Syphilis, Hypnotism, Buddhism, and the History of Psychology

Lately I’ve been reading Ronald Comer’s textbook on abnormal psychology. Needless to say, it’s a very big book.

The author classifies many theories and therapies according to whether they adopt a somatogenic or psychogenic approach to mental illness. In other words, do they trace the root cause of a given disorder to the body or to the mind? From what I can tell, one would be foolish to claim that either one is ultimately responsible for every disorder. As I discuss in an earlier post on mind over matter, most aspects of our lives—including our physical, mental and spiritual well-being—are a function of both in some ratio. (The ratio varies from condition to condition. Schizophrenia presumably has a greater ratio of somatogenic elements, depresssion a greater ratio of psychogenic elements.)

In recognition of this fact, a growing number in psychology subscribe to a “biopsychosocial” approach to what’s responsible for disorders; likewise, a growing number of therapists are eclectic in their approach to treatment, adopting a psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, sociocultural, or biological view—or some combination thereof—depending on the client and the disorder.

What does all this have to do with syphilis, hypnosis, and Buddhism? In the introductory chapter of the textbook I learned that in 1897, German neurologist Richard von Kraft-Ebing found that in some cases delusions of grandeur and dementia could be traced to the bacterial infection associated with syphilis. Kraft-Ebing injected matter from syphilis sores into patients suffering from general paresis, the symptoms of which include delusions of grandeur, dementia, and paralysis. When the patients didn’t develop the symptoms of syphilis, he hypothesized that their immunity was caused by an earlier case of syphilis, and that in fact syphilis was ultimately responsible for the later-stage symptoms of general paresis. For defenders of the somatogenic view this was powerful evidence that mental disorders are ultimately rooted in physical disease processes.

In the same decade that Kraft-Ebing made his findings, powerful evidence for the psychogenic view was also discovered. Vienna physician Josef Breuer found that patients suffering from hysterical disorders often “awoke free of hysterical symptoms after speaking candidly under hypnosis about past upsetting events.”

Speaking one’s mind appeared to be healing. The “talking cure” was born.

Which brings me to  an interesting twist in the history of psychoanalysis. Not long after this discovery, another Vienna physician, Sigmund Freud, joined Breuer in his work on hypnosis. In retrospect it’s no wonder Freud came to take the unconscious so seriously: it was that part of the mind to which hypnosis granted access, and the  contents buried there seemed likely to be a master key in treating patients.

The rest is history. Freud pioneered the psychogenic approach to mental illness, endeavoring to heal patients by engaging them in conversation meant to expose and resolve the causes of the illness, which were to be found in conscious and unconscious experiences, thoughts, feelings, fantasies, dreams.

Finally, Buddhists have long appreciated that awakening to our whole nature is both healing and enlightening.  For 2500 years Buddhism has been cultivating techniques aimed at exposing and resolving the causes of psychic suffering. Among other things, insight meditation and mindfulness practices are powerful tools for identifying the range of unexamined and largely unconscious maladaptive assumptions and feelings and behaviors that western-trained therapists now help clients identify in the course of treatment. (Practiced meditators encounter this content as the interior chatter one awakens to as one sits quietly, observing whatever sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, dreams, or fantasies, arise.) It’s no wonder that techniques borrowed from the ancient traditions of yoga and Buddhism are fast becoming part of the contemporary therapist’s repertoire.

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