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Emotion and Psychotherapy: Historical Perspectives

Several recent events have raised some interesting discussions around the history of psychiatry and psychology. Earlier this month, the Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines at UCL hosted its second major conference on Psychotherapeutics from the York Retreat to the Present Day. The event realised one of the aims of the centre: to act as a platform for bringing together practitioners and historians. As one psychotherapist attendee commented, looking at history can help personal interactions within psychotherapy. It can also raise many questions. Conference organiser, Sarah Marks, asked whether different forms of psychotherapy have changed the ways in which people view their own behaviour. How do we decide what counts as psychotherapy, and what are the boundaries of it?

Talks covered a range of topics, stretching back well before the York Retreat - commonly regarded as one of the institutions at which "moral treatment" began - and including various practices: art therapy, music therapy, psychoanalysis, occupational therapy and dynamic psychotherapy. One particularly interesting talk covered Morita Therapy in early twentieth-century Japan. Dr Yu-Chuan Wu described how the founder of this practice, Dr Morita, considered that men with "nervous disposition" were important for social progress due to their strong moral sense: illness, for Morita, resulted from this moral sense being focused internally. His therapy was experiential, intending to give his patients an appreciation of work and life for its own sake, and not through expectations of achievement. This had important political implications, however: the deeply conservative Morita actively encouraged his patients to accept the status quo.

Other papers looked at the efforts of practitioners to harness the emotions of their patients. Edward Brown discussed the nineteenth-century work of François Leuret, and his efforts to excite the passions, particularly that of fear. Leuret thought that therapy might well be painful, comparing his practice to the physically painful process of surgery.

Yet, as we have previously explored, these emotions themselves can be viewed and studied historically. The Carnival of Lost Emotions, recently made into a short film by the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, offers a thought-provoking way of exploring these past emotional states.