Do emotions change through time and will they change in future?

Did our ancestors feel the same emotions we do?

The word emotion wasn’t used in the current sense until the 1830s – before then people had passions, affectations or sentiments.  But what did these feel like (and how can we know)?  And what does this mean for the use of Bach remedies in future?

Plate VII from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. From Chapter XII: Surprise—Astonishment—Fear—Horror.

Reading some medieval history recently I stumbled on the field of the history of emotions.  While it seems obvious that the language and expression of emotions change through history (as well as across cultures), one idea is that the way we express an emotion changes the way we feel it.  So the experience of emotions themselves has changed (and will continue to change in future).

Dr Sarah Chaney, an expert from the Centre for the History of the Emotions says “The language people used to describe their feelings meant that they felt things that we can never experience. Many historical emotions are so specific to their time and place that it’s impossible for us to experience them today.”

There is no sure way to tell what someone is feeling – all we really have to go on is the words they use to describe it along with their facial expressions/body language.  When we start to try to work it out from hearing their story, or reading a historical text, we are already ‘putting our own spin’ on the situation – trying to understand them by using our own experiences.

Does this mean we should just give up on trying to understand people from the past?  Or is the answer to try to decode the historical language and the social norms or even to work around them?  One way we can avoid the trap of assuming that the words or expressions of emotions meant in the past what they do now is to avoid them altogether and only look at facts.

Pillories – a historical tool of humiliation.

A historical punishment for offending your community was to be put in stocks or pillories (sometimes with the addition of being pelted with rotten food while you’re there).  This was uncomfortable but didn’t damage the ‘victim’ physically in the long term.  The root of the punishment was humiliation in front of your peers.  Is this the historical equivalent of social media shaming, even extending as far as revenge porn?  And if so, humiliation seems to to exist historically as now (though, of course, we can’t say what it felt like).

One commonly quoted example of an emotion which no longer exists is acedia.  Described as a spiritual crisis causing depression, lethargy and despair, it was used in medieval times to describe a state felt sometimes by monks.  But while the context has changed, it isn’t clear why historians of emotions pin so much on the lack of a recognisable modern equivalent word – do they really think that the absence of this single word means that today we can’t experience the same feeling of crisis (in whatever context)?

Although it is tempting to look at people in the past as uncivilised (and sometimes even child-like) in their feelings and behaviour,  there is evidence of considerable self-control in ancient civilisations, suggesting an emotional complexity.  For example, Neanderthals shared food (rather than just keeping it all for themselves) – not the act of cartoonish savages.

Floating Heads, Sophie Cave, Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Image

And to add a further complication, all emotions may not be the same – some may be more hard-wired than others e.g. fear is a basic emotion of self-preservation with a measurable physical effect.  We can identify fear throughout history, across cultures and in non-human animals.   However, the causes of fear can vary considerable with knowledge – sailors used the think their ships would fall off the edge when they reached the horizon but now know there is no need to be afraid of that!  Some other emotions may be more related to the time or place – certainly in terms of expression, or suppression.

So what about Bach remedies?  If emotions do change, will the 38 we have now need to change or be added to?  I’d suggest that the evidence for the core component of emotions actually changing is weak – not having a word for some very specific emotion doesn’t mean it isn’t experienced – only framed in a different way of expression and understanding.   Even in the years since Dr Bach wrote, we can see how much language and expression have changed – and some people today struggle with the deeply religious undertone of some of Dr Bach’s words.  So, we need to try to strip away the context to see the core of his writings.

But what about in the future – I think the above shows how important it is that we all record our experiences of using the remedies in different situations and in our native languages.  This ‘future proofs’ and ‘culture proofs’ the remedy system – by keeping our understanding of the remedies current and understandable by as wide as possible a population.  Also, it shows the importance of us reflecting back to clients – we may see remedy indications but we can’t ever truly know how a client feels, so ensuring the best remedy selection has to involve discussion with them of the remedy.

A final thought – I wonder if remedy choices have changed since Dr Bach’s time – as the first 3 remedies were mimulus, clematis and impatiens, does this mean these were the most needed at that time?  Nelson’s rank remedies by sales (or used to) and their ‘top 3’ recently were white chestnut, mimulus and larch.

I’d love to know what you think. Post your thoughts on facebook.

Further reading:

How we used to feel,

Barbara H Rosenwein; Worrying about emotions in History, American Historical Review, 2002;