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


You might smell vomit. Or see enormous men, their ears smeared in Vaseline, shivering as they lace up their boots. Visit the dressing room at a rugby match, and you’ll witness a strange emotion. Its traces will be there in the fear that hardens the players’ faces as they walk out onto the pitch, or in the tears that fill their eyes as their national anthem swells in the stands.

The rugby player’s prematch nerves seem a million miles away from the family whizzing down a snowy bank on a trash-barrel lid, pink cheeked and giggling. Or the way the heart flutters in the flurry of preparations for a party. But in fact it’s impossible to talk about any of these things without talking about adrenaline. It’s the kick-starter hormone secreted from the adrenal glands, which lie by the kidneys (ad-renal) and which, in an emergency, will prepare us for fight or flight. And without adrenaline, there would be no excitement at all.

When the word “excitement” first appeared in English in eighteenth-century medical books, it didn’t mean quite what it does today. It was a condition of the “vital spirits,” which when agitated—“excited”—would whiz around the body, sending messages to the brain and moving the limbs. Like many of the feelings we take for granted today, excitement first became understood as an emotion in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Darwin spoke of excitement primarily as the pleasure of “high spirits,” which registered in bright eyes, rapid circulation and whirlwind ideas. His favorite definition of the emotion was given to him by a child: “good spirits,” the child informed the scientist, was “laughing, talking and kissing.” One of Darwin’s contemporaries, the psychologist Alexander Bain added to this that excitement was an “emotion of action,” there with the thrill of hunting and fighting. It gave one a feeling of momentum—like those excitable “vital spirits”—and of invincibility and speed. Excitement, Bain concluded, could be full of either JOY or FEAR.

The story of excitement took a new direction in the 1890s. Dr. George Oliver was a physician from Harrogate who, according to later accounts, was in the habit of performing experiments on his family over the cold winter months. In one, he injected his young son with a purified extract of sheep and calf adrenal glands—and was surprised to notice that the boy’s radial artery suddenly contracted. Subsequent experiments confirmed the extract was so potent that it could send blood pressure rocketing. Within ten years, the word “hormone” had been coined and the substance Oliver had used had been isolated and was being marketed as a new wonder drug: Adrenalin. It became a medical sensation, used for controlling hemorrhages in surgeries and suppressing allergic reactions, resuscitating stroke victims and treating the split lips of boxers. However, adrenaline didn’t only catch the attention of surgeons and ringside cuts men. The era’s psychologists, who studied emotions and their physiological effects, became interested in the way it caused a kind of urgent feeling, sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks—the responses that Victorian psychologists had associated with excitement. In adrenaline, they had found the secret of excitement—and the theory that our emotions might be chemical responses to life’s crises was secured.

Today’s medical textbooks often speak of epinephrine rather than adrenaline, and of a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline in the brain. But “adrenaline” remains a popular part of our emotional language, a byword for a burst of energy or buzzing nerves. The feeling of being hepped up, pumped and alert that Bain called “excitement,” has become inseparable from the language of drugs: We speak of “adrenaline shots” and “adrenaline rushes.” We talk of “adrenaline junkies.” This emotion, more than any other, is a kind of chemistry, and one that we have come to admire. Following the discovery of adrenaline, the idea that a surge of excitement was good for the health became widespread—understood to be both stimulating and cathartic. Some today might prefer computer games to produce these surges of testosterone, noradrenaline and cortisol: all the excitement, none of the risk (except, perhaps, obesity). In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, written in the early 1930s, a monthly injection of an adrenaline-like substance was all that was required to maintain optimum health.

Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time” [the Controller explains to the Savage…] “It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”


“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

See also: LIGET.