19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 12 (2011)

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Henry Head and the Theatre of Reverie

Tiffany Watt-Smith

Abstract


In 1903, the neurologist Henry Head (1861-1940) embarked on a painful self-experiment, in which he severed the radial nerve of his left arm, and then charted the gradual and faltering return of sensitivity to the limb over the next four and a half years. To directly experience his own sensations, Head entered into a trance-like state of distraction or reverie he called a 'negative attitude of attention'. This article explores Head's peculiar technique for looking within, and argues that while introspection was an established strategy in psychological laboratories, Head's reverie also resonated with techniques associated with actors and theatrical audiences during this period. Viewing psychological self-experimentation through the lens of theatre, this article makes visible aspects of Head's embodied, affective laboratory encounters, often obscured in accounts of his experiment. At the same time, it proposes that the broader historical and cultural significance of Head's experiment lies in his attempt to observe himself by producing states of inattention and reverie at will, mental 'attitudes' that were themselves the subject of a rapidly evolving debate in scientific and aesthetic circles at the turn of the twentieth century.

 


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