Cholerics: the real drama queens

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. We previously celebrated this by looking at the four bodily humours in one post and Shakespeare’s most famous melancholic in another. Nelly Ekström now explores his choleric characters and how their temperament affects their actions.

Here are two of Shakespeare’s most famous choleric characters: Katherina and Petruchio, the tempestuous couple from The Taming of the Shrew. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, themselves a tempestuous couple, played the leading roles in the ’67 film of the same name. Both are dressed in alarmingly bright red costumes, adding more heat to their already fiery temperaments. Continue reading


A to Z of the Human Condition: Y is for Yawning

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. In this final post of the series, Richard Firth-Godbehere explores how we use expressions to speak with our faces, illustrated by your photos.


One area where we historians find ourselves struggling is in the realm of ‘extra-linguistic communication’. Most of what we do involves reading texts with words in them and trying to first piece together what was meant by those words before translating that to modern language. History, in essence, is an act of translation; just translating from old words to new ones is far from easy. This is why going beyond words is even harder, especially when it comes to emotions.

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A cat among the collection

In honour of cats everywhere, we’re taking a look through Wellcome Collection’s clowder of cat-related material: from scientific accounts to historical satire; from safe sex posters to Henry Wellcome’s very own felines. Russell Dornan tells us about some of the ways cats are represented in our collection.

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Irrational Fears (and Aversions)

Last week’s #CuriousConversations was one of our most responded to yet. Rob Bidder had already drawn the first batch of your irrational fears but so many of you got in touch that we carried the conversation on for another week. Richard Firth-Godbehere was particularly interested in some of your submissions and discusses the sometimes abstract causes of aversion.

Wellcome Collection recently kicked off one of its #CuriousConversations with a simple question: “what are your irrational fears?” The answers ranged from one of the most common phobias of all (spiders) to the more unusual (balloons or, in my case, wooden objects in my mouth). Throughout all of these responses, a few predominant aversive emotions shone through that are often found tied to irrational fears: anxiety, hatred, horror and disgust.

This observation is nothing new. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas said that the passion of aversive feelings in opposition to desiring “has no name”. The best description he could think of was “aversion or abomination”. Here are a few examples of the #CuriousConversations responses:

In the 1970s, philosopher Aurel Kolnai noticed that these aversive emotions have an asymmetry with desiring emotions in that the causes of aversions are more abstract than the causes of desires. Whereas the cause of a love of balloons is usually clear and rational (such as a happy memory or aesthetic pleasure), the reason to fear them is irrational and harder to grasp. What’s more, these irrational aversions are not focused only on their central object; they also affect related behaviour.

By way of an example, one of the tweets particularly caught my attention. @charlottelb tweeted:

This phobia is the reason I became interested in aversive emotions in the first place. My wife has lived with Emetophobia for some time (now controlled through CBT) and her phobia was not fear alone: it was a mixture of aversive emotions. The most powerful was the combination of two whose links to phobias are becoming increasingly well documented: anxiety and disgust. Vomiting is an abomination to almost everybody as it combines many causes of disgust, such as the ejection of what is supposed to be contained within the body the wrong way through a bodily orifice of a substance that is putrefied; foul tasting; and able to remind us of our animal existence and mortality.

Rob Bidder's #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

Rob Bidder’s #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

The phobia stems, as do many phobias, from contamination anxiety. Horrifying and disgusting is the idea that another’s vomit may contaminate the self through either contact or sympathetic magic by hearing or seeing them vomit. The idea that the self has become contaminated, and might contaminate others, is terrifying and disgusting. Many Emetaphobes have such strong feelings of aversion that they obsessively clean, check and recheck food to make sure it is cooked, avoid eating out, and so on.

These mixed aversive emotions can trigger the avoidance of anything related to the phobia, real or imagined. As a result, phobias can rule your life, as might my dislike for wood on the roof of my mouth. Thankfully, my love of Magnum ice-creams is more powerful.

There’s still time to submit your own irrational fears. Send us a tweet or comment below.

Richard is a Wellcome Trust supported Doctoral Candidate in the Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London. He is researching how the passions of aversion were related to medicine in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Find out more on his blog.