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Archive for the ‘hypnosis’ Category

André Brouillet – A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière ( 1887)
Professor Charcot in his French Academy uniform

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Hysteria, although no longer a recognized disease, is still a word that refuses to die. We use it whenever someone’s behavior exceeds the norm. In the 19th century, hysteria was often paired with an exceptional scientist. His name was Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot was born in 1825 and began his medical carrier at La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, studying pathological anatomy. He was utterly fascinated by the many strange and seemingly incurable neurological afflictions he would encounter there. At the time, the asylum/hospital of La Salpêtrière was a prison-like institution housing all the human detritus of Paris: all the social outcasts that could cause contamination, either physical or moral. Beggars, prostitutes, and the insane were picked off the street and brought to the asylum by cartloads. Up to ten thousand inmates, caregivers, and guardians populated this city within a city.

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La Salpêtrière


To Charcot, the outcasts represented a treasury of unsolved medical mysteries. He plunged into this unknown territory with the same zeal seen in globe-trotting explorers. In1862, he founded a neurological clinic—the very first of its kind worldwide—where he reigned for the next 31 years. During that time, Charcot made important discoveries and advances in his field of expertise, and his vast merits should not be overshadowed by his exploitation of hysteria.

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Hysteria

Hysteria was one of the oldest and the most mysterious nervous pathologies. The name came from the Ancient Greek word for uterus (hystera). By far, most patients struck with this condition were women. The Ancient believed that the strange behavior of the afflicted was caused by the uterus wandering inside the woman’s body and causing all sorts of problems, such as violent attacks and infirmities without apparent physical cause.

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Before Charcot stepped onto the world stage as the King of Hysteria, this illness was considered to be madness and the place for the mad was the asylum for the insane. Charcot saw the problem in a different light. He diagnosed hysteria as a neurological pathology which could be observed in both sexes. In his opinion, the basis for hysteria was some trauma faced by the patient which left a lesion on the nervous system. He noticed that hysterical attacks would happen several days after a traumatic incident. Further observations lead him to believe that attacks of hysteria occurred in a self-induced hypnotic state, and he decided that the patients should be treated under hypnosis.

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It worked to a certain degree. Under hypnosis, Charcot brought on the hysterical attack, making it visible and treatable. What’s more, he was able to reproduce it on demand in front of an audience of students. Up to this point, hypnosis had been associated with occultism and frowned upon by science. Charcot made it into a scientific and empirical method to study hysteria.

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Hypnosis consists of three stages: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. To reach the first stage, the patient has to be induced to the hypnotic state. Charcot had several tricks up his sleeve, from the usual swinging pocket watch, to a blinding light, or the loud vibrations of a giant tuning fork. For more resistant patients, he applied metals, magnets, or static electricity.

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Inducing hypnosis with light

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Induction by sound (left) State of lethargy (right)


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If the induction is successful, lethargy sets in. In this state, the patient collapses and has to be supported by assistants to prevent a fall. Lethargy is characterized by complete relaxation, inattention, and amnesia. Charcot would use this stage to test the muscle contractions. Most hysterical attacks were accompanied by strong contractions he would call neuromuscular hyperexcitability. While the patient was unconscious and totally relaxed, Charcot could ascertain whether the case was a legitimate neurological disease or not.

Catalepsy

The next stage is named catalepsy. During this stage the patient is under the hypnotist’s control, obeying his commands, and can communicate to a degree. Free of conscious thought, the person cannot dissimulate and answers with all sincerity. Her limbs can be manipulated by the hypnotist’s commands and the patient is able to stiffen and remain in uncomfortable positions without a sign of fatigue. Many hysterics claimed numbness in certain parts of the body. In their conscious state, they could be poked with sharp objects without feeling pain. Under hypnosis, the numbness was gone and Charcot could demonstrate that there was no physical damage to the body.
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The third stage, somnambulism, opened more communication between patient and doctor. Charcot believed that it represented the self-induced state of hysteria during which the attacks occurred. The patient was more conscious at this point and able to accept healing suggestions.
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All this turned Charcot’s lectures into exciting stage productions with light and sound effects, with half-clad women fainting or screaming, trashing about or slavishly obeying orders, and stiffening in unnatural positions in front of a fascinated masculine audience. As Charcot’s fame grew in medical circles, his neurological clinic saw students from far abroad. By that time he had his stars. Blanche, Louise, Augustine, and others were young, pretty, and skilfully playing the part.

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Charcot and his patient: The show could not go on

Toward the end of his life, Charcot admitted that hypnosis was not really used to treat the symptoms of hysteria. He could alleviate them, but in most cases it was only temporary relief. He used hypnosis to exhibit hysterical symptoms: it was a teaching tool, not a cure. After Charcot’s death, in 1893, hypnosis would continue, but in different forms. It was abandoned as a medical procedure, mainly because very few people had the ability to induce hypnosis the way Charcot could. Sigmund Freud, Charcot’s pupil, and great admirer failed at the task and developed psychoanalysis instead. Hypnosis returned to the occult and the stage entertainment.

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Modern medicine buried hysteria in the 1980s when it was eradicated from the official medical diagnoses list. It’s been replaced by the vague label od dissociative disorders.

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Next: The Madwomen’s Ball at La Salpêtrière. (When the Parisian high-society went to the madhouse for entertainment.)

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Related posts:

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case (Hypnosis and crime)

Louise and Jeanne: The Two Antipodes of Moulin Rouge (Child abuse and mental illness)

Poor and Helpless in 19th Century Paris

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