The stresses and strains of modern life

by Sally Shuttleworth FBA

23 Jan 2017

As we enter a new year, newspapers and digital media carry their diagnoses of the problems of our time – the speed of life and communication in our digital age, the pressures of overwork and information overload, which bring in their wake an associated rise in work-based stress, and nervous disorders.  

Writing at the end of the 19th century, the distinguished physician Clifford Allbutt detected a similar pattern, noting that newspapers were at one in diagnosing the perceived ills of modern life: 'the fretfulness, the melancholy, the unrest due to living at a high pressure, to the whirl of the railway, the pelting of telegrams, the strife of business, the hunger for riches, the lust of vulgar minds for coarse and instant pleasures'. The internet might have replaced the telegram as an agent of instant global communication, but there are nonetheless striking parallels between the two sets of concerns. Allbutt offered himself as a lone voice of dissent, arguing that nervous disorders were not on the increase, yet his conclusions also anticipate current anxieties. There was, he argued, a 'craving for mere novelty', with writers committed to 'a chase after sensations ever new'. The brain had become so idle that 'the articles of our newspapers must be chopped up into little spicy bits for our consumption'. The complaint clearly resonates with our own concerns regarding the felt need to 'spice up' the news, or serve it in bite-sized chunks. The much trumpeted 30-second attention span has now, it seems, been revised downwards to a mere eight seconds. Such arguments are encapsulated by works like Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving their Mark on our Brains, in which she argues that the new technologies have created an ever-growing constituency ‘with a reduced attention span demanding a print and broadcast media to match’.    

In our European Research Council-funded project, 'Diseases of Modern Life: 19th-Century Perspectives', our team are exploring the perceived ills of modernity, as experienced in the age of steam and telegraph. Writing in 1860, the medic James Crichton Browne had complained of the new 'velocity in thought and action' now required of the brain which received in one month as many impressions as those processed by our grandfathers in an entire lifetime. The rise of cheap printing, swift train travel, and telegraphic communication all appeared to work together to intensify the speed of life, and hence wear and tear of mind and body. Our project is deliberately interdisciplinary, looking at medical, scientific, literary and popular works, and the ways in which ideas crossed between them. Matthew Arnold’s famous invocation of 'this strange disease of modern life' with its 'sick hurry' and 'heads o'ertaxed', in his poem The Scholar Gypsy (1853) is echoed later in the medic Benjamin Ward Richardson’s work, Diseases of Modern Life (1876). Such works tended to focus on 'diseases from worry and mental strain', but they also explored illnesses generated by physical conditions such as air pollution, as well as what we would now call 'lifestyle diseases', including the abuse of alcohol and narcotics by the middle classes and 'diseases from late hours and broken sleep'. These arguments were also extended to the young, in international outcries of concern regarding 'overpressure' in education, as expressed in Dr Pridgin Teale's evocatively titled book, Hurry, Worry and Money: The Bane of Modern Education (1883), a work that could contribute much to our current debates.

At the beginning of our period, the Leeds physician Charles Turner Thackrah published the first extended study of occupational health in Britain, The Effects of the Principal Arts, Trades and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living, on Health and Longevity (1831-32). It addressed the health problems of manual workers in factories, but also those of the manufacturers themselves whose nervous systems were worn down by excessive demands. Civilisation, Thackrah argues, 'has changed our character of mind as well as of body.  We live in a state of unnatural excitement: unnatural because it is partial, irregular, excessive. Our muscles waste for want of action: our nervous system is worn out by excess of action'. This idea of excessive action on the part of the nerves comes to play a crucial role in subsequent diagnoses of the pathologies of modernity. Thackrah himself was critical of the industrial system, under which the 'work-people are less thought of than the machinery', but he was far from radical in his suggestions for change. For the middle-class family, the imbalance of the life of the nerves and the body could be corrected he suggests, rather appealingly, by 'an hour or two's dance every night', an intriguing recommendation which presupposes high levels of harmony and intimacy, not to mention energy, within the family unit. For the workers, the prescription is firmly paternalistic. Masters should arrange for similar possibilities for their workforce, with open air games and gymnastics in the summer, and a room for dances in the winter, in much the same way that 'caring' companies now offset the pressures of long-hours work culture by providing gyms and aerobics classes for employees. The current vogue for mind-body balance has its roots deep in the Victorian period. By setting contemporary concerns within a broader historical framework we aim to bring a more sceptical and analytic eye, both to the debates of the 19th century, and to our own constructions of the problems of modernity.    

Sally Shuttleworth is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford, and a Professorial Fellow at St Anne’s College.

This blog is part of a series that the British Academy is running by Fellows of the Academy who have received awards from the prestigious European Research Council. Professor Sally Shuttleworth FBA received an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council in 2014 for €2.4 million to research ‘The Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’ under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme ERC Grant Agreement number 340121.

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