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Jean-Martin Charcot: biography of the pioneer of hypnosis and neurology

Jean-Martin Charcot: biography of the pioneer of hypnosis and neurology

January 25, 2022

Jean-Martin Charcot was a French researcher and one of the pioneers of neurology , the branch of medicine that studies disorders of the nervous system. However, outside the scope of this discipline, and in particular in the world of psychology, is known above all for his work on hysteria and hypnosis .

Charcot's contributions would not only be fundamental for the development of neurology, but would also constitute a key piece in the scientific development of psychiatry and the emergence of Freudian psychoanalysis.

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Who was Jean-Martin Charcot?

The neurologist and pathologist Jean-Martin Charcot was born in Paris in 1825. He studied with Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne, who made great contributions to the fields of neurology and electrophysiology. Charcot is often considered the father of neurology, but his work was largely due to the teachings of Duchenne.


For more than 30 years, Charcot worked as a doctor, researcher and professor at the School of Salpêtrière, which at that time functioned as a psychiatric center and housed approximately 5,000 patients. Sigmund Freud was one of the many students who learned from Charcot , who had achieved fame throughout Europe.

In addition to his career at La Salpêtrière, Charcot was a professor of pathological anatomy at the University of Paris, where he was appointed Director of Neurology. He died in 1893, aged 67, because of a heart attack and pulmonary edema.

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Hysteria in the nineteenth century

Hysteria was the most popular psychological disorder of the nineteenth century. This concept was used to encompass a large set of neurotic symptoms and went into decline with the consolidation of scientific psychology. The DSM-IV includes in the categories of dissociative and somatomorphic disorders manifestations that were previously categorized as hysteria.


Since the typical symptoms of hysteria, such as psychogenic seizures, they were largely due to the suggestion caused by the popularization of certain cases, the prevalence of these disorders is very low at present. However, some somatoform disorders remain common, such as chronic pain and hypochondria.

For a long time it was believed that hysteria could only affect women because it was attributed to alterations in the uterus, but cases were also detected in men. In the XIX century hysteria was considered a physical disease of unknown origin , whereas previously many experts thought that it was due to a moral or volitional deficiency.

Initially Charcot thought that hysteria had hereditary biological causes: he accepted the hypothesis of "neurological degeneration", very popular in his time. Later he came to the conclusion that it was actually due to a traumatic event that injured the brain in a specific way. This would be the origin of Freud's thesis on hysteria.


Healing through hypnosis

In Charcot's time the lack of efficiency and the aggressiveness of conventional therapeutic methods they made them extremely questioned. In the case of hysteria, some of the usual "treatments" consisted of applying electric shocks, giving cold showers, inserting tubes through the rectum and even removing the ovaries.

This context favored the emergence and popularization of alternative therapies such as hypnosis , which developed from the bizarre methods of Franz Mesmer and was consolidated with the contributions of Charcot, James Braid and Pierre Janet, among others. The same happened with psychoanalysis, devised by Freud because of his limitations as a hypnotist.

Charcot proposed that hypnosis was useful in reproducing the symptoms of hysteria. At first he thought that it could be useful also to treat this alteration, but his confidence in the method that helped to popularize diminished over time, especially due to the sensationalism that arose around hypnosis and that distanced it from the scientific community.

According to Charcot, the very susceptibility to hypnosis denoted neurological degeneration which was in turn the cause of hysteria.Later he distinguished the "great hysteria" and the "great hypnosis", which were related to hereditary alterations, of "small hysteria" and "small hypnosis", due to the induction of a trance by suggestion.

Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault and Hippolyte Bernheim , from the School of Nancy , they opposed the point of view of Charcot and the rest of the members of La Salpêtrière: for them hysteria and hypnosis were due exclusively to suggestion. Disputes between the two schools damaged the reputation of hypnosis, which was already in question because of its scientific nature.

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Contributions to neurology

Although Charcot is known above all for his contributions to hysteria and hypnosis, the truth is that he dedicated his life to neurology. It contributed in a key way to scientific knowledge about Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and neuropathies in general.

Charcot described multiple sclerosis , which he called "sclerosis on plates". For this author the main signs of the disease were nystagmus, intentional tremors and telegraphic speech; this is known today as "Charcot's triad". He also noted that memory and mental speed are altered in people with multiple sclerosis.

There are several neuropathies that bear the name of Charcot because he was the first to describe them or made important contributions in this regard. Stand out Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome and Charcot's neuropathic joint disease (Also called neuropathic arthropathy and diabetic foot), which affect the lower extremities.

On the other hand, "Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome" is the term used to describe the loss of the ability to dream. This disorder occurs as a consequence of lesions located in the occipital lobe that alter the recognition of faces and the memory of images.

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Jean-Martin Charcot (January 2022).


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