“Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”*

*from “Ghostbusters” (1984) Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray.

From: Levels of Life (2013), by Julian Barnes:

Opera cuts to the chase – as death does. So now, contented indifference before Middlesbrough against Slovan Bratislava coexisted with a craving for an art in which violent, overwhelming, hysterical and destructive emotion was the norm; an art which seeks, more obviously than any other form, to break your heart. Here was my new social realism.”

From: Camera Lucida (La Chambre Claire) (1980) by Roland Barthes:

“History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it…

…contemplating a photograph in which (his late mother) is hugging me, a child, against her, I can waken in myself the rumpled softness of her crepe de Chine and the perfume of her rice powder.”

Carol Morley wrote in The Observer of 29.3.15:

“…I went to meet the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Simon Wessely, in his office at King’s College, London, where he is also professor of psychological medicine. I found him behind his desk piled high with papers,…and – luckily for me – ready to share his vast knowledge. He told me how mass hysteria had been an interest of his for nearly 25 years. “I actually wrote a paper on mass hysteria for my medical student finals. What turned me on to psychiatry was that people could do bizarre things and believe bizarre things and yet not be insane.”

The term mass hysteria is often used haphazardly to describe a wide range of things, such as group emotional reactions to a public figure’s death or a reaction to a pop idol at a concert. I asked Simon to make it clearer for me what the clinical definition was. “I define it in a narrow way. I avoid mixing it up with social movements and moral panics. With mass hysteria people have to believe they are ill and collectively communicate that illness through psychological means.”

…Talking to Simon, my eyes kept being drawn to two overstuffed box files on the shelf behind him marked “mass hysteria”. Greedy for their contents, I asked him if I could go through them.

I spent two days reading the articles he had collected over 25 years. Particularly intriguing was a British Medical Journal piece from 1982 that reported on a “Chronic Epidemic of Hysterical Blackouts in a Comprehensive School”. This particular epidemic started in September 1978 and lasted nearly two years, with 60 girls and three boys having a total of 447 blackouts, which took the form of simple faints or suddenly falling asleep. Eight of the girls were treated for epilepsy. Research showed that the first girl had begun fainting soon after the death of her father and that all the eight key girls involved had severe emotional and family problems.

…Nearly 10 years later, The Falling, my fictional account of an epidemic of fainting set in a girls’ grammar school in 1969, featuring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Greta Scacchi, Monica Dolan and newcomer Florence Pugh, opens next month…”

From the website of Harvard Health Publishing:

“…Conversion disorder is a current name for symptoms that would once have been described as hysterical. The Greek root of the word “hysteria” refers to the uterus, and the symptoms were originally attributed to a “wandering womb.” Until 1980, the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual included the term “hysterical conversion disorder.” But the word hysteria is no longer used in psychiatry, partly because the implications are regarded as demeaning to women. Hysterical conversion disorder has become simply conversion disorder.

The term “conversion” suggests the psychoanalytic idea of anxiety associated with unconscious memories that are repressed and converted into physical symptoms. “The hysteric suffers from reminiscences,” Freud wrote. But the feelings expressed are not necessarily unconscious. When social standards prevent direct communication, physical symptoms may serve as a signal of distress or a way to convey forbidden fears and passions. These suppressed (rather than repressed) emotions may sometimes be represented symbolically by the symptoms; for example, a person whose legs are paralyzed “cannot stand on his own two feet.”…”

Chris Nicholson, Deputy Head (now Head) of Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, wrote at The Conversation on 16.11.17:

“…The woman (Mary) who felt compelled to shut her eyes is one of many cases described by the neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan in It’s All In Your Head. Her husband was on remand for child abuse, but she refused to think this might be an important factor in her illness. Treated with muscle relaxant drugs, she soon recovered. But a month later, she was readmitted, suffering from amnesia. Brain scans and an EEG were normal, but a neighbour told O’Sullivan that her husband had been released from prison. O’Sullivan is left wondering what this patient “could not bear to look upon” or “tolerate to remember”.

Despite the many new technical means of investigation, researchers have very little to offer beyond Freud to account for how psychological and emotional experiences manifest in physical symptoms. O’Sullivan writes that:

for all the shortcomings in the concepts proposed by Freud and Breuer in Studies, the 21st century has brought no great advances to a better understanding of the mechanisms for this disorder.

This is acknowledged more publicly now. For example, the neurologist Richard Kanaan in BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind states that Freud still “looms quite large in our repertoire of explanations”. In fact, it would be a very small repertoire if you excluded Freud.

Since we can use sophisticated medical testing, we now know that it is not the neurological “hardware” that is damaged, so it must be the “software”, our psychological response to the meaning of trauma, that leads to conversion disorder…

Freud’s brilliance was in recognising that disturbing memories don’t just go away. His compassion lives to this day in the method he established for bringing them to light and reducing their negative and sometimes debilitating effects: psychoanalysis.”

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