I think we are entering a new Freudian era. This struck me as I was recently reading some stories in the New York Times science section: Depressive disorders may have a beneficial mechanism behind them; dreams may be meaningful after all; and hysteria — now called conversion disorders, and by which they mean the physical expression of emotional trauma — may actually exist. This may not totally redeem Freud from his sex-obsessed cokehead crackpot reputation, but this is his territory.
- The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt. 224 pages. Henry Holt and Co. $23.00
For decades, Freud has been slowly discredited until his name is more a punchline than a scientific reference. But the more science wades into the murky territory of the mind, the more we see that we have to look backward to move forward. There are certain things we know, and certain things we can prove. Often the “know” category is presided over by the philosophers and the poets, the witches and the healers. The “proven” is the realm of the white lab coat. It can take centuries to go from “known” to “proven.” Louis Pasteur may have discovered penicillin, but mold has been used to treat infections since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Likewise, the idea of the unconscious — that there were drives completely out of our control, and out of our sphere of awareness, working as the engine behind our behavior — used to be a joke. Now it’s an accepted truth.
Jonah Lehrer’s Times article about dreams did not come as an Earth-shocking revelation because it’s something we’ve all kind of known. No one is going to scientifically prove Jung’s theories about dreams, of course, because the theories are bonkers (I say with affection). Scientists have been denying for years that dreams held any real purpose, and yet people are still recording them and decoding them, bringing them up in therapy and occasionally changing their lives because of them. I know more than one person who has ended a relationship because a dream brought sudden clarity about the person’s character. Does that make them crazy? Kinda maybe sorta. In 2006, neuro-psychologist Mark Solms and dream researcher J. Allan Hobson held a debate about whether dreams had any meaning. Solms argued yes. Hobson believes dreams are built from random images created by brain activity that we don’t fully understand. Despite the scientific evidence Hobson brought out at the debate and in books and studies, the audience instinctively rejected his argument. As Siri Hustvedt reports in her new book The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves, “he lost the debate to Solms (the audience voted) by a large margin.”
Siri Husvedt’s investigation into the mind/body divide and a modern account of hysteria begins with a personal story: when speaking at a memorial for her father, having not properly mourned his death, she started convulsing in a strange manner. Her entire body below her neck thrashed and wobbled, and yet she was able to speak clearly. It wasn’t epilepsy. Her brain scans showed no physical cause, and she began to wonder if the episode was due to repressed emotions’ exhibiting themselves in a physical and undeniable way. It’s easy for us to shove aside strong emotions, say we’ll get to that later. But when we suddenly can’t move our neck or we begin to convulse, it’s something that needs to be dealt with immediately. “Pay attention!” our bodies shriek. Or maybe they’re not, and we humans — being pattern-seeking animals — are simply drawing associations that aren’t really there.
Hysteria may have only been declared scientifically proven in 2006, according to The New York Times, but people have been battling it for centuries, millennia even. Not the hysteria of the uterus-taking-a-tour-of-your-other-internal-organs variety, but Hustvedt reports neuroimaging shows that emotional pain can occasionally be expressed through the body, manifesting as paralysis, pain, fits, limb dysfunction — all those things that used to be called the Vapors and were treated by perfuming the woman’s pubic hair, lacing it with rose petals, to entice the uterus back into place. (Well, sometimes. Other times they cut out the clitoris and burned off the labia with a red hot iron and attached leeches to the cervix.)
For a long time, hysteria was very fashionable for the ladies. (And the men, too, though not having uteruses, they called it “spleen.”) Sure, a lot of the women claiming hysteria were bored and lonely and needed someone to pay attention to them. But in Andrew Scull’s Hysteria: A Biography, doctors such as George Cheyne celebrated the sensitivities of the afflicted. James Boswell became enchanted with his spleen despite the anguish he was in. He took on the name the Hypochondriack for a series of essays, writing “we Hypocondriacks may console ourselves in the hour of gloomy distress, by thinking that our sufferings mark our superiority.” Before Freud, and certainly before The New York Times Magazine article, there was a pride in their affliction. Boswell believed that the sensitivity causing so much emotional and physical pain allowed him to reach depths he would be otherwise unable.
Moving from the “known” to the “proven” column can be a little messy. The point of finding proof is to shed light on the idea, and in the case of Freud’s realm, to bring order to the disordered. And yet there’s resistance. There’s a lot of charisma in the disorder. Boswell is the Hypochondriack, Hustvedt is the Shaking Woman. There is also the Hysteric, the Epileptic, the Depressive, the Schizophrenic, the Migraineur. It becomes an identity. Reordering our minds would mean reordering our entire world and the way we interact with it; and maybe our depression does have an upside, maybe the vapors coming off of our uterus help us think; maybe our horrible, shameful dreams reveal secrets. In the comments section of Lehrer’s dream article, a woman admitted that while she was so tormented by her vivid, terrifying dreams, when they went away, she missed them. Hustvedt writes:
L. used to wake up at night to see her sister flailing and flapping in the bed next to her own. L. told me that her sister does not feel alienated from her auras and fits. In fact, they are so deeply part of her, she is reluctant to medicate them away. In his essay ‘Witty Ticky Ray,’ Oliver Sacks describes a Tourette’s patient who, after his tics vanished with a drug, missed them so much that he began taking weekend holidays from his pharmaceuticals, so he could tic again with happy abandon. The bipolar patient P. who produced the seven-thousand-page manuscript made it clear to me that she mourned her mania terribly.
The Greeks did not believe in hysteria, but they referred to similar disorders as enthusiasmos, meaning the possession by a god or demon. The New York Times recently reported that a schizophrenic was more likely to recover if he lived in a country that still believed the symptoms were signs of enthusiasmos, of possession, than a diagnosis of an organic brain disease to be corrected through medication. Part of it is because the family rallies to help you retake possession of your body, and doesn’t put you in some sort of assisted living facility, telling you, “Don’t forget to take your meds! We’ll write on all of the major holidays!” Thorazine’s got nothing on love and support.
Even if you provided me with incontrovertible proof that my dreams were meaningless (who knows what such evidence would even look like), I would still spend my mornings documenting my dreams in detail and associating out the visuals. I really do wish I could be more rational — honestly, it’s a goal of mine. And yet that “proven” column, with its right angles and straight lines, its belief that depression is a chemical imbalance best treated with SSRIs, that dreams are problem-solving mechanisms and not symbol-laden poetry, that the physical plane is the only one there is… As someone who has ended relationships because of dreams, and had prolonged periods of unexplained (I would say hysterical) blindness, I don’t quite fit in there. The white coats often look into that unscientific past and see merely superstition and fear, useless nonsense. But hidden in the mire, we have thinkers and ideas, waiting for their wisdom to be re-acknowledged. • 5 April 2010