Fatal Focus: Mysterious Flower Deaths of the 18th Century
Can attention kill?
Posted May 26, 2020
It was 1764, and a young mistress and servant slept soundly, enveloped in the sweet fragrance of a fresh-cut bouquet.
In the middle of the night, the women woke with a start. They were choking, desperate for air. Their stomachs heaved. Their lungs burned. Their stiff, tight limbs refused to move.
The servant mustered just enough strength to stagger to the flowers, toss them into the hallway, and throw open the windows.
As the breeze poured in, the two women frantically drank the air. Their circulation returned, and their limbs began to tingle. They calmed, knowing they were safe.
Others were not so lucky. One young girl was killed by the violets in her bedroom. A Polish bishop was suffocated by roses. In the summer of 1779, a woman was found dead in her London home, with no discernible cause. Only later did doctors notice the giant vase of lilies placed dangerously near her bed.
So, what had earned flowers the reputation of botanical assassins?
The most widely accepted explanation actually had more to do with the victim than with the flowers themselves. Allegedly, people were dying because they gave the blooms too much attention. Their focus was fatal.
As strange as this idea may seem, it teaches us a lot about how we understand attention today.
A Zero-Sum Game
Obviously, flowers weren’t waiting Jack-the-Ripper-like for unsuspecting victims to come along. But from an eighteenth-century perspective, physicians and philosophers had plenty of reason to be up in arms about attention.
Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, a preeminent eighteenth-century sensory theorist, argued that attention results when the mind becomes fixated on a single sensation. It’s the physical and mental state that occurs when you’re engrossed in a film or enthralled by the smell of sizzling onions.
While it’s possible to pay attention to several things at once, Condillac described attention as a zero-sum game. We only have a certain amount to give. In other words, if you pay too much attention to a podcast while chopping onions, you risk cutting your fingers.
Eighteenth-century doctors took this to indicate that when you give all your attention to one thing, you momentarily lose yourself. You become wholly subsumed by the sensation.
That “loss” wasn’t necessarily pathological in itself. (In fact, it’s probably something like “flow.”) But if you carried on in a state of total attention for an extended period, it became pathological. It was an open invitation to sickness, madness, and death.
In the eighteenth century, smell was known as a powerful sense.
The olfactory nerves stirred easily, and because they were close to the brain, scents created immediate and forceful impressions. “That is why [smell] revives us,” explained the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “but eventually, [it] causes exhaustion.”
Smells were potent, but they weren’t the only dangerous sensations. The wrong food, sights, sounds, and physical contact could also be fatal.
If a sensation was strong enough to command your attention, it was strong enough to kill you.
Flowers were just better killers than most because their pungent scents were deceptively sweet.
Fatal attention may seem like an odd concept because our society places such great value on attention. Kids are taught from an early age to pay attention in school, adults have normalized the idea of an attention “deficit,” and people devour bestselling books about being “indistractable.” Attention seems far less dangerous to us than its opposite, distraction.
But in the eighteenth century, scholars were fascinated by pathological attention. They noticed that extreme attention drew people into unhealthy, obsessive modes of living.
They also recognized that attention isn’t just a matter of the mind; it also has real, direct effects on the body. The physician Paul-Victor de Sèze argued that in a state of attention the brain swells, guts tighten, and inflammation occurs.
When a person stayed in that physical state for too long, it could lead to chronic illness or, even worse, it could shut the whole body down. Flower deaths were at the end of the spectrum, but a person could encounter many smaller attention-related illnesses along the way.
Today, we’re sold on the idea that we have to have laser-like focus, be engaged constantly, and master the incredible amounts of information vying for our attention. There are entire industries that thrive on capturing and selling attention, and there are a million hacks for heightening our attentive powers.
The notion that humans can function in a perpetual state of heightened attention wouldn’t only have seemed false to eighteenth-century physicians. It would have seemed downright dangerous.
What they recognized (and, frankly, what many of us, myself included, could do a better job of internalizing) is that true health requires a balance between mental focus and bodily movement, fixation and breadth. Attention can bring us insight, but it can also wreak havoc with our system.
What Flower Deaths Teach Us
As silly as flower-induced deaths may initially seem, the eighteenth-century perspective highlights an essential fact: attention is a complex faculty, not an unmitigated good.
Most professionals know that being “on” all the time is dangerous. Yet, implicitly, many people still buy into the idea that if we could just pay more attention, we could improve our lives.
Flower deaths remind us that when it comes to attention and distraction, there’s no uniformly “good” or “bad” option. They’re part of the same process of learning, and we need both.
To paraphrase the artist Jenny Odell, you often have to “do nothing” before you can give things the attention they’re due. To be healthy, we need a constant, dialectical dance between focus and diversion.
We should take time to stop and smell the roses, provided we're also distracted from them at times.
Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de. Oeuvres complètes de Condillac, volume 3. Traité des sensations. Paris: Gratiot, Houel, Guillaume, Pougin, and Gide, 1798.
Eyal, Nir. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Dallas: BenBella, 2019.
Ingen-Housz, Jean. Expériences sur les vegetaux. Paris: P. Fr. Didot, 1780.
Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. New York: Melville House, 2019.
Rozier, François. Cours complet d’agriculture théorique, pratique, économique, et de médecine rurale et vétérinaire, suivi d’une méthode pour étudier l’agriculture par principes; ou Dictionnaire universel d’agriculture. Volume 9. Paris: 1801.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile, trans. Barbara Foxley. London and North Clarendon, VT: Everyman, 1993.
de Sèze, Paul-Victor. Recherches phisiologiques et philosophiques sur la sensibilité ou la vie animale. Paris: Prault, 1786.
Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. New York: Vintage, 2016.