A short history of the term “catharsis” and its relevance to the discussion of artistic truth vs. scientific fact.
The “Incorrect” Truth of Catharsis
Ca·thar·sis (n): purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art 1
I was taught that catharsis isn’t real. You can’t observe it in a brain scan, the neural network isn’t defined, you can’t see it. But then, what do I feel when I see myself in cathartic art (usually music)? What do I feel when I hear truth in Mitski’s dark alto or The Cranberries’ watery, moody strings?
“Universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated”—Aristotle, Poetics
As Freud’s death and the evolving technologies of the twentieth century led to a “scientific overhaul” of psychology, psychobiology (later known as neuroscience) was born.2 Freud’s theories had become prolific across the globe, and once the technology was available, psychologists everywhere immediately began testing these theories (mainly the tenets of psychoanalysis), to an incredibly mixed bag of results. While some psychologists such as I.B. Cohen still hailed Freud as a revolutionary genius, many more science-minded psychologists and academics like Hans Eysenck, psychologist and author of Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, wrote off Freud’s work as “idle speculations which are actually untrue” which he believed set back psychology “by something like fifty years or more.”3 As Dr. Alan Stone put it, “as academic psychology becomes more ‘scientific’ and psychiatry more biological, psychoanalysis is being brushed aside.”4
As psychology has clamored to become accepted as a hard science, Freud’s speculative theories have become more and more obsolete, and there has been a push by behavioral scientists to discard anything even remotely related to his work. However, while Freud’s methods were largely unscientific and often incorrect (see the Oedipus Complex), this push has caused many scientists to adopt the mentality that even if Freud simply studied a phenomenon, that means that practice is devoid of any value when, in fact, many of his practices have snuck their way into modern psychology. For instance, Freud pioneered talk therapy, and although his reasoning behind the method was almost entirely unfounded beyond the anecdotal, this type of therapy has been found to be extremely successful in treating disorders like anxiety and depression.5
Given that some of Freud’s methods are valuable in practice, why has neuroscience “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” in their efforts to disprove his work? Catharsis is one of these Freudian ideas that the modern field of psychology has unjustly jettisoned. In Studies on Hysteria, Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer defined catharsis as “the process of reducing or eliminating a complex by recalling it to conscious awareness and allowing it to be expressed.”6 However, Freud in no way invented the term; in fact, the term wasn’t even used in psychology until Breuer used it to describe his hypnotic work with his “hysterical” patient “Anna O.” in 1880.7 The concept is argued to first be articulated by Aristotle in Poetics where he uses it (through terms like “tragic pleasure,” “purgation,” and “purification”) as a way to describe the paradoxical feeling of pleasure after witnessing tragedy in art.8 Until 1880, the term was largely used in the context of the arts to describe the contradictory feelings of the audience in live theatre productions, with no basis in psychology or the science of emotions. However, since Freud was the one to popularize catharsis as a psychological technique, there has been a wave of modern researchers all eager to find a way to disprove its reality, making it into the disputed socio-psychological term we see today.9
“Therefore the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot. So I’m looking to find and expose a truth about the interior life of people who didn’t write it.” —Toni Morrison, The Site of Memory
My first semester of college, I had a professor quip that “Psych 101 is the most dangerous class a freshman can take.” As a neuroscience major who was equally optimistic and naive, I laughed along, but I didn’t get it, not really. I didn’t understand how horribly cliche I was, taking AP Psychology in high school and needing to become a neuroscience major afterward, thinking that I finally understood the secrets of the human psyche that everyone else seemed to have missed.
I revisited my professor’s comment months later, when I had started to realize the impersonality and short-sightedness of studying humans only in a lab, and subsequently abandoned my neuroscience dreams in search of a wider truth. Yes, Psych 101 is “dangerous” because of the influx of students who become psych majors after taking one intro course, but somewhere in that statement also lay the recognition of a deeper corollary. One about a pattern of wide-eyed freshmen desperate to understand the world turning to the first source they think can grant them understanding through scientific fact, rather than by exploring the world’s truths.
“It is a relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears”— Ovid
In their rush to tackle Freudian catharsis with modern technological means, for decades the study of any cathartic emotions besides anger was shockingly absent from the popular discourse surrounding catharsis in psychology.10 While there are many possible reasons for this, one potential explanation is psychology’s long history of male-centric studies combined with the gendered view of cathartic emotions. As Shu-Tsen Kuo contends in “Gendered Emotions: Raging Men and Weeping Women,” “anger conveys an image of strength, competence and higher social status; whereas sadness conveys weakness, submissiveness and low social status,” so “according to the gender role congruency theory, females are stereotypically weak and submissive whereas males are tough and dominant,” making sadness a female coded emotion and anger a masculine coded one.11
Notwithstanding, over the past 12 years or so, some (largely female) researchers have started to add to the psychological discourse surrounding catharsis, gradually moving away from anger and other male-coded emotions to more feminine-coded emotions, primarily sadness.12 Accordingly, the act of crying has become a pop symbol for cathartic sadness. In fact, psychologist Dr. Randolph Cornelius “found that 94 percent of popular articles in the United States that referred to crying recommended letting tears flow to release psychological tension, implying their cathartic effect.”13
One such study that examines the role of tears in catharsis, “When is Crying Cathartic? An International Study,” doesn’t aim to tackle the question of “if” crying is cathartic but rather “when” it is. What Dr. Bylsma et al. discovered was that the presence of crying alone does not predict feelings of emotional catharsis but rather the context in which the crying episode takes place. They ultimately concluded that factors such as “the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis,” while, on the other hand, “crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic.”14
There are many conclusions one can draw here about cathartic sadness, but I would like to revisit Aristotle’s artistic account, that “universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.” While psychology spent years debasing the value of catharsis, it had always been evident in art. Maybe part of the reason that many claim that seeing their sadness represented in media (typically songs, books, TV shows, and films) can be such a cathartic experience is that it allows you to feel “the receipt of social support” through shared experience with others, even if you don’t personally have a support system. It can alleviate the “experiencing of shame from crying” because you now know someone else has experienced what you have experienced, as well as “achieving a new understanding of the event” and your own emotions due to the act of someone else putting your experience into eloquent, accessible, beautiful words.15
“Subjective feelings such as those that had taken hold of me were not worthy of a researcher in science”—Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero
There is something so harrowing about a science like psychology/neuroscience that is based in humanity, but can write off a human experience as “incorrect.” That Émile Littré and his ilk could decide that “objective experience” that could be scientifically observed was most important, and all “subjective experience” was to be relegated to second-best.16 To be told that the release of emotions through art isn’t proven, isn’t correct, and that you’re in the wrong for thinking so. However, as someone who has been drawn to both the concepts of fact and truth over time (a STEM major turned writer turned confused college student), it feels wrong to let go of the need to prove factually what I know truthfully. Facts comfort me, they shelter me when the flurries of disbelief set in and validate that my truths have a basis beyond any subjectivity. But I think, ultimately, you have to let them go in order to find your own broader, artistic truth.
- “Definition of Catharsis,” in Merriam-Webster, accessed December 3, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catharsis.
- Marina Bentivoglio et al., “The History of Neuroscience in Autobiography,” Elsevier Academic Press, The Society for Neuroscience, 4 (2004): 432.
- H. J. Eysenck, Decline & Fall of the Freudian Empire (New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 1985), 195-202.
- H. J. Eysenck, Decline & Fall of the Freudian Empire (New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 1985), 195-202.
- “Mental Disorders,” World Health Organization, November 28, 2019, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders.
- Breuer, Joseph – Freud, Sigmund: Studies in Hysteria. Authorized Translation with an Introduction by A. A. Brill. (Nervous and Mental Disease Monograph Series No. 61.) Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, New York 1937.
- Sandhu P. Scientific American. “Step Aside, Freud: Josef Breuer Is the True Father of Modern Psychotherapy.” 2015.
- Aristotle, The Poetics of Aristotle (ebook: Translated to English by S.H. Butcher, 2008), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm.
- Bushman, B. J.; Baumeister, R. F.; Stack, A. D. (March 1999). “Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 76 (3): 367–376; Gannon, Theresa A. (2007). Gannon, Theresa A.; Ward, Tony; Beech, Anthony R.; Fisher, Dawn (eds.). Aggressive offenders’ cognition: theory, research, and practice. Wiley series in forensic clinical psychology. 35.; Baron, Robert A.; Richardson, Deborah R. (2004). “Catharsis: does ‘getting it out of one’s system’ really help?”. Human Aggression; Bushman, Brad J. (2002). “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding”. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 28 (6): 724–731.
- Shu-Tsen Kuo, “Gendered Emotions: Raging Men and Weeping Women,” OSU | Fisher College of Business, January 8, 2019, http://fisher.osu.edu/blogs/leadreadtoday/blog/gendered-emotions-raging-men-and-weeping-women.
- Coincidentally, simultaneous with this change in discourse is a change in the gender makeup of the field, with the number of men being awarded PhDs in psychology falling “from nearly 70 percent in 1975 to less than 30 percent in 2008.” Cassandra Willyard, “Men: A Growing Minority?,” American Psychology Association, 2011, https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2011/01/cover-men.
- Cornelius, R.R. (1986). “Prescience in the pre-scientific study of weeping? A history of weeping in the popular press from the mid-1800’s to the present.” Presented at the 57th Annual Meeting of the Psychological Association, New York.
- Lauren M. Bylsma, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets, and Jonathan Rottenberg, “When Is Crying Cathartic? An International Study,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 27, no. 10 (December 2008): 1165–87, https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2008.27.10.1165.
- Bylsma, Vingerhoets, and Rottenberg.
- Masahito Hirai, “Objectivity in the Beginnings of Positivism: Dispute between Auguste Comte and Émile Littré,” n.d., 15.