Biological and Medical History of Abnormality in Psychology

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  • 0:07 Somatogenic Theory
  • 1:12 Hippocrates
  • 2:16 Mesmer & Hysteria
  • 3:36 Benjamin Rush & Emil Kraepelin
  • 4:57 Understanding the Brain
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Somatogenic theory views mental illness as a medical condition and dates back to ancient Greece. In this lesson, we will look at the history of somatogenic theory, including key historical figures like Hippocrates, Franz Anton Mesmer, Benjamin Rush, and Emil Kraepelin.

Somatogenic Theory

Sarah has a problem. Some days, she feels so depressed that she can hardly move. She feels like she's been hit by a truck, and just the thought of getting up, showering, and facing the day seems to be too much.

Other times, Sarah is so energized that she can't seem to stop herself. She bounces around from room to room in her home and often tackles several projects at once. Her brain seems to go a million miles a minute; she has so many thoughts that run through her head and she just can't seem to stop them.

Sarah suffers from bipolar disorder, a condition considered to be abnormal. That is, her behavior, emotions, and thoughts are different from the normal pattern that people display. One way of looking at bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses is the somatogenic theory, which says that mental illness comes from physical or biological ailments. Now, you might think that the somatogenic theory of abnormal psychology is pretty new, but it actually goes back to ancient Greece. Let's take a look at a few of the most important historical moments in the biological view of mental illness.


Hippocrates was ahead of his time. Most people in ancient Greece thought that abnormal behavior like Sarah displays could be attributed to things like demons or magic. But Hippocrates was the first person to suggest that mental illness might be due to physical issues.

Considered the father of Western medicine, Hippocrates believed that mental illness could be treated the same way that physical ailments could be treated. He said that the brain was the center of consciousness, wisdom, emotion, and intelligence. As such, Hippocrates believed that the brain was the place where most of the issues with mental illness resided.

Hippocrates based all of his beliefs on philosophy. That is, he speculated on the link between brain and behavior, but did not investigate it scientifically. Years later, a Roman named Claudius Galen became the first person to incorporate scientific investigation into the idea of mental illness. He took Hippocrates' ideas and experimented on animals to confirm and discover more about the biological underpinnings of abnormality.

Mesmer & Hysteria

After Galen, the science of abnormality didn't make much progress for another 1,500 years. Some people took the information that Galen and Hippocrates explored and used it, but mostly, people went back to the view of mental illness being caused by demons and magic.

In the 18th century, though, a doctor named Franz Anton Mesmer attempted to treat mental illness from a scientific point of view. Mesmer took the work of Sir Isaac Newton, which focused on invisible forces like gravity and magnetism, and applied them to abnormal psychology. In particular, Mesmer treated many conditions with magnets.

At the time, hysteria was a common disease, particularly among women. Hysteria was the diagnosis when a patient experienced physical symptoms without anything physically wrong with them. One common belief among doctors of the time was that sometimes a woman's uterus could detach itself from where it was supposed to be and travel throughout the body, causing hysterical symptoms. Mesmer used magnets to treat these symptoms, and had quite a bit of success in treating his patients.

An interesting side note about Mesmer is that he believed psychological problems to be wholly attributable to physical issues, yet he is considered to be one of the first people to practice hypnotism on his patients. In fact, the word 'mesmerize' comes from his name.

Benjamin Rush

A few years after Mesmer, Benjamin Rush became the founder of American psychiatry. His book Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon Diseases of the Mind was the first book on psychiatry published in America.

Rush, like Mesmer before him, believed in the scientific study of mental illness. Rush sought to explain and treat abnormality in terms of medicine and science. However, Rush was working in the 18th and 19th centuries, and medical knowledge was slim. Rush believed in bleeding his patients, a practice common back then, but disregarded today.

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