Much madness is divinest sense

I’ve just found this fantastic poem by 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, where she discusses the link between conformity and madness.

Madness is defined partly in terms of what we consider normal and one of the great critiques of psychiatry is that it is used a method of control over those who do not conform to acting with the acceptable range of behaviour.

To what extent this is necessary or ethical for people who may not have good insight into their extreme states of mind has been one of the key debates in mental health for hundreds of years.

Dickinson describes the 19th method of control (“handled with a chain”) although I can’t say I ever seen an angry person declared sane, as we still have this implicit idea that being able to control your emotions when necessary or in your interest is a sign of sanity.

Dickinson’s poem:

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Dickinson is probably best known among cognitive scientists for her poem on the brain (‘Wider than the sky’), which is perhaps one of the most beautiful literary pieces on our second favourite organ, and widely quoted by researchers.

Link to Bartleby entry for ‘Much madness is divinest sense’.

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