A ‘body’ paints a thousand ‘painful’ words

This post starts from two seemingly diverse places:


Last month (Aug 2014) the University of Sussex published an article in ‘Current Biology’ (Vol 24 No. 15) on the important role played by the eye, and particularly the ears, in communication between horses. Now this may seem to be a very contemporary start to a historical blog, but I include it to show that visual communication remains in the 21st century a topic of interest as it was in the 19th century. Whilst the current study focused on the use of the ears and eyes in indicating attention to food, the use of facial features – the mouth, the eyes, the nose and even the ears – within intra- and inter-species communication, alongside more general body language, can be found in countless naturalist and anatomical writings from the 18th century onwards.


Pain is a difficult subject to write about, because it is a difficult concept to truly understand in a wider context than the personal. My experience pain, and therefore my understanding of pain, is different from yours. I cannot experience your pain, no matter how much I can empathise with it, and as such it remains something abstract within my experiential field. Javier Moscoso writes in Pain: A Cultural History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) of pain being a temporary entity and one which “cannot be located either in the history of the passions or in the history of the sciences. For one thing, it does not refer to the acquisition of knowledge, but to the production of meaning.” Pain finds itself  “halfway between the world of emotions and the realm of sensations…” As not only is pain a physical entity, it is also an emotional one; yet in both cases, a physical language, as much as a verbal language is used to express these (physical and emotional) feelings.

And therefore my two beginnings are brought together…….In the communication of pain – and here I emphasize communication not understanding – we, as humans relay on expression – both facial and bodily. And, as it turns out, so do the lower animals. But this notion is nothing new.

It is Moscoso’s location of pain as being between emotion and sensation (which I interpret as meaning pain be classed as both or neither of these entities) which enables me to write this post and to discuss how nineteenth century physicians and naturalists were able to write about the expression of pain by animals. Charles Darwin wrote The Expression of Emotion in Man and the Lower Animals, (1872) detailing on occasion, the physicality of expression. He was preceded by Charles Bell whose amazing drawings in Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting (1806) and Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression as connected with the fine arts (1824) provide page after page of discussion and illustration of the anatomical abilities of different animals to express, or not express, human emotions.

Drawings of dogs musculature (Bell) and their expressions (Darwin) c. Wellcome Trust

Drawings of dogs musculature (Bell) and their expressions (Darwin) c. Wellcome Trust

In 1820, ‘The New Monthly Magazine and Register’ included an article entitled ‘Comparative Psychology’, which suggested that physical expression could be seen as a ‘universal language of nature’. Inviting the reader to consider that once they had “identif[ied] in ourselves the connection between the feelings and their natural expression”, how could they not then relate the same connection when observing others. For even, the author continues, “the writhing of a worm when trodden upon is as clearly indicative of the pain it experiences, as the gesticulations of the happiest actor; and the flight of the hare and the roar of the lion are perfectly understood by every living being interested in the intellectual movement of those animals.”

Now whilst the writhing of this worm seems to be related to a physical pain, the gesticulating actor’s happiness is emotional, and the causative factor for the hare to flee or the lion to roar are left for the reader’s interpretation. But whilst this early Comparative Psychology focused on physical pain, and Bell and Darwin tackled the weighty issue of whether animals could indeed, either physically or emotionally, feel and/or express emotional pain (or indeed any emotion), some of the later comparative psychologists, such as William Lauder Lindsay and George John Romanes, emotions and pain became an object that could be studied. Whereas Darwin, as noted by Thomas Dixon, took expressive movements of animals to be byproducts of earlier behaviours (From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category, Cambridge University Press, 2003), Lindsay saw them as a physical and vocal ‘brute language’ of animals: “The howl of a dog may proceed from (a) bodily pain; (b) loss of way or master; (c) any kind of disappointment; (d) anger, grief, despair, or even mere impatience”; in cats “Moaning may be a sign equally of grief, of mental pain, or of that which is purely physical” (Mind in Lower Animals in Health and Disease, C.K. Paul, 1879). Despite his insistence on the abilities of animals to express emotions, he does not make it easy to put his case forward – for, as both these quotes show, the same expressive action could result from the physical as well as the emotional. His reasoning has to be unpicked from his understanding of the mind as being present throughout the physical body, and therefore being represented and communication by and through its movements.

Grief, loss, fear, anxiety. anger, envy, jealousy, hatred and despair could be experienced by the animals he observed. And each of these emotions were not only experienced by the mind, but could even affect the mind. An excess of any negative (or positive) emotion could lead to mental disorder, in accordance with the understanding of madness as a moral disorder. Lindsay saw this as a particular problem seen in sensitive (by which he meant domesticated, ‘well-bred’) animals:

“Man’s blame may be conveyed in specially offensive and irritating ways, in taunts or upbraidings, associated with ridicule or sarcasm, in which case the moral result is much more serious than in ordinary reproof. Sarcastic taunts are only too apt to sink deeply into, and to rankle in, the minds of sensitive animals” (Mind in the Lower Animals). This emotional pain, on occasion, was suffered more severely than physical pain. The suffering of neglect, discouragement, humiliation and disgrace could result in the animals deserting their owners or leaving their home, or more seriously convulsions and/or death.

The physiological relationship between cause and effect is purposely absent from Lindsay’s work, for he felt unqualified to enter into a discussion on the work he saw as the purview of the comparative physiologist. The comparative psychologist’s role was that of observation and interpretation – to attempt to understand the mind of the animal through their physical behaviour. As such, the nineteenth century comparative psychologist used pain, alongside other emotions, as objects of ‘scientific’ study.

Pain and Emotion in Modern History

Pain and Emotion in Modern History, published July 2014


And now for a small amount of self-publicity: the post is an extract from a larger chapter entitled ‘Pain in Animals in    Nineteenth-Century Comparative Psychology’ in Pain and Emotion in Modern History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) which was published in July this year. A second chapter in the book also covers the communication of pain – ‘Down in the Mouth: Faces of Pain’ by Danny Rees.


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Filed under Asylums, Emotional Animals, Moral Treatment of Animals, Pain, Pets, Science, Uncategorized

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