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Dr Tiffany Watt Smith, BA, MPhil (Cambridge), PhD (London)

Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance



Tiffany Watt Smith

I grew up in South London and studied Philosophy and English at the University of Cambridge. I spent much of my twenties working as a theatre director, including at the Arcola Theatre, the Young Vic and the Royal Court, before deciding that my heart really lay in academic research and writing.

My PhD was funded by the AHRC, and explored the cultural history of flinching and wincing in the late nineteenth century. My monograph based on this research was published by OUP in 2015 as On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking  from Darwin to Shell Shock. You can read about it here.

Between 2011-2015, I held a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, and am currently a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, working on a five- year Wellcome Trust project called Living With Feeling. For this project, I am investigating the history of ideas about compulsive imitation, from the Victorian science of Phrenology to current debates on mirror neurons.

I particularly enjoy engaging with non-academic audiences. In 2015, I finished writing The Book of Human Emotions which explores the cultural histories and politics of 154 different emotions (you can read some extracts of it here). I regularly talk at literary festivals, my writing has appeared in publications such as BBC Magazine, The Guardian and The New Scientist, and I often appear on BBC Radio. In 2014, I was named a BBC New Generation Thinker, and from time to time, still collaborate with theatre artists.


Since 2012, I have taught ‘Cultures of Sleep’ for the School of English and Drama.

Undergraduate teaching:

In the 2015-16 academic year, I teach on:


Research interests:

  • The cultural history of emotions, particularly of the late nineteenth century
  • Involuntary mimicry, from phrenology to mirror neurons
  • The links between theatre and science, with a particular interest in late nineteenth and early twentieth century experimental neurology and psychology
  • Sleep and its maladies, from antiquity to the present day

Recent and On-Going Research:

My research focusses on the cultural history of emotions, with a particular focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I am the author of two books. My monograph On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell-Shock (Oxford University Press, 2014), explores the history of flinching and wincing in psychological and neurological experiments at the end of the nineteenth century. One of its main themes is the way experimenters themselves became excessively emotional, deploying actorly techniques to create scientific knowledge about how bodies experience and express emotions.  You can read a couple of scholarly reviews of it here and here.

My second book is called The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust (UK: Profile Books/Wellcome Collection; US: Little, Brown; also being published in Germany, Turkey, China and Japan). Aimed at a general audience, it is a collection essays exploring the cultural histories and politics of 154 different emotions. You can read an extract published in The Guardian here

My current research explores ideas about emotional contagion, atmospheres and moods, and how these relate to ideals of resilience. I am a research fellow on Living With Feeling, a £1.6 million, 5-year multi-disciplinary project funded by the Wellcome Trust exploring the concept of emotional health. You can read more about the project here. For my part in the project, I’m focussing on the history of involuntary mimicry, paying attention to the way scientists have engaged with theatrical spaces, practices and people from stage mesmerists to Hollywood film stars in their experiments. You can read a bit about this research here.

I have a long-standing interest in the cultural history of sleep, which I intend to be the focus of my next research project.

I serve as a member of the steering committee of the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions, where I have organized a number of conferences and events, and I am also on the editorial board of the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Research Awards

  • 2011 British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship
  • 2007 AHRC Doctoral Scheme Award
  • 2007 Cambridge University European Trust Scholarship
  • 2006 AHRC Research Preparation Master’s Scheme Award
  • 2004 Jerwood Award for Directors at the Young Vic
  • 2003 Arts Council England Grant
  • 2002 Peggy Ramsay Foundation Award
  • 1999 Rajiv Ghandi Foundation Scholarship



On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell-Shock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)

The Book of Human Emotions (London: Profile Books in association with the Wellcome Collection, 2015; New York: Little, Brown, 2016)

Chapters in Books

‘Of Hats and Scientific Laughter’ in Staging Science ed. Martin Willis (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) in press.

‘The Sciences of Mind’ in Late Victorian into Modern, 1880-1920, ed. Laura Marcus, Michèle Mendelssohn and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr,Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, ed. Paul Strohm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) in press.


‘Eating Imaginary Raisins: theatre’s role in the making of mirror neurons’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 12 (2015)

'Cardboard, Conjuring and 'A Very Curious Experiment', in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 38.4 (2011)

'Henry Head and the Theatre of Reverie’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, Special Issue 'Psychology/Aesthetics' ed. Carolyn Burdett, 12, (2011)

'Darwin's Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872', Journal of Victorian Culture, 15 (2010) [Winner, Journal of Victorian Culture Graduate Essay Prize Competition, 2009]

Journalism and Blogs

You can read some examples of my journalism here.

See also my Queen Mary Research Publications profile


Between 2000 and 2006, I worked as a freelance theatre director, including at the Arcola Theatre, RSC, Young Vicand the Royal Court, as well as in the West End and off-Broadway. Between 2002-4, I was Associate Director at the Arcola Theatre, and from 2004-6, was International Associate at the Royal Court. In 2004 I was awarded the Jerwood Award for Directors at the Young Vic.

I still work on theatre projects from time to time, when they intersect with my research interests. Recent projects include:  

  • Co-creator, Many Hands Make Light Work (co-created with Mervyn Millar), participatory light installation, most recently performed as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad outdoor festival
  • Writer/Dramaturg, Room 47 (co-devised with Maria Aberg), National Theatre Studio

PhD Supervision

I would welcome enquiries from prospective doctoral students interested in any aspect of my research.

Public engagement

In 2014, I was named a BBC-AHRC New Generation Thinker, and in 2015 I wrote and presented a Sunday Feature documentary for BBC Radio 3 called ‘The Science of Baby Laughter’. I often speak at literary festivals and other public events, and recently curated an evening of participatory events on the theme of emotions at the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room.

You can read about some of my media and public appearances here.

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