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Aphantasia: 10,000 people make contact over visual imagery

'Heartbeat 1', Susan Aldworth 2010

‘Heartbeat 1’, Susan Aldworth 2010

Since we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper last year (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380: Read manuscript), there has been a remarkable surge of interest in the extremes of the human experience of visual imagery: both in those of us who lack the ability to visualise at will – with aphantasia – and in those with superabundant imagery – hyperphantasia. When asked to visualise a sunset, for example, people with aphantasia are unable to conjure any kind of image to mind, and will often have assumed that terms like the ‘mind’s eye’ are purely metaphorical. At the other end of the spectrum, people with hyperphantasia describe imagery so vivid that they can find it difficult to be sure whether an image was perceived or imagined. Coverage in the press, on TV, radio and the web throughout the world, including the BBC’s on-line vividness questionnaire, has led to over 10,000 contacts from interested individuals, most of them falling at one or other extreme of the vividness spectrum. We are tremendously grateful to the several thousand people who have by now completed and returned our questionnaires: these paint a much more detailed picture of these phenomena than we could provide before. Thank you so much for doing this!

The final analysis of this wealth of data will take a while, but some patterns have already emerged. A first reaction, which came as a welcome surprise, was gratitude: people with aphantasia, in particular, were glad to have a handy term to describe this subtle but distinctive feature of their experience. Many participants have told us how they found it hard to explain this to others: they often met with disbelief. The new term seems to be useful.

Some sub-groups have come to light. The scientific literature already spoke of a link between low imagery vividness and prosopagnosia – difficulty, often lifelong, in recognising faces. This link is a recurring theme in the questionnaires. We were not too surprised by a second association: a small proportion of participants have described a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (asd). Alterations in the ability to imagine have long been regarded as a key feature of asd, and visualisation is a key ingredient of imagination (though not an indispensable one, as we will see).  A third sub-group also makes good intuitive sense: many folk with aphantasia report that their autobiographical memory, for personal events like holidays and weddings, is less rich that that of their friends and relations: for most of us visualisation is a big part of recollection. But none of these associations is true for everyone: there are many shades of aphantasia.

These shades have some other expressions. Some people with aphantasia, probably the majority, dream visually: but others do not. Some can ‘imagine’ in other modalities, hearing with the mind’s ear for example, but others can’t. Does this make a nonsense of the notion of aphantasia? We think not. We know that the brain activity involved in visualisation is complex and ‘distributed’, involving a widespread network of brain areas. Given this complexity, it is not too surprising that visualisation can be disrupted in a wide variety of ways. In particular, it is understandable, in neurological terms, that dreaming and wakeful imagery can behave differently in aphantasia.

We are learning other fascinating things from our participants. While most people with aphantasia describe this as a lifelong characteristic, others have reported the loss of imagery, due to brain injury or to psychological factors: we are very keen to learn more about these. We also hope to learn much more about the large group of highly creative individuals who have contacted us: I had not anticipated so much pleasure from looking at the art of aphantasic painters or from reading the prose of aphantasic novelists. Visualisation is clearly not a prerequisite for creativity.

Much has been written and broadcast about aphantasia over the past year. Our website gives links to several of these outputs . My personal favourites include James Gallagher’s original BBC broadcast, two personal accounts written by highly creative people with aphantasia, Blake Ross’s Facebook post (A personal account by Blake Ross) and Dustin Grinnell’s article in New Scientist (Dustin Grinnell in New Scientist) and a recent radio portrait by Sarah Jane Hall (The Mind’s Eye – BBC Radio 3 ‘Between the Ears’ programme).

So far most of our knowledge of aphantasia has come from first person testimony. This is the right (and really the only) place to start the exploration of this topic, but we are keen to ‘triangulate’ our knowledge by correlating first person evidence from questionnaires with data from neuropsychological tests – of autobiographical memory or face recognition for example – and from brain imaging techniques. We have begun a pilot study with local participants who are within striking distance of Exeter. We hope to have some preliminary answers over the coming year. At present the project is relying heavily on the enthusiasm of a small group of academic colleagues and undergraduate interns who have kept the project on the road: thanks to you, also! We are applying for research funds that will enable us to extend this work. We are considering a crowd funding appeal – you may be hearing from us 🙂

We have one further plan: at our Eye’s Mind project conference in May this year, in addition to a lively group of imagery researchers, we had probably the largest ever gathering of people with aphantasia from around the world, from Finland to the States. There was enthusiasm for a meeting dedicated to aphantasia: we hope to organise this sometime next year.

This research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. We aim to write regular updates as the story develops.

Aurel Sari: Biting the Bullet: Why the UK Is Free to Revoke Its Withdrawal Notification under Article 50 TEU

aurel-sari‘There is no going back.’ These were the words of Lord Pannick, uttered before the High Court in response to the question whether the United Kingdom could rescind its notification to withdraw from the European Union once issued under Article 50 TEU (Santos and M v Secretary of State for Exiting The European Union, uncorrected transcripts, p. 17). The claimants and the Government appear to agree on this point and accept that the UK cannot reverse its notification of withdrawal.

It is easy to see why this position should be attractive to both parties. For the Government, it means that once the notification has been issued in accordance with the UK’s constitutional requirements, it would be shielded from any subsequent domestic legal challenge. For the claimants, the irreversibility of the withdrawal notification is of ‘vital importance’ (uncorrected transcripts, p. 14). It is this irreversibility which, in their submission, pre-empts the powers of Parliament if the Government were to issue the notification without first obtaining the Parliament’s authorisation to do so.

The significance of this point was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice. He declined an invitation by counsel to assume that the withdrawal notification was irreversible and insisted that it was ‘absolutely essential’ for the Court to decide whether it was irrevocable or not (uncorrected transcripts, p. 192). In response, Lord Pannick confirmed that it was his position, as a matter of law, that there is no power to revoke the notification.

Earlier, Lord Pannick illustrated his position with the following analogy (uncorrected transcripts, p. 19):

I say my case is very simple. My case is that notification is the pulling of the trigger. And once you have pulled the trigger, the consequence follows. The bullet hits the target. It hits the target on the date specified in Article 50(3). The triggering leads to the consequence, inevitably leads to the consequence, as a matter of law, that the treatise cease to apply and that has a dramatic impact in domestic law.

Unfortunately for Lord Pannick, the analogy does not withstand closer scrutiny.

The applicable rules of interpretation

Whether a withdrawal notification is reversible or not is a question that turns on the interpretation of Article 50 TEU. Since Article 50 TEU forms part of an international agreement, its interpretation is governed not by English law, but by the rules of international law. Of course, as is well known, the Court of Justice of the European Union adopts a teleological approach to the interpretation of the EU’s founding Treaties which differs from the general rule of treaty interpretation laid down in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). In particular, the Court lays greater emphasis on the aims and objectives of European integration than Article 31 VCLT might warrant (see Gardiner, Treaty Interpretation, pp. 136–137).

Leaving aside the longstanding doctrinal debates about the autonomous nature of the EU legal order, the fact remains that the founding Treaties of the EU are instruments of international law. It is therefore perfectly appropriate for a domestic court to construe Article 50 TEU by applying the rules of interpretation set out in the VCLT. In fact, this seems even more appropriate in the light of the subject matter of Article 50 TEU. It is no coincidence that the German Federal Constitutional Court interpreted Article 50 TEU against the background of the relevant provisions of the VCLT in its judgment in the Lisbon case (para 330).

What, then, are the applicable rules of interpretation? According to Article 31(1) VCLT,

A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.

Article 50(2) TEU stipulates that the Member State wishing to withdraw from the Union must notify the European Council of its intention. However, the text is silent as to whether a Member State subsequently may revoke its notification. In the absence of express terms, we have to consider whether an answer emerges from the text, context and the object and purpose of the treaty by implication.

The purpose of Article 50 TEU

According to Article 1 TEU,

By this Treaty, the HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES establish among themselves a EUROPEAN UNION, hereinafter called “the Union”, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common.

It is difficult to find a more succinct statement of the object and purpose of the TEU: the establishment of an organisation upon which the Member States confer certain competences to attain certain shared objectives. These objectives are set out in greater detail in Article 3 TEU, while the scope of the EU’s competences is defined in Articles 3–6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Article 5 TEU declares that the Union must act within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States and that competences not conferred upon the Union remain with the Member States. In Declaration 18 made appended to the Lisbon Treaty, the Member States recall these points and add that it is for them to increase or reduce the competences conferred upon the Union.

What emerges from these provisions is that the Union’s competences are based on the consent of its Member States and that the authority to increase or reduce these competences (sometimes described as Kompetenz-Kompetenz) remains firmly within their own hands. Article 50 TEU takes the principles of consent and conferral to their logical conclusion and confirms the right of a Member State to withdraw from the Union. In the words of the German Federal Constitutional Court, the ‘right to withdraw underlines the Member States’ sovereignty… If a Member State can withdraw based on a decision made on its own responsibility, the process of European integration is not irreversible.’ (Lisbon case, para 329). Against this background, we may conclude that the purpose of Article 50 TEU is to confirm in express terms the Member States’ ability to withdraw from the EU and to lay down the procedures for doing so.

The arguments against revoking the withdrawal

In his submissions before the High Court, Lord Pannick relied on three arguments to suggest that the UK would not be able to revoke its withdrawal notification once issued (uncorrected transcripts, p. 16–17):

Article 50 is deliberately designed to avoid any such consequence. There is no mention of a power to withdraw. And the very possibility of a power to withdraw a notification would frustrate, again, Article 50(3), which sets out in the clearest possible terms, what the consequences are of giving the notification under Article 50(2).

It is convenient to consider these arguments in reverse order.

  1. Frustrating the procedures

First, Lord Pannick suggests that revoking the withdrawal notification would frustrate the consequences attached to the notification by Article 50(3) TEU. According to that provision,

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

Once notified, the withdrawal is inevitable, says Lord Pannick. That is the point of his bullet analogy: once fired, the bullet has to hit its target, either upon the entry into force of the withdrawal agreement, two years after the date of withdrawal notification or at the end of any extension period agreed between the UK and the European Council. There are two flaws with this reasoning. First, the completion of the procedures described in paragraphs (2) and (3) of Article 50 TEU is conditional upon the withdrawal notification. There is no logical reason why that withdrawal notification may not be revoked before those procedures are completed. To use Lord Pannick’s analogy, nothing prevents the UK from firing a blank round. Second, the procedures listed in Article 50(3) TEU need not reach their end point. Article 50(2) TEU imposes an obligation on the Union to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the withdrawing Member State. No corresponding duty is imposed on the withdrawing Member State itself. At first sight, it might seem reasonable to assume that such a duty must be implied. However, for the purposes of the withdrawal agreement, the withdrawing State is essentially treated as a ‘third country’ (cf Article 218(1) TFEU), as evidenced by the fact that pursuant to Article 50(4) TEU, the withdrawing State shall not participate in the discussions or decisions by the European Council or Council concerning the negotiation and conclusion of the withdrawal agreement. Consequently, it would be absurd if the withdrawing Member State were thought to be bound by the principle of sincere cooperation under Article 4(3) TEU in these matters. In any event, the terms of Article 50(3) TEU make clear that at most, the withdrawing Member State is under an obligation to negotiate, but not necessarily conclude, a withdrawal agreement with the EU (in other words, the duty is for a pactum de negotiando, not a pactum de contrahendo). This is so because Article 50(3) TEU envisages that the withdrawal agreement may fail to enter into force at all, which is precisely why it provides for the two-year time period as a fall-back solution. However, that two-year time period may be extended by the mutual agreement of the withdrawing Member State and the European Council. The extension is not subject to any conditions. Consequently, the two sides may agree to an indefinite extension of the two-year period if they so wish. To use the bullet analogy again, the target may keep on moving indefinitely and the bullet may never hit home.

Notifying an intention to withdraw from the Union does not necessarily mean that the procedures triggered thereby have to be completed. Nor do these procedures inevitably have to lead to the termination of the applicability of the Treaties to the withdrawing Member States.

  1. No express power to revoke

Lord Pannick also relies on the fact that Article 50 TEU does not provide for the power to revoke the withdrawal notification in express terms. This argument is unconvincing. The competences of the EU depend on the consent of the Member States. Competences not conferred upon the EU remain with the Member States. Consequently, in so far as Article 50 TEU recognises the unilateral right of a Member State to withdraw its consent, that withdrawal can only be subject to those conditions which are expressly stipulated in Article 50 TEU. Put differently, the burden of proof is not on the withdrawing Member State to demonstrate that it has the legal capacity and authority to retract its withdrawal notification, but on the EU or its remaining Member States to show that it lacks that capacity.

At this point, it is once again necessary to recall that the Treaties are instruments of international law. As the European Court of Justice has acknowledged, the EU must respect international law in the exercise of its powers (Case C-286/90, Poulsen and Diva, para. 9). Pursuant to Article 68 VCLT, a notification to withdraw from a treaty in accordance with its provisions may be revoked ‘at any time’ before the notification takes effect. In the present case, this means that the UK would be able to revoke its withdrawal notification before the withdrawal agreement it may conclude with the Union enters into effect or before the two-year time period or the extension period agreed with the European Council runs out. The EU is not a party to the VCLT and as such it is not directly bound by Article 68 VCLT. Whether the rule forms part of customary international law, which would be binding on the EU as such, is subject to debate. However, it is worth noting that the International Law Commission, which drafted what later became Article 68 VCLT, took the view that ‘the right to revoke the notice is really implicit in the fact that it is not to become effective until a certain date’ (Draft Articles on the Law of Treaties with Commentaries, p. 264). This point applies with full force to Article 50 TEU.

State practice offers several examples of States revoking their decision to terminate their membership in an international organization, though the exact legal characterisation of some of these examples is open to discussion (see Wessel, You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But Can You Really Leave?, p. 6). Nevertheless, the practice of the International Labour Organisation in particular suggests that the possibility to retract a withdrawal notice before it takes effect is accepted. It is also useful to point out that States may withdraw their intent to be bound by an international agreement, as the United States did in relation to the Rome Statute, or withdraw their application to become members of an international organisation, as Switzerland recently did in relation to the EU. Of course, one should be careful not to read too much into these examples, even by way of analogy. However, they do underline that States enjoy a wide measure of discretion to withdraw instruments and notifications they make in relation to treaty actions.

  1. The design of Article 50 TEU

Finally, Lord Pannick argues that Article 50 TEU was deliberately designed to avoid the possibility that a Member State might revoke its withdrawal notice. There is no evidence to support this view. The preparatory work of the intergovernmental conference which drew up the Treaty of Lisbon is not in the public domain. However, Article 50 TEU reproduces verbatim, subject only to minor editorial changes, Article I-60 of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. The negotiating history of that provision establishes very clearly that the right to withdraw from the Union was intended to be unilateral. Amendments attempting to tie this right to substantive conditions or to the successful conclusion of a withdrawal agreement were rejected (see CONV 672/03, pp. 10–12). As a note from the Praesidium of the European Convention explained, ‘it was felt that such an agreement should not constitute a condition for withdrawal so as not to void the concept of voluntary withdrawal of its substance’ (CONV 648/03, p. 9). This desire was reflected in the very title of Article I-60, which read ‘Voluntary withdrawal from the Union’.

The significance of this negotiating history is that it fully confirms the interpretation and conclusions reached earlier. The unilateral nature of the right to withdraw means that it is for the United Kingdom to decide both when to notify the European Council of its intention to withdraw and whether or not to revoke that notification. This position may please neither the claimants nor the defendant, but this is where the law stands.

Aurel Sari is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter, specializing in public international law. His work focuses mainly on questions of operational law, including the law of armed conflict, the legal status of foreign armed forces and the application of human rights law in deployed operations. He is a Fellow of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

(Suggested citation: A. Sari, ‘Biting the Bullet: Why the UK Is Free to Revoke Its Withdrawal Notification under Article 50 TEU’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (17th Oct 2016) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))

Abstract Expressionism: how New York overtook Europe to become the epicentre of Western art

João Florêncio, University of Exeter

A new exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, opens at London’s Royal Academy this weekend. It is the first major survey of the movement since 1959. Abstract expressionism is often considered the first artistic movement to shift the centre of Western art from Europe to the US, and more precisely New York. But what is it, and how did this happen?

Associated with a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s, abstract expressionism came to be known as the quintessential American and modern art movement. Heirs to the progressive abandonment of figurative and naturalist painting styles that had been taking place in Europe since the early 20th century, the painters associated with the movement came to be known for their innovative use of new synthetic industrial paints, large scale canvases, and the development of very individual abstract styles.

Some of the most easily identifiable include Franz Kline’s quick and simple brushstrokes, at times likened to Japanese calligraphy; the drips and rapid splatters of Jackson Pollock; Robert Motherwell’s large repeated ovals and rectangles; and Mark Rothko’s large blocks of colour.


Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Despite often being seen as “childish” painting that “anyone could do”, abstract expressionism has a history that is more interesting than we might suspect at first. Because the emergence of the movement in the 1940s and its internationalisation in the 1950s wasn’t only due to the work of its artists. It was also due to both the art criticism and political environments of its time. So much so that we cannot think abstract expressionism without considering the work of critics such as Clement Greenberg and the role of art as a cultural weapon during the Cold War.

A European story

Writing at the same time as the abstract expressionists were developing their signature styles, Greenberg became the critic that most famously endorsed the movement. He claimed it represented the most “advanced” form of Western art. To justify this, Greenberg looked at the work of older European artists such as Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Picasso, arguing that European painting had been progressively moving away from representations of the three-dimensional world outside. According to him, this was also accompanied by a progressive flattening of the pictorial space.

Greenberg argued that this showed an increasing concern with investigating the potential and limitations of the elements that belonged exclusively to the medium of painting: a flat canvas with specific dimensions (length and width) upon which paint is applied. All historic examples of paintings that give the impression of three-dimensional space on canvas, all painting that tries to mimic the world outside of it, were, for Greenberg, paintings that tried to conceal their true nature.


Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957.
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

What is crucial here is that, by producing this narrative of European art, Greenberg was able to claim that, for the first time ever, the most “advanced” form of Western art was no longer being produced in Europe but instead in New York. For him, it was painters like Pollock, Motherwell, De Kooning, Rothko, Kline, and Newman that were now, thanks to the new abstract languages they were developing, carrying on the work that had begun with the European avant-gardes. European artists, he argued, had not been able to carry this to completion, due, in part, to the weight of tradition, something that America did not have to carry.

So it was in large part due to critics like Greenberg, but also collectors like Peggy Guggenheim, and curators like MoMA’s Alfred H Barr, that abstract expressionism eventually gained momentum among the art glitterati of New York in the 1950s, despite never being popular among the wider American public.


Lee Krasner. The Eye is the First Circle, 1960.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Cold War art

But there is also politics to consider. Abstraction had been allowed to thrive in part due to the earlier sponsorship of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which saw an incredible amount of government funds being used to directly employ artists and commission new public artworks in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Most of the works funded by that programme were American regionalist paintings and large social realist murals. But some of the funds were also used to support the early work of some of the artists whose career would eventually progress towards what came to be known as abstract expressionism.


Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952.
© 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016

But perhaps one of the most iconic contributors to the dissemination of the movement as the culmination of Western art history was the Cold War. In the 1950s, at the peak of the ferocious anti-Communist sentiment of the McCarthy era in the US, the agendas of institutions like MoMA in New York and critics like Greenberg converged with the political interests of the CIA. Such convergence led to a series of exhibitions that would tour Europe during the Cold War years. The most famous of those was MoMA’s The New American Painting, which came to Europe in 1958-59. This show was responsible for bringing abstract expressionism to all major European capitals, including West Berlin.

Whether or not these exhibitions were funded or facilitated by the CIA, as some have convincingly argued, they were certainly responsible for cementing the perception of America as the legitimate heir of European aesthetic and political values. Against a USSR perceived as totalitarian and oppressive, with state-sanctioned socialist realism coming across as kitsch and formulaic propaganda, abstract expressionism, with its variety of individual voices and painterly styles, would eventually become a symbol of the autonomy, liberty and creative freedom allegedly enjoyed by all in the West. These were values that, from then on, became manifest in the generalised perception of the US as the ultimate beacon of Western culture.

The Conversation

João Florêncio, Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Multiple sclerosis survivors swear by hyperbaric oxygen – but does it work?

Dr Paul Eggleton, Senior Lecturer in Immunology in University of Exeter Medical School and Visiting Professor University of Alberta writes about the use of oxygen therapy for patients with MS.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.  Conversation logo

Paul Eggleton, University of Exeter

There is no cure for multiple sclerosis (MS) yet. As a complex neurodegenerative disease of the brain, it is incredibly difficult to treat. Despite the development of new and sophisticated therapies to control the inflammation and physical symptoms of the disease, these treatments don’t work for everyone. This is because MS comes in many guises and one treatment does not fit all. Perhaps for this reason people with MS are turning to alternative means of controlling their condition.

Many of the 100,000 people with MS in the UK have taken charge of managing their treatment. With the assistance of 60 or more independent charitable MS therapy centres, people with the disease regularly enter a chamber and breathe oxygen under moderate pressure (hyperbaric oxygen). Some people have done so for more than 20 years.

The air we breathe contains 21% oxygen, but 100% oxygen is considered a drug and is prescribed in hospitals to aid people’s recovery. In the case of MS, people self-prescribe the hyperbaric oxygen, which is delivered to them by trained operators. But does breathing pure oxygen under pressure on a weekly basis do them any good?

The idea to use oxygen as a treatment for MS began over 45 years ago. In 1970, two Romanian doctors, Boschetty and Cernoch, treated patients with brain injuries with pressurised oxygen to help more oxygen enter their tissues – oxygen helps protect nerve cells from damage and maintains the integrity of the blood-brain barrier. In a study of MS patients, they found that symptoms in 15 out of 26 volunteers improved. This led to further interest in the use of hyperbaric oxygen to treat MS specifically.

Since Boschetty and Cernoch’s discovery, around 14 clinical trials have been conducted. The trials have been on relatively small numbers of people and have reported conflicting results, ranging from great improvements to none at all. This has led to a dilemma: should clinicians endorse the use of hyperbaric oxygen for MS or not?

Not officially sanctioned

The clinical regulatory bodies in the US and the UK, the FDA and NICE respectively, do not feel the clinical trial evidence is strong enough to endorse the procedure, yet thousands of people in the UK and elsewhere continue to treat themselves with hyperbaric oxygen. Between 1982 and 2011, over 20,000 people with MS in the UK used hyperbaric oxygen over 2.5m times.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the brain. It is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. Lesions in the brain develop as a result of inflammatory autoimmune cells crossing the blood-brain barrier and destroying the protective protein coat (myelin) that surrounds the axon of some nerve cells. Over time MS develops into a neurodegenerative disease, leading to problems with vision, bladder control and mobility.

The brain’s ability to repair some of this damage helps people with MS to feel better for a while before relapsing once more. Eventually the disease becomes chronic and the ability to repair the damage and undergo remission declines. Most conventional treatments focus on the early phases of the disease. Unfortunately, there are few treatments for the later stages of MS.


Perhaps the inability of prescribed drugs that work for all people with MS, or indeed work for some but produce unpleasant side-effects, has driven people to seek other treatments. Despite the scepticism of some doctors, many people with MS claim that hyperbaric oxygen therapy has benefits. The benefits include improvements in mobility, bladder control, pain relief and gait. However, since the treatment is transient, regular exposure to pressurised oxygen is required to sustain any benefit.

The increase in oxygen to the brain may lead to a number of effects such as speeding repair to damaged tissue, or inhibiting the ability of immune cells to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause damage. These possibilities are being investigated.

Poorly designed trials

So why are many clinicians sceptical of hyperbaric oxygen? The main reason is various MS disability-status scores are used to judge improvement. In the former clinical trials, hyperbaric oxygen was not used over a sustained periods of time (only a few weeks) and often people with irreversible damage were used, so no or very little improvement in scores was seen.

So are poorly controlled clinical trials to blame for the conflict of opinion? Probably, yes. Until we understand more at the molecular level about how oxygen under pressure can make sustained changes to various biological processes in the brain, people with MS will continue to use the treatment and the majority of the medical community will remain unconvinced of its merits.

The Conversation

Paul Eggleton, Senior lecturer in Immunology, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Melania Trump, the Daily Mail and a history of libel tourism

Dr Timon Hughes-Davies, a lecturer in the Law School looks at the recent complaint between Melania Trump and The Daily Mail. 

This article first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo

Timon Hughes-Davies, University of Exeter

Readers of the Daily Mail were recently treated to a fairly rare event: the paper published a retraction of a news story it had run about Melania Trump, the wife of the Republican presidential candidate and prospective first lady of the United States. The retraction related to a story published both in the newspaper and the Mail’s website, which repeated allegations from an unofficial biography of the third Mrs Trump.

These allegations – which are recited in the complaint and have been widely repeated on the internet – relate to her immigration status, the circumstances in which she met her husband and her employment when she first came to the United States. Given her husband’s position on illegal immigration, the first of these might have proven to be the most politically sensitive allegation.

The retraction followed the filing of a complaint, in a Maryland court, against the Daily Mail and another defendant – a blogger who made similar allegations. It appears that the complaint is only in respect of the article’s publication on the Daily Mail’s website, rather than in the print version. However, the retraction appeared online and in the paper.

Libel tourism

Such a claim, by a US citizen against a British publication, raises issues of jurisdiction and it is interesting that the complaint was filed in the US, rather than in the more claimant-friendly jurisdiction of England and Wales. While the Daily Mail is a British newspaper, its website has a significant international readership: the court papers refer to United States web traffic of 2m visitors per day.

But the Daily Mail’s article was most prominently published in England and Wales and it might have been reasonable for Trump to issue proceedings in the High Court. However, recent changes to both English and US law have significantly restricted the ability of claimants to start legal claims outside their own country of residence.

Retraction as it appeared in the Daily Mail, Friday September 2.
Daily Mail

Until fairly recently, English courts were relatively relaxed about “forum shopping” or “libel tourism” in defamation. In cases where the publication took place outside the claimant’s own jurisdiction, English courts were easy to persuade that they should hear the claim. When Liberace was defamed by the Daily Mirror in 1956, he chose to sue in England and Wales – he was entitled to protect his considerable reputation in England. If the Daily Mirror had been available in the United States, then he might have chosen to sue in that country. To a large extent, the decision was up to the claimant.

However, there has never been an unrestricted right for non-residents of England and Wales to bring claims in English courts. In 1937, M. Kroch, a resident of France, who had been defamed in a Belgian newspaper, was refused permission to bring a claim by the Court of Appeal. The report does not explain why M. Kroch wished to sue in England, but it does record that he failed to establish any sort of reputation or connection within the jurisdiction, apart from staying in rented rooms while bringing his claim.

However, as long as the claimant had a reputation within the UK, and the libel had been published – in defamation terms, that the words had been read by a person other than the author or subject of the statement – the courts would grant permission for the case to proceed.

It is fair to say that the bar was very low, both in terms of the claimant’s public profile within England and Wales and the extent to which the statement was published. In the 2005 case of Khalid Salim Bin Mahfouz and others vs Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, the Saudi businessman sued Ehrenfeld, an American author, for alleging that he had helped to fund terrorism. While the claimant had some connection with England and Wales, Ehrenfeld had none – and the book in question was not published in the UK. However, the first chapter was available online and 23 copies had been sold, via the internet, to buyers in England. This was a sufficient connection with England and Wales for the High Court to allow the claim to proceed. The court found for the plaintiff.

Protecting free speech

The Ehrenfeld case, and other high-profile claims, provoked a strong reaction in the United States – the state of New York enacted the Libel Terrorism Protection Act in 2008 and, in 2010, Congress followed suit with the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Cultural Heritage (SPEECH) Act.

Both these acts prevent American courts from enforcing English (and other jurisdictions’) libel judgments, unless the foreign court provides at least the same level of protection to free speech as American courts. It should be noted that, by treaty or as a matter of international comity, courts will generally enforce international judgments.

On the British side of the pond, the Defamation Act 2013 also tackled the issue of libel tourism – now, where the publisher is not a resident of the UK or other Lugano Convention countries, the court has to be satisfied that England and Wales is “clearly the most appropriate place in which to bring an action”. However, this would not necessarily prevent a non-resident, such as Mrs Trump, from bringing a claim in respect of a publication within England and Wales.

Given the context of the current presidential election campaign and the importance of Melania Trump’s reputation as reflecting on her husband, it is how this will play out with American voters that is important – so it is the coverage in America and the chance to answer those allegations to the American public that matters most. Given this, it would have been difficult to argue that England was the most appropriate place to take action.

The Conversation

Timon Hughes-Davies, Lecturer in Law, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Teen obesity caused by going into ‘power-saving mode’

As new research on the subject of teen obesity hits the headlinesProfessor Terry Wilkin – Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism in University of Exeter Medical School – looks at the evolutionary trait of ‘power-saving’ which may be trapping them.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

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Terry Wilkin, University of Exeter

It is possible that modern teenagers are trapped by a trait which evolved thousands of years ago to help them through puberty, but which now leaves them vulnerable to obesity.

Adolescents need an extra 20-30% energy every day to fuel the growth and changes in body composition that characterise the six years or so of pubertal development. Energy comes from calories in the food they eat, but how could hunter-gatherers guarantee the extra calories they needed as adolescents when their food supply was limited?

We believe they may have unearthed a strategy that worked well for our ancestors, but which does quite the opposite now.

In our research, we have been monitoring a group of children as they progress through childhood from five to 16 years of age (the EarlyBird study). We found, as expected, that more energy was burnt as children got bigger. However, after the age of ten, the calories they burnt unexpectedly fell, despite the fact that they were growing faster than ever. The amount of calories burnt by age 15 was around 25% lower in both boys and girls. Only at 16 years of age, when the growth spurt was over, did the energy spend begin to increase again.

The study has three important qualities: it is longitudinal (which means that it measures the same group of children throughout), its age spread is very narrow (which means that age-related changes can be more accurately identified), and few people dropped out of the study (important statistically).

In a publication last year, we described two distinct waves of weight gain; one occurring sometime between birth and five years of age, and the other in adolescence. The early wave affected only some children – the offspring of obese parents – while the later wave in adolescence involved children generally.

Poor parental eating habits passed on to their children seemed a likely explanation for early obesity, but we had no good explanation for the later wave of obesity, until now.

Mystery solved?

Energy balance can be thought of as a bank account. Calories are deposited, and calories are spent. Body size (the balance in the account) depends on the difference between the two. So, although the explanation we offer is entirely speculative, and we will never really know because we don’t have the data on our ancestors, the researchers proposed that a downward shift of energy expenditure into “power-saving mode” might help to conserve the calories needed for the growth spurt in puberty.

The energy burnt over 24 hours has two components: voluntary and involuntary. The voluntary component is physical activity, which is easy to understand. What people understand less readily is that the involuntary component is by far the bigger one. Involuntary energy expenditure (so-called resting energy expenditure) is used just to keep alive; to keep the blood temperature at 36.8°C, fuel the brain to think and enable the organs to function.

Involuntary energy expenditure accounts for around 75% of the total calories burnt in a day, which explains why physical activity has a limited impact on obesity. A fall of 25% in resting energy expenditure makes a big hole in the calories burnt each day.

Why does all this matter, and why does it occur? It matters because it makes obesity more difficult to avoid if teenagers are trapped by a long period of low-calorie burn. We don’t know for sure why it occurs, but could speculate that it may be a throw-back to earlier evolutionary times, when calories were scarce but adolescents still needed 25-30% more calories a day to fuel growth and bodily changes.


Not as easy as buying a burger.
Nicolas Primola/Shutterstock.com

How did hunter-gatherers assure the supply of extra calories needed to reach maturity? It is possible that their bodies adapted by switching down its calorie expenditure, so as to divert the calories to the energy needed to grow. Obesity is a recent problem, and the adaptation now works adversely in a world where calories are cheap and readily available in a highly palatable mix of sugary drinks and calorie-dense foods.

The worst outcome is that adolescents and their families take these findings to mean that they can do nothing about teenage obesity. The best is that a new explanation for teenage obesity leads to better understanding, and an avoidance of the foods that are the cause.The Conversation

Terry Wilkin, Professor, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the Battle of the Bastards squares with medieval history

As Professor of History in the College of Humanities, Professor James Clark‘s research interests include themes in religion, intellectual and cultural life which reach across the traditional boundaries of medieval and early modern history.

In this blog, Professor Clark looks at how the medieval  period is portrayed in film and television.  From Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings, we look at how medieval culture id represented, and misrepresented.

This post first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo     

James Clark, University of Exeter

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season six, episode nine.

A 12-foot giant, his unhuman features oddly familiar (almost homely, after two screen decades colonised by combat-ready orcs) wheels around a wintry courtyard, wondering at the thicket of arrow shafts now wound around his torso. He stops, sways somewhat, and falls, dead. So Wun Wun the Wilding met his doom in The Battle of the Bastards, the penultimate episode of this season of Game of Thrones.

One casualty which, with countless others in the scenes before and after, might have a claim to a place in history, apparently. “The most fully realised medieval battle we’ve ever seen on the small screen (if not the big one too)”, is the breathless verdict from The Independent.

As a full-time historian of the other Middle Ages – Europe’s, every bit as feuding and physical as the Seven Kingdoms but with better weather – I am struck by the irony that Martin’s mock-medieval world might now be seen to set the bar for authenticity. There’s no doubt that for much of screen’s first century, medieval was the Cinderella era: overlooked, patronised and pressed into service for clumsy stage-adaptations, musical comedy and children. But over the past two decades – almost from the moment that Marsellus fired the line in Pulp Fiction (1994) – we have been “getting medieval” more and more.

Medieval millennium

Any connection between Braveheart (1995) and recorded history may have been purely coincidental, but its representation of the scale and scramble of combat at the turn of the 13th century set a new standard, pushing even Kenneth Branagh’s earnest Henry V (1989) closer to the Panavison pantomime of Laurence Olivier’s film (1944). Branagh had at least toned down the hues of his happy breed from the bold – indeed, freshly laundered – primary colours of Sir Laurence’s light brigade, but his men-at-arms still jabbed at each other with the circumspection of the stage-fighters while noble knights strutted and preened.

Of course, at times it threatened to be a false dawn: First Knight (1995) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) are undeniable obstacles in making the case for a new realism. But new epics have extended the territory taken in Mel Gibson’s first rebel assault.

Now already a decade old, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) achieved a level of accuracy without reducing the cinematic to the documentary. For the first time, the scene and size of the opposing forces were not compromised by either budget or technological limitations. The audience is led to gates of the Holy City as it would have appeared to the Crusaders. The armies’ subsequent encounter with one another is captured with the same vivid colour and fear that the contemporary chroniclers conjure them, catching especially the crazy spectacle of Christian liturgical performance – crucifixes, chanting priests – on the Middle Eastern plain. And descriptive details were not lost, particularly in the contentious arena of Crusader kit, now a hobbyists’ domain into which only the brave production designer – and braver historian – strays.

Meanwhile, Peter Jackson painted energetically with his medieval palate in the Lords of the Rings trilogy, not, of course, pointing us to a place or time but certainly providing a superior visual vocabulary for the experience of combat in a pre-industrial age.

Back to basics

So, has Game of Thrones bettered this?

There are certainly some satisfyingly authentic twists and turns woven around The Battle of the Bastards. The most significant casualties occur away from the melee of the pitched battle in one of a number of routs (medieval battles always ended with a ragged rout, not a decisive bloodbath). And the principal actors in the drama do not readily present themselves for a tidy dispatch. The mounted forces of Westeros are rarely decisive and even fighters of the highest status do not see out the day in the saddle.

Also accurate are the individual acts of near-bestial violence which occur, are witnessed and go on to define the significance of battle. The deliberate breaking of Ramsey’s face by Jon Snow is a point-of-entry into a central but still under-researched dimension of medieval conflict: ritual violence, such as the systematic, obscene dismemberment of the dead and dying English by their Welsh enemies during the Glyn Dwr wars.


Before the fall.
©2016 Home Box Office, Inc.

Yet I suspect that these are not the snapshots that have won the superlatives. No doubt it is the standout features of the battle scenes: their scale, the weaponry and the “reality” of wounding in real time that have held most attention. And these threaten to turn us again in the direction of that Ur-Middle Ages which we had every reason to hope we had left for good.

Because medieval armies were always smaller than was claimed, far smaller than we see here. Weaponry was not fixed in time, but – more like the Western Front in 1917 than you might imagine – a fluid domain of fast-developing technology. It is time that directors gave space to firearms, which were the firsthand experience of any fighting man from the final quarter of the 15th century. They must also shed their conviction that “medieval” means hand-to-hand combat. It was sustained arrow-fire that felled armies, not swordplay, nor fisticuffs.

Life on the medieval battle path also meant poor health, rapid ageing and no personal grooming. So we are also overdue sight of a medieval fighting force as it might actually have arrived on the field: neither sporting sexy hairstyles, nor match-fit for action. They of course arrived after months of marching, if they arrived at all: dysentery passed through campaigning forces with fatal routine. They faced their foe in a youth that would have felt more like middle age to you and me.

And in the middle of this Ur-medieval battlefield there is a 12-foot giant, just to confirm that this not medieval Europe, by any means.

The Conversation

James Clark, Professor of Medieval History, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why mortgage rates will rise with Brexit

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As we near the EU referendum, Professor Alan Gregory – Professor of Corporate Finance at the University of Exeter Business School explains why a vote to leave the European Union may result in our mortgage rates rising.

This post first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo

Alan Gregory, University of Exeter

How Brexit would affect house prices and homeowners is one of the big questions in the build up to the UK’s EU referendum vote. George Osborne has said that mortgage rates will rise if there’s an Out vote. Meanwhile, the Bank of England’s governor, Mark Carney, is currently reviewing the possibility of an emergency interest rate cut in the event of a Brexit vote. The two outcomes would seem to be contradictory, but this is a feasible outcome if Britain votes to leave the EU.

As with most issues affecting the economy, there are several factors at play. First off, there is an important difference between long and short run rates. One of the Bank of England’s main concerns is controlling inflation – something it does by manipulating interest rates. But interest rates do not exist in a vacuum. Exchange rates, inflation and interest rates are all related to one another. There is also the UK’s balance of payments problem, which could be of vital importance.

The UK’s current account deficit was at an all-time record £96.2 billion last year, equivalent to 5.8 per cent of the country’s total economic output for the year. That is one big chunk of the economy. Strangely, this in itself isn’t a problem as, provided capital can move freely, inward investment in the UK can plug the gap. That inward investment could be foreign firms investing directly in UK businesses or foreign investors buying UK government debt (known as gilts) if they are long term.

Unfortunately, this inward investment can very easily go into reverse. Most obviously, foreign investors can stop investing in new factories, and can move their production lines abroad. For example, the new Chinese owners of Sunseeker, a top-end powerboat manufacturer, have warned of precisely that danger. Similarly, foreign investors may choose not to buy UK government debt.

Substantial shock

All this matters greatly because, with the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s future, foreign investors are seeing investment in Britain as very risky. Investors do not like uncertainty, which abounds at the prospect of Brexit – particularly regarding what kind of trade deal the UK will manage to negotiate with the EU, and how long this will take. There is also likely to be a substantial fall in the value of the pound in the event of Brexit, making it less attractive to investors to make any UK investments in the run-up to the vote.

It is a given in finance that high risks demand high returns. Thus, in order to prevent an exodus of capital from the UK, foreign investors would need to be offered increased returns. This translates into higher borrowing costs for the UK government, and higher costs of capital for UK businesses. And if UK firms have to provide higher returns to banks and shareholders, that means investments in business assets look less appealing. The result would be less growth and fewer jobs being created.

The other immediate problem the UK would face in the event of a Brexit vote stems directly from the projected fall in the value of sterling. The consensus forecasts are that the exchange rate would fall from its current value of around £1 for €1.27 to something more like parity with the euro. The latest forecast from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research think tank is of a 20 per cent fall in the value of sterling. Prior to opinion polls suggesting that exit from the EU was a distinct possibility, the level of the pound was around £1 to €1.40. All this adds up to a sharp increase in the cost of imported goods, including oil, industrial raw materials, clothing and food.

Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Bank of England, CC BY-NC-ND

Bringing all this together, Britain will face a substantial short-term economic shock if it votes to leave the EU. There is simply no credible argument that says otherwise, though there are arguments about the scale of the effect and the long-term consequences for the economy.

To mitigate against this shock, the governor of the Bank of England would naturally want to cut interest rates in an attempt to stimulate the economy, although with rates at rock-bottom there is little room for manoeuvre. The bank will be concerned about the potential inflationary impact of the fall in the pound. It must balance economic growth (which would normally suggest lower interest rates were needed) with inflation risk (which would normally trigger an increase in rates). Then there is the concern that foreign investors will demand higher returns on UK government debt.

Meanwhile, lower short term interest rates will hurt bank profits. The only way banks can recover these profits is by lending at higher rates, while offering lower rates to savers. The sad irony is therefore that neither savers nor borrowers would gain from Brexit.

A world of higher short term borrowing costs, higher long term borrowing costs and lower savings returns looks an all too plausible outcome. At the same time, investment in jobs is choked off, economic growth declines, and inflation starts to raise its head again. All combined with a worsening balance of payments position and a sterling crisis.

We have, of course, been here before – in the bad old days of the 1970s – so we know that this really can happen in the UK. The ultimate irony is that if polling data is to be believed, it seems to be the older voters, having lived through all that, that are the ones keenest to go back to it.

The Conversation

Alan Gregory, Professor of Corporate Finance, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why give to charity? A Romantic view of helping the needy

Dr Andrew Rudd is a Lecturer in the College of Humanities’ English department; his research explores the moral imagination’s role in shaping literary cultures and communities,

This post first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo

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Andrew Rudd, University of Exeter

“Is it possible I could have steeled my purse against him?” the Romantic essayist Charles Lamb asked in 1822, writing about a man who sat each day by the road begging alms. “Give, and ask no questions.” Today, charities must answer plenty of questions before they can persuade an often wary public to untie their purse strings.

The charity sector as a whole is facing a wave of scrutiny. A glance at some recent scandals suggests that the root of this discontent lies in a perception that the direct connection between the individual giver and the recipient has broken down; that the charity is not acting as we would if we were delivering the aid ourselves. On an almost daily basis, we read complaints that charities are too large, or spend too much on back-office costs, or use aggressive fundraising techniques, or have become distracted by political campaigning.

‘Give, and ask no questions.’ enki22/flikr, CC BY-ND

The government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid rankles with many because taxpayers have no direct control over how the money is spent, or whether it should be spent at all. And the collapse of Kids Company in 2015 sparked further questions and concerns about how charities operate.

And yet the idea that charitable giving is something we weigh up in our own minds is a relatively recent invention. Traditionally, the church taught that it was good to give to charity for the benefit of one’s soul, no questions asked. It was only after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, when traditional sources of authority began to fall away, that individuals had to make up their own minds about when to give to charity and why. The Romantic movement, which reflected a new focus on emotion and individualism, has a lot to teach us about the questions we tend to ask today when giving to charity and the reasons why we give to charity at all.

Seeing and giving

William Wordsworth, contemplating the ruins of Tintern Abbey (once a centre of monastic almsgiving) wrote that the “little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love” that make up the “best portion of a good man’s life” could be found in the natural world, now that religion could no longer provide all the answers. For him, nature could inspire moral goodness just as Tintern Abbey’s monks drew inspiration from daily prayer.

In another poem, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Wordsworth wrote that seeing the objects of charity kindles benevolence in us and throughout the whole community. The visible presence of poverty reminds us of the good we have done and what we have yet to do.

But what if our minds are in no fit state to reshape society in our own image, asked John Polidori in his lurid tale The Vampyre? His bloodsucking villain Lord Ruthven (modelled on Byron) lavishes “rich charity” on the “profligate” and the “vicious” man in order “to sink him still deeper in his iniquity”, while the virtuous man who has suffered innocently is turned away “with hardly suppressed sneers”. Polidori’s nightmare philanthropist spends money on the worst possible causes, reminding us how individual caprices can skew charitable priorities.

Charles Lamb. Wikimedia Commons

Lamb’s essay, A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis, tried to banish such egotism. He argued that begging was “the oldest and honourablest form of pauperis” and taught us not to value our own dignity too highly. The “all-sweeping besom [broom] of societarian reformation” is what happens when we think we know best, tidying away the emblems of poverty that act as “the standing morals, emblems, dial-mottos, the spital sermons, the books for children, the salutary checks and pauses to the high and rushing tide of greasy citizenry”.

For Lamb, the beggar was a defiant figure – “the only free man in the universe” – and it is better to be deceived by fraudsters than not to give to charity at all.

Romantic literature teaches us that many concerns about charities today, such as how effectively money is spent, are perpetual ones which, extreme cases aside, we should learn to accept. It reveals to us how important our feelings have become when we decide how to give to charity. But as Lamb wrote, we are not always in the best position to judge what needs to be done. If we had time to do everything ourselves there would be no need for charities at all. Sometimes it is better to step back, accept that running a charity isn’t easy and let good charities get on with the work on our behalf.

It also reminds us that charitable organisations are filling in for individual acts of charity that we cannot perform ourselves. By pointing out the power and pitfalls of imagination, the Romantics help us to navigate the complexities of the charitable encounter and to know when to step back and let a responsive and realistic charity sector carry out its work.

The Conversation

Andrew Rudd, Lecturer in English, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shakespeare, skulls and tombstone curses – thoughts on the Bard’s deathday

Professor Philip Schwyzer, a specialist in early modern English literature in the College of Humanities, shares his thoughts on the fate of Shakespeare’s remains.

This blog originally appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo

Philip Schwyzer, University of Exeter

The image of a man holding a skull while ruminating upon mortality will always call Hamlet, and Shakespeare, to mind. How appropriate then, that four centuries after it was first laid beneath the earth, Shakespeare’s skull may be missing from his tomb. Then again, it may not. A radar survey of the poet’s Stratford grave in March has only deepened the mystery over what lies beneath his slab. As the world prepares to celebrate the sombre yet irresistible anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, how much do we know how about his own wishes for the fate of his remains?

The resuscitation of an improbable Victorian anecdote about 18th-century grave robbers grabbed the headlines, but all we know for certain is that the upper part of the burial has been disturbed in some way. Confirming the presence or absence of Shakespeare’s head would require the physical opening of his grave. This is unlikely to take place anytime soon, as the vicar of Holy Trinity – the church within which he is buried – has confirmed, thanks to the four lines of forbidding verse inscribed upon the ledger stone:

Good frend for Iesus sake forbeare,

To digg the dvst encloased heare,

Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones.

Shakespeare’s epitaph.
Tom Reedy/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In one of his sonnets, Shakespeare boasts that his “powerful rhyme” will outlive marble monuments and ostentatious tombs. At Holy Trinity his verse has had the power to ensure the survival of his own simple monument. Since the 19th century, numerous campaigns to open the grave have run aground on this uncompromising quatrain. Indeed, it would be difficult to find four other lines by Shakespeare that have had such power to influence events centuries after his death. Poetry, WH Auden said, makes nothing happen. In this case, poetry is ensuring that literally nothing happens to Shakespeare’s grave.

Many must have wished that Shakespeare’s final words to posterity consisted of something more than a curt demand to be left alone. Perhaps for this reason, most scholars and editors have been highly reluctant to ascribe these verses to Shakespeare himself. The magisterial biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, dismissed the quatrain as “a conventional sentiment in commonplace phrases” – and deemed it the work of a local hack, perhaps specialising in funerary inscriptions. Following this lead, Holy Trinity reassures visitors that curses on gravestones were “not at all uncommon at the time”.

But in fact, though the verse may be halting, it is anything but conventional. No researcher has been able to produce a comparable inscription from a 16th or 17th-century English grave. A few early modern epitaphs (such as John Skelton’s memorial to the Countess of Richmond in Westminster Abbey) threaten divine punishment against irreligious vandals who might deface the monument or the inscription itself. Shakespeare’s epitaph, by contrast, threatens to curse a church official, the sexton, who in the ordinary pursuit of his duties would periodically open graves to make room for further burials. In this respect, it is both highly audacious and very probably unique.

The anxiety about exhumation expressed on Shakespeare’s slab may be unusual in the context of an epitaph, but it resonates powerfully with the content of his plays. A surprising number of the tragedies and histories feature disturbing scenes involving exhumation or interference with the bodies of the dead. In Richard III, the long-dead body of Henry VI bleeds afresh when brought face-to-face with its murderer. The heroine of Romeo and Juliet, buried alive in her ancestral crypt, fantasises that she may “madly play with my forefather’s joints”, and dash out her brains “with some great kinsman’s bone”.

Confronted with the ghost of Banquo, Macbeth assumes he is looking at an exhumed corpse:

If charnel-houses and our graves must send

Those that we bury back, our monuments

Shall be the maws of kites.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. 

Most memorably, Hamlet watches a gravedigger wrench dry bones from a grave to make room for the body of Ophelia: “That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to the ground!” The indignities meted out to the bodies of the dead seem to unsettle the Prince of Denmark more than the fact of death itself.

With the possible exception of John Donne, no other writer of Shakespeare’s age fantasised so persistently or so morbidly about the prospect of exhumation. It is no accident that his work is an emblem today in the image of a man gazing into the empty sockets of a disinterred skull. The suggestion that his own skull may have suffered Yorick’s fate in the hands of some 18th-century grave robber is almost too ironically appropriate.

Given the uniqueness of Shakespeare’s grave inscription, and the anxiety about the fate of the corpse evident in his plays, there is strong reason to believe that the verses on his slab are his own work, that they spell out his final wish. Whether we are obligated to respect his wishes is a separate question. But one thing is certain: when we find ourselves marking the 400th anniversary of his death by wondering over the whereabouts of his skull, we are dreaming Shakespeare’s nightmares for him.

The Conversation

Philip Schwyzer, Professor in English, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.