“We cannot help laughing”: reflex, discomfort, and the comic in late-Victorian mental science

Series Convenors: Dr Alex Aylward, Professor Erica Charters, Professor Mark Harrison, Dr Catherine M Jackson, Dr Sloan Mahone (update accordingly)


philosophy of laughter and smiling

The philosophy of laughter and smiling. Leeds University Archive. Public Domain Mark


Seminars in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

Cora Salkovskis (Birkbeck University of London)

“We cannot help laughing”: reflex, discomfort, and the comic in late-Victorian mental science

Laughter sits uneasily within the history of mental health and the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British asylum; a space more commonly associated with pain and distress than humour and the comic. Finding, thinking about, and writing about laughter in this space and context raises important questions of methodology, meaning, ethics, and practice. How can laughter be found in asylum records or translated into text? Does laughter always neatly map onto emotion or humour, and when the doctor (or the historian) does find something funny, what does it mean to laugh?

Using the extraordinary (and newly discovered) transcribed interviews of patients in Richmond Asylum (Dublin) and contemporary medical and lay texts, this paper explores the curiosity and ambivalence with which the laughter of both doctors and patients was viewed and experienced in the physical and conceptual spaces of mental science. Laughter is explored as an expressive, disruptive, and creative phenomenon; a complex constellation of movements often ambiguously situated between reflex or automatic action, emotion, and social practice. This paper unpicks what role the familiarity and recognisability of embodied expression in how we relate to other human beings, asking why laughter is more uncomfortable or unexpected in some places than others.