Charcot’s Perceptions

Jean-Martin Charcot “set out to reclaim hysteria from former religious interpretations of the disorder as diabolic possession or, alternatively, saintly ecstasy” (Evans, 30). As a trained neurologist, he sought to apply the scientific method to understanding the causes of hysteria and its symptoms. His approach used what he referred to as nosography: “the most meticulous observation and description of [hysteria’s] symptoms and phases” (McGrath, 158). Charcot worked

Charcot created detailed depictions of each phase of a hysterical attack.

Charcot created detailed depictions of each phase of a hysterical attack.

to place hysteria within the scientific frameworks of the nineteenth century. But, most significantly, he worked to remove the sexual stigma associated with hysteria. Charcot told his students to pretend “that the word hysteria means nothing,” in the hopes that they would “find hysterical symptoms in men as well as in women” (Bernheimer, 2).

This is not to say that Charcot completely dismissed gendered beliefs concerning hysteria. He emphasized the neurological and psychic origins of the disorder, but he explained them within the female social location (Evans, 16). Charcot believed that women were inherently more emotional, which predisposed them to hysterical attacks. As he stated, “woman is made for feeling, and feeling is almost hysteria” (Evans, 17). Charcot also discovered that ovarian pressure stopped hysterical convulsions in some women (Charcot, 226). However, he declared that ovarian inflammation was not the only thing that could “provoke the development of the aura hysterica” (Charcot, 222). But although certain types, like ovarian hysteria, were only present in women, hysteria was a neurological disease, not a disease of the womb. Although women were more susceptible, hysteria was not a disease that only women could get.

Charcot accomplished his goal in part by defining four specific phases of hysterical attacks. Hysterics began in the epileptiod phase, where they suffered seizures that mimicked those of epileptics. They then moved to the grands movements phase, which was characterized by patients simulating the “contortions and acrobatics of circus performers” (Hustvedt, 21). Thirdly, patients acted out various emotional states in the attitudes passionnelles phase. Hysterical attacks always ended in delirium (Hustvedt, 22). Charcot documented these phases using the relatively new technology of photography. He had always relied on drawings and diagrams to help explain his work, but photography provided visual proof of hysteria’s forms. However, these pictures were not purely objective; Charcot required his patients to portray the aspects of their characteristic hysterical attacks, and they therefore helped Charcot define his phases further (Furst, 117).


Every patient experienced convulsions during their hysterical attack.

Along with the four phases, Charcot also identified stigmata, or symptoms that were common among hysterics. He categorized stigmata into three categories: sensory disturbances, disturbances of special senses, and motor disturbances (Veith, 233). Sensory disturbances included unconsciouness and increased sensitivity, disturbances of special senses included deafness and narrowing vision, and motor disturbances included limps and paralysis (Veith, 233). With these specific stigmata, Charcot could quickly identify hysterics based on their symptoms.

Charcot believed that hysteria was due to a lesion in the brain. The search for lesions had already become a fixation for psychiatrists and neurologists, and Charcot expressed the same faith in their presence (Furst, 22). He believed that these lesions were hereditary. People were predisposed to hysteria due to their heredity (Furst, 29). The idea of a hereditary lesion helped Charcot assert that hysteria was a neurological and biological disorder, because he could show that, as he put it, “hysteria doesn’t appear out of nowhere like a mushroom” (Furst, 126). He was also intent on finding a lesion because it could possibly illuminate a cure. Sadly, Charcot died without finding a lesion for hysteria (Hustvedt, 30).

However, he realized that symptoms often originated from traumatic events. This event caused strain to the nervous system and therefore disturbed the sensitive brain that was primed for hysteria due to heredity. He noticed that the “precipitating event seemed out of proportion with the severity of the symptoms: jilting by a lover, arguments with parents, or even the fright caused by a vicious dog” (Evans, 23). The neurological strain on the brain caused the physical symptoms such as headaches, abdominal pain, and paralysis. He developed his theory of hysteria as a neurological disorder with a traumatic catalyst and helped lead to later interpretations of the disorder.

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