Doctors can learn from Shakespeare’s mind–body connection
Shakespeare has long been admired for the depth of his insight into the human mind. Now, research from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom shows that he was much more perceptive than other writers of his time in portraying mental states through bodily sensations. The study compared 42 of Shakespeare’s major works with 46 works by his contemporaries, looking for depictions of sensory sensations other than those involving vision, taste, the heart and the stomach and intestines. Vertigo in response to emotional distress is experienced by five of Shakespeare’s characters, but was mentioned by only one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Breathlessness, which the study’s author interprets as hyperventilation, shows up 11 times in Shakespeare but only twice in the works of other writers. Fatigue, as an expression of grief, shows up at least nine times in Shakespeare’s works, and only four times among his contemporaries. Deafness at a time of high emotion is mentioned three times by Shakespeare, but is never mentioned by another writer. Numbness in reaction to distress and enhanced sensation resulting from excitation are experienced by four Shakespearian characters, but are never mentioned by other writers. The author concludes that Shakespeare was “an exceptionally body-conscious writer” who may have used bodily sensations to make his characters seem more human or to heighten the emotional intensity of his plays and poems. The author suggests that doctors could become better at their work by studying Shakespeare to remind them that physical symptoms can have psychological causes.
Medical Humanities, 2011, 37: 97-102, published online first June 4, 2011, doi: 10.1136/jmh.2010.006643. Kenneth W. Heaton, Department of Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom.