The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


In September 1914 the first soldiers displaying the symptoms of what later became known as “shell shock” returned from the Front. With their “stammering and disconnected talk” and their twitching faces and stumbling gaits, these men left physicians groping for an explanation, and a cure. According to pioneering psychologist Charles Myers, the strange symptoms were caused by the impact of shells exploding nearby that rattled the brain around the skull, studding it with microscopic lesions. Other military psychologists thought the stress of life in the trenches—with its relentless fear and constant traumas—had eroded the soldiers’ resilience so that they had succumbed to hysteria, an emotional condition with psychosomatic symptoms. Either way, shell shock threatened to reduce a generation of young men to stumbling, stuttering shadows of themselves.

To be shocked—from the French choquer, meaning to be knocked about or jolted—is to be brought up short by something sudden and unwelcome. Collisions, assaults, unexpected news: all may overturn one’s view of the world as a safe place. Shock can quickly turn to speechlessness and numbness, as disbelief and incomprehension set in. Some say this is a sort of psychic anesthesia, helping us survive a terrible experience. But even when the pain relief wears off, what shocks us still reverberates, appearing in our dreams, our habits, even the way we expect other people to respond to us—sometimes for the rest of our lives.

The idea that a bad shock can lead to a deep and lasting psychic wound is relatively new. When the word “shock” was first used in English around 400 years ago, it was a military term, describing a collision of charging jousters, or the clash of armies: in Shakespeare’s Richard III, a forthcoming battle is described as a “shocke of armes.” It was only in the eighteenth century that people started to talk of their minds being violently assaulted, as if on a battlefield. What used to be called being “struck with WONDER” or “frighted almost to death” began to be spoken of as shock. And, as it turns out, for some at that time being easily shocked was something to be proud of.

The eighteenth century witnessed a revolution in our medical understanding of the human body and mind, in part due to the pioneering work of the London physician and anatomist Thomas Willis. He had carefully dissected the corpses of hanged criminals and argued that the body was not animated by the strange liquids of the humors, but by a delicate lattice of nerves and fibers found under the skin. This network carried vital spirits back and forth from the brain, and animated the rest of the body in turn, making the eyelids spring open in terror or the cheeks grow pink in delight. The outside world impinged on the inner one through these fibers too: the nerves—and in particular, those cordlike structures surrounding the heart, which were known as “heartstrings”—were imagined to quiver in a state of tension, vibrating and resonating on the slightest touch.

As a result of Willis’s work, doctors began to speak of strong emotional responses not in the language of imbalances of the humors, but in terms of the condition of a person’s nerves. Women, artistic men and the upper classes, whose bodies were untouched by hard work, were thought to have particularly delicate or sensitive nervous systems—a desirable trait in this period. For this reason, they were thought to possess a superior aesthetic sensibility, a more refined moral sense, and the ability to divine the feelings of others (see: EMPATHY; DISGUST). But these sensitive types had to be cautious too: the shock of a bit of unexpected news or the spectacle of something gruesome might reverberate so powerfully on the instruments of their bodies that madness might follow. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, it is the shock of hearing his beloved is engaged to another that spins the hero into a mental chaos. He compares the experience to the violent assault of an electrical storm, all the worse for coming in the midst of a joyful occasion: in such situations “our senses have been opened to feeling and so take in impressions faster.”

Doctors today have long dispensed with the term “shell shock” to describe a psychological injury, and speak of post-traumatic stress disorder instead. Today, the most common medical use of the word “shock” describes a life-threatening condition caused by blood loss or an allergic reaction: the blood pressure drops, the breathing becomes rapid and shallow, the skin cold and clammy. This consolidation of shock as a pure physiological response in the twentieth century has left us today much freer to talk of emotional shock as more ordinary. It’s even become a faintly cosseted feeling, associated with the suburban and uptight. The rudeness of a fellow driver or next-door neighbor can shock us into baffled indignation (see: INSULTED, feeling). It’s the sensation of being scandalized, the incomprehension when one’s expectations are violently confounded: How could they do that? The mouth opens and closes like a fish’s; the mind attempts to process the news. To the artists and intellectuals of the eighteenth century, so proud to be easily shocked, this reaction might have seemed even desirable. Today’s artists, by contrast, might hope to shock their audiences—but show themselves to be quite unshockable as a result.

For other military emotions see: HOMESICKNESS.

See also: FEAR; GRIEF.