Category Archives: Mental health

Daisy Thurkettle: “Plant, animal and mineral: aphrodisiacs in Ancient Greece”

The Ancient Greeks and Romans placed a huge amount of importance on their sexual being, and had a keen interest in the biological and psychological mechanisms behind lust and carnal desire. Daisy Thurkettle’s talk at the Williams Project on provided a fascinating insight into the various botanical and pharmaceutical methods that the ancients used to synthesise lust and cure impotence (or perhaps less eloquently, ‘get in the mood’). The talk began on the use of essential oils in swathes in royal palaces, such as Cleopatra (who allegedly bathed in milk and rose), but the audience was quickly surprised to learn that love potions and cures for impotence were not only used by the femmes-fatales and powerful goddesses of myth, but by actual Greek people.
These cures included a mass of vegetables and plants which were, perhaps obviously, considered to have genitally-themed aesthetics (leeks, carrots and terebinth tree, anyone?). However, what really gripped the audience were the variously disgusting, poisonous and cannibalistic ingredients; these included dried human marrow, powdered silver beetle, wolfsbane, skink lizard and the famed hippomane – a piece of membrane found on the head of a newborn foal, which was mixed with milk to create the potion Dido made for Aeneas. Needless to say, any combination of some of these ingredients probably caused more death than arousal.
Miss Thurkettle called on a wide range of texts – fragments by various ‘unknown’ ancient authors, texts by Apuleius (including the famous Golden Ass), Hippocrates, and even the Bible. The overarching message of the talk was that the ancients were actually scientifically wise beyond their time in the discovery of some biologically effective aphrodisiacs, but were also developed psychologically (perhaps unintentionally) in their use of the placebo effect.

Rhea Gupta

Howard and Mitchell Essay Prize Presentations and Dinner

At a packed meeting in the Library this year’s winners gave presentations on their essays.

Stuart Innes (‘Have attitudes towards mental health really changed?’) gave a clear historical summary of how societies have responded to and attempted to treat mental illness, framed within a powerful argument for a mixture of approaches. He was insistent that a reductively “scientific”, drug-based, approach was not the answer, but that counselling and therapy had central roles: humans have evolved with the ability to share with others their feelings and thoughts, and we should use this as a strength.

Rachel Maton (‘Why did 16th– and 17th-century Europe experience widespread witchcraft hysteria, and a subsequent peak in witch-hunts and trials?’) discussed in detail the many different theories which have been proposed to explain why numbers of trials increased in an age of supposed rationalism. These ranged from scapegoating and feminism to the invention of the printing press. She concluded with a balanced evaluation, arguing that it was due to a number of factors coming together; she also downplayed the contribution of the feminist argument (that the suppression of witches was allied to an expression of male power): even in England a good quarter of all those condemned were male, and in Russia and Estonia the vast majority were men.

Xiaoxuan Liu (‘Einstein’s special theory of relativity: a general explanation for its formation’) gave a humorous and in-depth explanation of Einstein’s theory, using an alternative method for deriving E=mc^2 than the one she had used in her original essay. She argued that while many people find the dramatic effects of relativity (e.g. time dilation, changes in mass) the most appealing aspects, she preferred the raw beauty of its mathematics.

All three speakers were extremely impressive – they were clear, authoritative and engaging; all were, in short, easy to listen to, despite the (each for different reasons) challenging nature of what they were talking about. They could also deal with questions with confidence and charm.

After a splendid formal dinner Tim Morrison (OC and former Howard Essay Winner, now Head of Classics at Oundle School) introduced most of us to Thales, the first Greek philosopher, and as such the first recorded person in Western Europe to question for himself accepted explanations for how the world worked. Despite being perfectly able to use his intelligence to make money (one year he predicted a bumper olive crop and bought up all the presses), he thought it more interesting and important to study the heavens and think for himself about the world – just the sort of inspirational figure needed by this year’s LVI as they embark on their own Howard & Mitchell essays.

Tim Cantopher: Depression – the Curse of the Strong

“Anyone who gets major depression shouldn’t be ashamed. It’s a badge of pride only worn by the best people.”

Dr Tim Cantopher spoke to both branches of the Williams Project about depression: about its chemical origins in the reduction of transmitter chemicals in the limbic region of the brain, and possible evolutionary explanations for how it might have once been (and might still be) a beneficial adaptation to shut things down in unsustainable environments (lower primates have a similar “hibernation response” when things get too much). He also showed us how the effects of drugs such as alcohol are precisely reversed when used to excess. He explained how anti-depressants work, and how psychotherapy has moved somewhat from psychoanalysis into areas such as cognitive therapy. But his main point was that the kind of people who might suffer from clinical depression are driven, able, successful types who ‘go the extra mile’ – sometimes a mile or two further than is sustainable.

Mr J. Maingot: How to be Happy

Chigwell’s Mr Maingot led a special WP session on How to be Happy, seating us in a circle in the Drama Centre’s main space, and introducing us in no particular order to various ideas, thoughts and activities designed to make us think about happiness. It was a contemplative hour, and one which those present will never forget. Sharing two pieces of chocolate between four, reading Larkin’s pessimistic lifeview, passing round a large piece of rusty metal found in the garden, hearing Othello’s worry at being rapturously happy – all will bring back memories, and will be of use in our futures.

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