Does madness lie in the brain or in the mind? (Representational Image)
In the 19th century, European society was swept with neurosyphilis, or syphilis of the brain. Marked by an ability to mimic the symptoms of many mental or physical illnesses, the disease came to be known as the “Great Imitator”.
Its sweep included artists and writers including Guy de Maupassant, Vincent van Gogh, and the Marquis de Sade. It “produced a rapidly expanding wave of debilitating insanity that filled asylums and cut lives short in a grotesque and frightening way”. At the same time, there was another outbreak. This was of bizarre behaviours resembling epilepsy, but with no identifiable source in the body. Neurologists referred to it as hysteria.
Harvard neurology professor Allan H Ropper and University of Massachusetts Amherst mathematician Brian Burrell look at the way the twin outbreaks were tackled then, and what we know of these conditions now. What is the difference between a sick mind and a sick brain? Does madness lie in the brain or in the mind? These are among the questions addressed by Ropper and Burrell in How the Brain Lost its Mind.
How the Brain Lost its Mind
Today, syphilitic madness is accepted as a destructive disease of the brain while hysteria is taken to reside solely in the mind, but the book explores how neuroscience and brain scans alone cannot account for a robust mental life, or a deeply disturbed one. The authors note that after a cure for syphilis was found, popular awareness about brain-based disorders receded.
“Do we really understand the difference between a sick brain and a sick mind? In setting out to write a book about neurosyphilis, we ended up with a book about sex, hysteria, psychosis, hypnotism, psychoanalysis, mind cures, synthetic dyes, sensation fiction, psychotropic drugs, genius, and madness,” they write.
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