Non-fiction Review: Headhunters by Ben Shepherd

headhuntersIn April 1898, Alfred Haddon led his expedition off the Duke of Westminster steamer on to Thursday Island, in the Torres Straits archipelago between Australia and New Guinea. They carried the latest tools for assessing psychology and perception, and the late Victorian concepts of eugenics and racial superiority. What they would learn there would shape the sciences of psychology and neuroscience throughout the twentieth century.

Headhunters tells the story of their months among people popularly characterised as headhunters to hunt down the insights contained within their heads. Their research led Haddon’s team to an earth-shaking conclusion: the supposedly primitive people were not very different to Englishmen. Not only did they lack the preternatural perception that Haddon’s team expected to find, but their personalities were as complex and varied as Haddon would have found in any English village, or indeed among the expedition itself.

After they returned to Britain, those varied personalities took the expedition members in various directions. Haddon himself took a post at Cambridge University where he became one of the founding influences of the discipline of anthropology. Several of his protégés worked with him but William McDougall was drawn in a different direction, being more interested in what he had learned about psychology.

While Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were building a philosophy-derived theory of psychology in Vienna, MacDougall was building his own approach based on anthropology. It was an approach that would soon be tested by the First World War, which would take MacDougall’s approach out of Oxford University and demand its application to hundreds of thousands of young men broken in mind and body.

The first of Haddon’s expedition to heed the call to duty was Charles Myers who, having a medical background, travelled to France to volunteer his services. Rather than being welcomed as an extra doctor, Myers found no one was interested so he ended up driving a field ambulance for the French army for several months. If it wasn’t the best use of his skills, it gave him first-hand experience of conditions that left so many soldiers emotionally crippled.

It wasn’t long before Myers was commissioned into the British army, where he quickly placed himself at odds with the military establishment through his writing on the psychological damage of warfare, in which he coined the term ‘shell-shock’. The role of the doctor in the British army was to patch up wounded men and return them to the front line. Generals and ministers did not want to hear that men without a scratch on them were in fact invalids, especially not from a Jewish academic in a brand-new uniform.

Neither Myers nor shell-shock would go away, and both gained a level of recognition that made them impossible to ignore. The term shell-shock proved unfortunate; Myers initially used it to mean the psychological damage of being pounded by artillery but he soon recognised that combat could break men who were never shelled. Meanwhile, some of his colleagues insisted it referred to a head injury caused by the concussion of a shell itself, and regarded shell-shocked soldiers who had not actually been shelled as malingerers.

Meanwhile, McDougall’s anthropological experience was proving invaluable in developing what we would now call ‘talking therapies’ to treat the affliction that Myers was describing. He quickly found that the symbolic approach pioneered by Freud and Jung was of little use with men whose limited education had not implanted the relevant symbols in the first place. Having never fully renounced eugenics, McDougall regarded shell-shock as a reversion to the base instincts he had observed among the people of the Torres Straits. While a modern analysis would reject the theoretical basis of his approach, McDougall used it to develop a program of talking therapy that still underpins much modern psychotherapy.

Victorian prejudices died hard. While McDougall was treating soldiers suffering from ‘hysteria’ caused by a regression to primitive instincts, yet another veteran of the Haddon expedition, William Rivers, was treating officers suffering from a far less profound form of regression leading to ‘anxiety neuroses’. Rivers had been involved in psychology before the Haddon expedition, having been a junior doctor at London’s Bethlem Asylum: the infamous ‘Bedlam’. The First World War saw Rivers practising in the more refined environment of Craiglockhart asylum for officers, where he jokingly told one of his patients that rather than suffering from shell-shock, he was suffering from ‘an anti-war complex’. That patient was the author, poet and decorated war hero Siegfried Sassoon, whose polemics against the war had embarrassed the government into writing them off as the strain of combat. The establishment was happy to recognise shell-shock when it suited them.

Their theories may have carried their prejudices and their practices may seem crude by modern standards, but we can recognise the modern conception of post-traumatic stress disorder in what Myers called shell-shock and we can recognise the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy in McDougall’s talking cures. The Haddon expedition members incorporated the insights of Freud and Jung but their system had a much wider application than the Viennese school, which was based on people who could afford their fees, ever could have done alone. Modern psychology owes a great deal to the sojourn of a band of enthusiastic Victorians in the Torres Straits.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

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