30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011
The French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot discovered that some patients who appeared to have neurological problems — paralysis, blindness, epileptic seizures — in fact had no damage to the brain or nerves that could explain their difficulties. Although the patients had no conscious control over their symptoms, some could be temporarily ’cured’ through hypnosis, leading Charcot to believe that the unconscious was blocking access to other functions of the brain. The idea was revolutionary because it brought the idea of the unconscious into the mainstream of medical thought and overturned almost 2000 years of belief that hysteria was a female condition, originally thought by the Ancient Greeks to be caused by a ’wandering womb’. Two of Charcot’s students extended the concept: Pierre Janet suggested that the mind could ’dissociate’ or compartmentalize different functions, while Sigmund Freud suggested that this occurred when traumatic memories were converted into physical symptoms as a way of repressing them from the conscious mind. Although there is still little evidence that Freudian repression is responsible, the idea that medical symptoms as serious as blindness and paralysis can be caused by the unconscious mind is now widely accepted.
Striking physical symptoms, such as blindness and paralysis, can be caused by the unconscious mind blocking access to essential brain functions.
Modern neuroscience suggests that ’hysterical’ or ’psychogenic’ symptoms, as they are called now, might be caused by the frontal lobes impeding other brain functions. It is still not clear exactly why this happens, but we know that patients with these symptoms often have other emotional difficulties. This suggests that psychogenic symptoms are not working as an effective ’defence mechanism’, as Freud proposed, but they may be triggered by emotion in other ways.
To say that a person’s illness is ’all in their mind’ doesn’t mean that they are making it up. They could be suffering from a form of hysteria.