Feeling numb isn’t unnatural: it is a coping mechanism

by Daniel Adamson


Researchers of emotionally-demanding topics will be familiar with the common responses when they introduce their work to strangers: a gasp, a clutched chest, a sympathetic smile. But why is it that – over time – we researchers can become immune to reacting in the same way, each time we encounter our (undeniably) testing topics? Recently, wandering through the new Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, I observed countless visitors becoming visibly upset by the histories they encountered. I found the content of the museum interesting; gripping, even. Yet I was also forced to question why I no longer reacted in the same emotional way as my fellow visitors.

Familiarity seemed the most obvious explanation. In the case of most similarly-afflicted researchers, this should not be confused with fatigue. The enduring importance of learning about the Holocaust (or other challenging histories) has never been stronger in my mind. ‘Holocaust fatigue’ theory suggests that the genocide has lost its power to shock and stun. As the proverb states, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. I am far away from this Holocaust saturation point identified by some commentators. But in several years of exposure to graphic explorations of the Holocaust, the strength of my immediate emotional reflex perhaps has become blunted: a pre-emptive wince before a metaphorical punch.

However, I also wondered if more subliminal factors were at play. Could it be that my subconscious has implemented a certain emotional ‘numbness’ as a coping mechanism? As the work of the Emotionally Demanding Histories Group (EDHG) has shown, there is so only so much traumatising material that any researcher can be expected to bear. Emotional detachment is one way in which a more sustainable relationship with upsetting topics can operate.

A permanent erosion of emotional reaction to grave historical topics is probably a dangerous thing. In the short term, however, affected researchers might identify its positive aspects. The possibility of historians operating in an ‘objective’ manner has long been debated. But a certain detachment from upsetting topics might afford a little more historical perspective: the ability to consider multiple angles of a human tragedy, or the chance to place such episodes in a broader framework.

So, what is the best way to rediscover diminished emotional connection? The answer is empathy. And by that, I do not mean contrivedly placing oneself ‘in a victim’s shoes’, or claiming to relate to far-removed human suffering. In my own line of research, ‘simulation exercises’ in school classrooms are a particular bone of contention. Certain educators have set out to try to help build students’ empathy for the victims of the Holocaust by deploying role play activities relating to the genocide. Rather, researchers must try to recapture whatever it is about their subjects that causes strangers to react in such an emotional way. Indeed, what was it that first upset you about your topic, but still motivated you to research in further detail? My own research centres on genocide education. I am forced to try and understand how schoolchildren might react to difficult histories of the Holocaust. For example, I must think about how – and why – the classroom use of images of corpses piled high at concentration camps is problematic. And it is through shifting my perspective from researcher to layperson that I start to appreciate the traumatic nature of my topic once again. Fundamentally, the Holocaust was a human tragedy. Reminding ourselves that these events happened to real people is one way in which we can burst the bubble of abstract academic research.

There is no such thing as normal. EDHG shines an important light on the psychological difficulties faced by many researchers. Yet we must also acknowledge that a numbing of emotion is a phenomenon faced by some. To those affected, I would stress that such a reaction is far from unnatural. Paradoxically, it might well be your brain’s own way of processing the strains of challenging research. Equally, there is no template for emotional reaction. Different researchers, at different stages, will respond in different ways. But the key is not to lose sight of the human stories that lie at the heart of historical research: these will lead you back to the emotional core of your work.

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the History Department of Durham University. His research focuses on educational portrayals of the British response to the Holocaust. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielEAdamson.

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