Tonight, the Perpetual Notion Machine looks into a new book that asks the question: “What is mental illness?” The book is called How the Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness. PNM host Dennis Shaffer talks with the authors Dr. Allan Ropper and Brian David Burrell. Allan is a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, and besides being an author of several books, Brian is a faculty lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Historically, the medical profession believed that anything “mental” must have a physical or organic cause, that is from the brain. But many disorders were unexplained. So, the authors looked into mental illness through the contention between the brain and the mind. To explain the brain vs. the mind debate over the years, the book focuses on two diverse ailments: syphilis and hysteria. As a sexually transmitted disease, syphilis was known to infect the body, but was not known 200 years ago to infect the brain. But syphilis was the “great imitator” in that it could resemble many different diseases, including the brain. And often syphilis didn’t reveal itself until 10 or more years later. Hysteria was a “catch-all” term for mental or mind disorders like seizures, compulsive-obsessive behavior, hallucinations, paranoia, and psychosis. In the late 1800’s the medical profession of neurology studied hysteria, believing the cause was in the brain, not the mind.
Despite much progress in the study of the brain and psychology, today, Allan and Brian state that we’re no closer to finding an answer to what mental illness is. After all, each depressed person is different, not all antidepressant drugs will cure the problem.
Below is a painting by French artist Andre Brouillet from 1887 called A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetriere Hospital. In it, the leading neurologist of the time, Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrates and treats hysteria in one of his patients, the legendary Blanche Wittman, to a group of overly attentive colleagues and students. In this case of hysteria, Wittman displays improper, immoral behavior by swooning. It seems, at this time, hysteria was a female problem. But notice how insensitive Charcot and the others appear toward her, just to exploit her for “medical” reasons.