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Young Dr. Freud
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Theories: Hypnotism
Jean Charcot
Jean Charcot
(The Granger Collection)
 
In the fall of 1885, impatient with what he could learn in Vienna, Freud traveled to Paris. He had won a scholarship to study with renowned physician Jean Charcot, one of the greatest neurologists of the day. At the height of his fame, Jean Charcot was called "the Napoleon of Neuroses." Charcot, Freud wrote Martha, is "a man whose common sense borders on genius."

YOUNG-BRUEHL: Charcot was this compelling, charismatic man, and Freud was always attracted to compelling, charismatic men. The turning point for Freud really was his year in Paris and the work with Charcot.

Many of Charcot's patients suffered from a bizarre array of physical and emotional problems, symptoms of a puzzling affliction doctors called "hysteria." Freud became deeply interested in the plight of patients, typically women, who suffered from hysteria. Through the study of hysteria, Charcot would introduce the young Freud to the mystery he would spend the rest of his life trying to fathom - the power of mental forces hidden away from conscious awareness.

Unable to find a physical explanation, medical doctors were frustrated, often curtly accusing their patients of faking it.
Medical texts of the era describe the symptoms of hysteria ranging from stuttering and facial tics to major motor symptoms, arching backwards in a bed, total rigidity of the body, swooning away and losing consciousness, inability to swallow, and numbness. Medical examinations failed to find an organic cause for the symptoms, which would render the patient helpless one day, then fine the next, only to return and haunt the patient. The cause of hysteria was unknown. Unable to find a physical explanation, medical doctors were frustrated, often curtly accusing their patients of "faking it."

FREUD: "An hysterical woman [is] almost as certain to be treated as a malingerer, as in earlier centuries she would have been certain to be judged and condemned as a witch or as possessed of the devilů [Charcot placed] the whole weight of his authority on the side of the geniuses and objectivity of hysterical phenomena."

Patient suffering from hysteric attack.
Patient suffering from hysteric attack.
(Sipa Press)
 
YOUNG-BRUEHL: The common wisdom was that hysteria was a disease for which there was no cure. They put them in a psychiatric ward in a hospital and that was the end of them. It was a death sentence this diagnosis. And to think in terms of being able to cure hysterics was really radical.

BERGMANN: Hysterics used to be the despair of the physician. Freud at one point said when a patient is a hysteric and the doctor finishes examining him, there is no change in the patient, but there is a marked change in the doctor.

The riddle of hysteria excited Freud's interest. If he could reveal its unknown cause, he might gain the recognition he had long hoped would be his.
The riddle of hysteria excited Freud's interest. If he could reveal its unknown cause, he might gain the recognition he had long hoped would be his. Charcot treated hysteria with hypnosis. Under his hypnotic spell, his patients would follow his suggestions, and a paralysis would disappear, a tic would subside, only to reappear later when the trance faded.

GAY: Here is this great, you know, French physician with a great reputation who uses hypnotism. Hypnotism was a kind of thing that you did at fairs and games that you played with the gullible. This was a very unrespectable thing to do.

Freud was struck by Charcot's forceful demonstration of the mind's power, over the body. He returned to Vienna bewildered, searching for a more effective treatment. Freud turned for advice to a new mentor, Joseph Breuer, a brilliant physician who had also been experimenting with hypnotism on his own patients.



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