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, he is best known 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 in the emergence of Freudian psychoanalysis.

Who was Jean-Martin Charcot?

Neurologist and anatomopathologist 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 teacher at the Ecole de la Salpêtrière, which at that time operated 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, at the age of 67, from a heart attack and pulmonary edema.

Hysteria in the 19th Century

Hysteria was the most popular psychological disorder of the 19th century. This concept was used to encompass a wide range of neurotic symptoms and went into decline with the consolidation of scientific psychology. DSM-IV includes in the categories of dissociative and somatoform disorders manifestations that were previously categorized as hysteria.

Since the typical symptoms of hysteria, such as psychogenic seizures, were largely due to suggestion caused by the popularization of certain cases, the prevalence of these disorders is very low at present. However, some somatomorphic disorders are still 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 19th century hysteria was considered a physical illness of unknown origin , while previously many experts thought 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. He later concluded 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 theses on hysteria.

Healing through hypnosis

In Charcot’s time the lack of efficacy and the aggressiveness of conventional therapeutic methods made them extremely questionable. In the case of hysteria, some of the usual “treatments” consisted of applying electric shocks, taking cold showers, inserting tubes through the rectum and even removing the ovaries.

This context favored the appearance and popularization of alternative therapies such as hypnosis , which developed from the outlandish 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 for reproducing the symptoms of hysteria. At first he thought that it could also be useful to treat this disorder, but his confidence in the method that he helped to popularise diminished with time, especially due to the sensationalism that arose around hypnosis and which distanced it from the scientific community.

According to Charcot, the very susceptibility to hypnosis denoted the neurological degeneration that was in turn the cause of the hysteria. Later on, he distinguished the “great hysteria” and the “great hypnosis”, which were related to hereditary alterations, from the “little hysteria” and the “little hypnosis”, due to the induction of a trance by means of suggestion.

Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault and Hippolyte Bernheim , from the Nancy School , 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. The disputes between the two schools damaged the reputation of hypnosis, which was already in question because of its ineffectiveness.

Contributions to Neurology

Although Charcot is mainly known for his contributions to hysteria and hypnosis, the truth is that he dedicated his life to neurology. He made key contributions to scientific knowledge about Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and neuropathies in general.

Charcot described multiple sclerosis , which he called “sclerosis in plaques”. For this author the main signs of the disease were nystagmus, intention tremors and telegraphic speech; this is known today as “Charcot’s triad”. He also noted that memory and mental speed are impaired in people with multiple sclerosis.

There are various neuropathies that are named after Charcot because he was the first to describe them or made important contributions to them. Of particular note are 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 result of localized lesions in the occipital lobe that alter face recognition and image recall.