick them, which sounds like the ballet version of CBT (and also reminds me of the work of Gurdjieff). Apparently McGregor has worked with cognitive scientists on previous work, and was even involved in an AHRB-funded project on ‘choreography and cognition’. Cool!

I wonder what other cultural history classics would make good dances? Elias’ The Civilising Process? Huizinga’s Homo Ludus? Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class? EP Thompson’s Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism? The possibilities are endless…

How Aldous Huxley inspired the human potential movement

Sorry I haven’t been posting much – I’m on holiday, reading a lot and taking it easy. I’ve been reading a fascinating history of adult education in the US, which has given me much to think on. One of the things I found out was that the human potential movement – ie Esalen, erhard seminars training, Landmark, large group training sessions and all that jazz – was inspired by Aldous Huxley and some of his lectures on ‘human potentials’ in 1960. Have a read of this article on the origins of the Esalen project.

The biological hardware and the cultural software of the emotions

Here’s an interesting article from the journal Japanese Psychological Research looking at Emotional Intelligence, twenty years after the concept was first developed. The idea of EI a big impact on British education via the school subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), which was inspired by Daniel Goleman’s pop psychology best-seller, Emotional Intelligence, and launched by New Labour in 2002. The authors suggest that EI was too broad a concept to be conceptually coherent, covering everything from information-processing to emotional self-regulation to being a morally good person. The search for a single conceptual definition of EI proved elusive, as did the search for proper measurements of it. The authors also say there were cross-cultural issues with trying to create one universal definition of EI:

In writing for Japanese Psychological Research, we wish particularly to highlight cultural issues. The extent to which EI, as a construct derived largely from Western psychology, could be universally applicable remains unclear. Although basic emotions are considered universal, display rules and other aspects of emotional functioning may be culture- bound (Mesquita, 2001). Thus, adaptive emotional behaviors may vary from culture to culture. Also, research on EI tends to focus on possible benefits for the individual such as personal well-being and social and career success.

A concept of EI relevant to East Asian cultures may be different in several respects from the Western model. First, such cultures have a more collectivist experience of both positive and negative emotions. For example, Japanese people appear to be more prone to socially engaging emotions, such as friendly feelings and guilt, whereas North Americans experience disengaging emotions, such as pride and anger, more intensely (Kitayama, Mesquita, & Karasawa, 2006). Furthermore, in Japan, general subjective well-being is more closely linked to engaging one’s positive emotions than to dis- engaging emotions, a pattern that tends to reverse in the USA (Kitayama et al., 2006). Thus, if EI is defined in relation to emotions that promote personal well-being, its conceptualization would be somewhat different in the two countries. At the same time, we should not ignore cross-cultural similarities in emotional functioning. For example, although Japanese and Chinese respondents obtain lower average scores on self-esteem scales, relative to the USA, self-esteem appears to have the same functional relationship to well-being in all these cultures (Yamaguchi, Lin, Morio, & Okumura, 2008).


Second, there may be cross-cultural differences in the intrinsic value placed on emotions. In Western thought, following Darwin, all emotions are seen as essentially adaptive, although sometimes subject to misregulation. By contrast, Ekman, Davidson, Ricard, and Wallace (2005) point out that Indo-Tibetan Buddhism sees certain emotions as being intrinsically beneficial or harmful. Examples of the latter are cravings for some desirable object, hatred, jealousy, and arrogance (compare, for example, Buss’s, (2000) evolutionary account of jealousy).


Interestingly, Ekman et al. (2005) also describe trait-like concepts from Buddhism that might loosely be seen as corresponding to high and low EI. The Sanskrit term “sukha” refers to a condition of happiness and flourishing that reflects mental equilibrium and awareness of the true nature of reality. Conversely, “duhkha” expresses a vulnerability to suffering resulting from basic misapprehensions of reality, including harmful emotional reactions. Third, Western theories of emotion are prone to fractionate the construct into multiple psychological processes (or even brain systems). Much writing on EI is based on the idea of a sharp separation of cognition and emotion, expressed in the classical metaphor of the charioteer (cognition) steering the horses that pull the chariot (emotion) (Leahy, 2007), although some authors have argued for a more integrated perspective (Averill, 2007). By contrast, “Eastern healing traditions respect individuals as unique entities living in the fluid dynamics of complex personal-relational, environmental- physical and philosophical-moral interactions of men with the universe” (Chan, Ng, Ho, & Chow, 2006).

Similarly, Ekman et al. (2005) point out that Buddhism does not make sharp distinctions between emotions and other mental processes. From these holistic perspectives on emotional and spiritual well-being, it may be difficult to sustain the Western notion of EI as a distinctive “thing in the head” of the individual. Thus far, studies of EI have largely ignored such cultural factors. Typically, researchers have taken English-language tests for EI and trans- lated them into other languages with the aim of comparing psychometric properties across cultures, with rather mixed outcomes (Ekermans, Saklofske, Austin, & Stough, 2011; Sharma, Deller, Biswal, & Mandal, 2009). In Japan, psy- chometric studies include those reported by Fukunishi, Wise, Sheridan, Shimai, Otake, Utsuki, and Uchiyama (2001) and Toyoda and Kawahashi (2005). However, the mean differences in test scores sometimes reported are hard to interpret, in the absence of any theory relevant to interpreting cultural differences. Doubts about the construct validity of EI also make it difficult to perform meaningful cross- cultural comparisons.
The authors end by suggesting that EI may still be a useful field of research, but that it needs to break itself down into four separate concepts each with their own research focus: temperament, information-processing, emotional regulation, and context-bound emotional knowledge and skills. Of these, they think that the last concept is the most easily taught aspect of EI (therefore most appropriately taught in schools), and that it can also be measured by Situation Judgement Tests and the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso EI test.

I personally think one can be alive to cultural and historical differences in attitudes to emotions, but one also needs to consider biological and psychological mechanisms underlying how emotions arise, which presumably don’t change that much in different races. In other words, emotional experience depends, in my view, on both the ‘hardware’ of our psycho-biological natures as human beings, and on the ‘software’ of our cultural, social and personal history and attitudes as individuals, families, tribes, classes and societies.

I think that cognitive-social psychology does a good job at describing the hardware of how emotions arise, and how they follow cognitive judgements. I don’t think this ‘charioteer’ model of the emotions is entirely a Western construct, from Socrates, Plato and the Stoics. You also see the cognitive theory of the emotions in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, for example, which tells us:


‘the world is as the mind sees and feels it; the world is as the mind thinks of it’

This can be compared to the Stoic notion, at the root of CBT, that ‘life itself is but what you deem it’, as the Roman Stoic Marcus Aurelius puts it.

Likewise, as this new paper points out in the International Journal of Research Studies in Psychology, in the Bhagavad Gita you see both the cognitive theory of the emotions, and the metaphor of the charioteer of right-thinking steering the confused psyche. Krishna, the charioteer, tells Arjuna:


Thinking of objects, attachment to them is formed in a man. From attachment longing, and from longing anger grows. From anger comes delusion, and from delusion loss of memory. From loss of memory comes the ruin of discrimination, and from the ruin of discrimination, he perishes.

You also see the cognitive theory of the emotions, and the metaphor of reason steering the cart of the emotions, in the Dhammapada, or the sayings of the Buddha. On the very first page of that book, we read:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox….”He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled. “He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.

What I am arguing for, then, is a soft universalism of the emotions, which argues:
1) Our emotions follow our thoughts and attitudes.

2) Those attitudes may be unconscious and automatic, but we can bring them into consciousness using things like dialogue or introspection.

3) We can change our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes, and this will also change our emotions.

4) We can create new habits of thinking, feeling and acting.
This is a very basic cognitive theory of the emotions, and it is found in Plato, the Stoics, Epicurus, the Buddha, LaoTzu and elsewhere. It differs, however, from animist theories of the emotions, including some forms of Christianity, which suggest emotions come from supernatural sources outside of us and beyond our control – either grace from God or negative emotions from demons. The charioteer model of the emotions is more self-directed and secular than that, though it doesn’t preclude a belief in God or the immortality of the soul. But it insists that on the whole we are responsible for our thoughts and emotions and we (as individuals and societies) have to take responsibility for them by learning to be mindful of our thoughts and attitudes.
It is easy to extend this basic cognitive model of the emotions into a more social, cultural or historical model, by recognising that our beliefs and attitudes will be greatly shaped by our language, culture and society, and what our society deems appropriate emotional expression. Therefore, we have a responsibility not just for our own thoughts and attitudes, but for how we shape the attitudes of our society. As Plato recognised, everything we hear and read will have an impact on our emotions, and likewise everything we say, write or do will impact the emotions of others. Our individual emotions are tied to our attitudes, and our attitudes are to a large extent shared and social.
So I think one can combine some universal psycho-biological model of how the emotions arise and how we can change them (the hardware of our species), with a cultural and historical sense of all the different forms those constructions can take (the software). This could be the basis for a useful dialogue between cognitive-social psychologists and historians of the emotions.

‘Disgust is so hot right now’

An interesting piece in the New York Times, looking at the growing amount of academic interest in the emotion of disgust:

Disgust is having its moment in the light as researchers find that it does more than cause that sick feeling in the stomach. It protects human beings from disease and parasites, and affects almost every aspect of human relations, from romance to politics.In several new books and a steady stream of research papers, scientists are exploring the evolution of disgust and its role in attitudes toward food, sexuality and other people.

Paul Rozin, a psychologist who is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer of modern disgust research, began researching it with a few collaborators in the 1980s, when disgust was far from the mainstream. “It was always the other emotion,” he said. “Now it’s hot.”

The article goes on:

The research may have practical benefits, including clues to obsessive compulsive disorder, some aspects of which — like excessive hand washing — look like disgust gone wild. Conversely, some researchers are trying to inspire more disgust at dirt and germs to promote hand washing and improve public health. Dr. Valerie Curtis, a self-described ‘disgustologist’ from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is involved in efforts in Africa, India and England to explore what she calls “the power of trying to gross people out.” One slogan that appeared to be effective in England in getting people to wash their hands before leaving a bathroom was “Don’t bring the toilet with you.”

Disgust was not completely ignored in the past. Charles Darwin tackled the subject in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” He described the face of disgust, documented by Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne in his classic study of facial expressions in 1862, as if one were expelling some horrible-tasting substance from the mouth. “I never saw disgust more plainly expressed,” Darwin wrote, “than on the face of one of my infants at five months, when, for the first time, some cold water, and again a month afterwards, when a piece of ripe cherry was put into his mouth.” His book did not contain an image of the infant, but fortunately YouTube has numerous videos of babies tasting lemons.

Let’s see some of that lemon-eating fun (no babies were harmed in the course of these experiments)…