The Cathartic Technology of Greek Tragedy

What if literature contains a secret technology for maximizing our mental health and happiness? Such was the brave hypothesis sketched with sticky pine ink upon a Nile grass scroll in 335 BCE. The sketcher was Aristotle, whose chase to explain daydreams and why-do-I-thrill-at-the-rainbow had inspired him, a decade or so prior, to venture into amateur psychology. And the scroll was the Poetics, the world’s earliest surviving stab at literary criticism.

During the two millennia since, Aristotle’s take on literature as a kind of medicine has slipped into becoming a quirk of history, replaced by the medieval-then-modern view of literature as words to be interpreted. But recently, Aristotle’s professional heirs in psychology have begun deploying fMRI brain scanners and other space-age instruments to recover the literary cogs and flywheels he detected. Their research confirms his conjecture that archaic poets tinkered together a narrative gadget to create what neuroscientists refer to as a “self-transcendent” experience. Which is why classic poems from Homer’s Iliad to the Hebrew Psalms can stimulate a selfless joy in our brain’s parietal lobe, measurably increasing our life-purpose and generosity.

For Aristotle, the most powerful poetic effect is “catharsis,” a term he borrowed from Egyptian and Greek medicine, where it was used by emetic-dispensing physicians to denote the purging of something unhealthy. When Aristotle watched the tragedies performed every harvest spring at the rocky amphitheater on the southern slope of Athens’s Acropolis, he saw that they could purge something that no doctorly leech or castor-oil laxative could treat: the fear built up in human hearts by trauma.

Post-traumatic fear, as it’s termed by modern psychiatrists, is meant to be a form of emotional self-protection, a way of maintaining our distance from the world so we don’t get harmed again. But its frequent effect is to increase our suffering. It can disrupt our lives with pervasive feelings of helplessness, isolation and hypervigilance. And it’s often associated with generalized anxiety, anger and depression.

Traumatic fear will be experienced by about 90% of us over our lifetimes, and its post-traumatic residue will linger in roughly 10% of cases. There’s no universally effective treatment, but over the past two decades, psychiatric studies involving thousands of patients have yielded a pair of unexpected findings. The first is that it can be therapeutic to revisit our memories of the trauma. If we imaginatively play back our experience within a safe and supportive environment, then the “flashbulb” intensity of our remembrance often gradually decreases.

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