Chandak Sengoopta

Passions of the Mind

Fugitive Minds: On Madness, Sleep and other Twilight Afflictions


William Heinemann 348pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

ALL MENTAL DISORDERS, declared the nineteenth-century psychiatrist Wilhelm Griesinger, are actually disorders of the brain. Griesinger’s materialist faith was stronger than his evidence, but today his faith seems to have been fully justified. Armed with potent new drugs, clinical psychiatrists can now offer reasonably good treatments for many mental disorders, and few psychologists would think of investigating the remaining mysteries of the mind with tools other than neuroscientific. This biological revolution has also had its casualties. A hundred years ago, the great psychologist William James could investigate mysticism and the ‘varieties of religious experience’ in purely mental and cultural terms. The experimental psychologist of our time, however, must proceed very differently. ‘By stimulating parts of the temporal lobe [of the brain], one Canadian neuroscientist’, remarks Antonio Melechi in this book, ‘claims to have located the centre of the “God Experience”.’ The science of the mind is now a division of neurobiology.

This rampant biologism, Melechi suggests, has impoverished psychology. ‘The maps that brain science continues to generate, the diagnoses that modern-day medicine and pathology arrive at, should not’, he asserts, ‘be allowed the last word on any mental state, mystical or otherwise.’

One of his chief objectives is to show us how much old-fashioned descriptive psychology can do to reveal the variety – and inner meanings – of mental states, processes and aberrations. The book’s range is impressive. Beginning with schizophrenia and ending with the hallucinations induced by solitude, Melechi’s fifty short chapters cover virtually every phenomenon psychologists and psychiatrists have investigated over the last hundred-odd years. Old reliables such as multiple personalities, mesmeric trances and hysteria feature prominently; manic-depressives and obsessives are given their due, as are the possessed, the deluded, the visionary and the autistic.

Many of these conditions are rare and more than a few are still beyond the reach of neuroscientific treatment or understanding: Capgras Syndrome, for instance, where a patient is convinced that his or her loved ones have all been replaced by their doubles; or the ailment koro, common in the Far East, where the patient believes that his penis is shrinking into hisabdomen and that he is about to die. Sociology and anthropology, Melech believes, might be more helpful in explaining these conditions than the neurosciences. History suggests, after all, that some of the most enigmatic aberrations of behaviour – whether the dancing mania that affected many Europeans during the Middle Ages, or koro – are seen in members of hierarchical societies at times of economic hardship. To regard these symptoms as isolated from their individual, social and cultural contexts is to blind ourselves to their significance for the sufferers – and does not, in any case, explain why certain patterns of symptoms are more common among (or even unique to) certain groups.

Most of Melechi’s examples are drawn from history, as one would expect from an admirer of ‘the roving sensibility of the in-de-sickle researchers, who, like [Henri] Bergson and [William] James, described and experimented, who kept abreast of advances in the humanities and sciences’. Psychology and psychiatry lost something vital by turning away so completely from description and everything ‘humanistic’; but not all fin-de-silcle researchers, of course, were Bergsons. Melechi does not quite seem to appreciate the depth of biological conviction that moved investigators like, for example, the Parisian neurologist Jean Martin Charcot. Charcot, a deeply cultivated man, studied hysterical women and exhibited them as stage characters (as shown in the wonderful portrait on the cover of this book), but he had little interest in the existential minutiae of the women swooning into his assistants’ arms. (If he had taken a greater interest, he might have discovered that many of them were being coached by junior doctors and fellow-patients to fake their symptoms.) His aim was to establish that hysteria was brought about by a biological degeneration of the nervous system, and even his method of investigation – hypnosis – was grounded in his understanding of neurobiology: only the degenerate brain, he averred, could be hypnotised.

We might also consider Emil Kraepelin, the great early- twentieth-century German psychiatrist to whom we owe the essence of our concept of schizophrenia. No anthropologist could have been more diligent than Kraepelin in observing and recording the symptoms of his subjects over time; he did this, however, only to establish the relentless progression of the ecstatic journey symptoms, which would prove that they were caused by biological (or, perhaps, chemical) aberrations in the brain. Observation and description, in short, were paths to that same neuroscientific truth which our contemporaries seek under the electron microscope or the MRI scanner.

To be fair to Melech, he never denies that neuroscience and biological psychiatry, too, have entrancing tales to tell. He does address such scientific arcana as the physiology of dreaming, the chemical replication of alien abduction experiences, or the mystical properties of the anaesthetic ketamin. These chapters are engrossing, although some of them are so slight that they remind one of those breathless columns on ‘interesting facts of science’ that used to appear in newspaper supplements in the 1920s. When it comes to the new biology of the mind, Melechi seems to lose much of the sympathy and sensitivity to detail which he brings to the past. As a historian, I do not find that at all odd, but I doubt if Melech wanted his book to appeal to historians alone.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter