Friday, 5 June 2009


I was in London a few weeks ago for an exhibition in Euston called 'Modernity and Madness'.

The exhibition was split into several sections, ranging from an eery video tour of the 'Tower of Fools' in Vienna; a roundhouse like psychiatric institution, to artwork inspired and produced by psychiatric patients. The highlight for me however was a range of objects imported from Psychiatric asylums, and one which was particularly startling was an 'Electrotherapeutic cage'; an octagonal bird-box like cage, which would upon becoming electrically charged, 'treat' its incapsulated patients for hysteria.

Incredible to think of the power of psychiatrists and psychologists in those days, especially thinking of their then perspective of what constituted 'mad' and 'sane' before or after treatment. Without the 'talking cures' and psychotherapeutic treatment suggested by Freud, we may have perhaps never been able to challenge the brutal psychiatric approaches mentioned above.

Interestingly, research has found that perspective can influence your interpretation of events. Gilovich (2007) found that observing yourself as a third person -- looking at yourself from an outside observer's perspective -- helps clarify the changes you need to make far made more than using a first-person perspective. This shows the difficulty of making objective decisions; without a clear understanding of our values, we're prone to following the crowd, doing what looks best to others, or even just doing what you've always done. And that is a recipe to repeat the mistakes of the past which as this exhibition shows, can be catastrophic and absurd in hindsight.

'Madness and Modernity' is at the Wellcome Collection until the 28th June.


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