Reforms in Abnormal Psychology: Demonology Through Humanitarian Reforms

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  • 0:05 History of Abnormality
  • 0:51 Demonology
  • 2:07 Witchcraft in the Middle Ages
  • 3:01 Psychogenic Theory
  • 3:49 Institutions and Reforms
  • 5:09 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.

What causes abnormal behavior? From demons to the subconscious to cruel treatment, ideas about mental illness have evolved through the centuries. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the beliefs and reforms in abnormal psychology, from the Neolithic days to the 20th century.

History of Abnormality

Henry suffers from seizures. When they happen, he experiences an odd smell, followed by seeing little lights dancing before his eyes. Finally, if the seizure is bad, he says things that don't make sense and he convulses. Sometimes, his entire body convulses, leaving him on the ground helpless.

In the 21st century, we know quite a bit about seizures, including what some of the causes are and how to treat them with medication or surgery. But, that wasn't always the case. Throughout history, people viewed seizures and other abnormal behavior in different ways. Let's take a brief walk through history and see how mental illness and affliction were viewed at different points in history.


Archeologists have found skulls that date back tens of thousands of years before Christ that have holes in them. Some of them show evidence that the skulls had begun to heal, which indicates that they were made while the person was alive. Trephination is the practice of drilling a hole in a skull to relieve a brain or mental ailment. In the Neolithic days, trephination was probably used to allow demons to escape from the skull, but in modern neurology, it is sometimes used to treat the swelling of the brain.

Neolithic society and most people during ancient times believed that mental illness and abnormality were due to demons. Henry's seizures, for example, would have been viewed as possession, and trephination or other religious ceremonies would have been used to treat mental illness.

In some societies, such as ancient Rome, many people believed that mental illness was a punishment from the gods. Angering the gods could, therefore, lead to mental illness in yourself or in others in your family. Though the idea of mental illness as a physical disease dates back to ancient Greece, most people in the ancient world believed in demonology or other types of spiritualism. That is, religious reasons were given for most of the mental illnesses that people experienced.

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

Demonology and spiritualism persisted for thousands of years. During the Middle Ages, it took the form of viewing mental illness as a result of witchcraft. Some issues, like Henry's seizures or hallucinations due to schizophrenia, might have been viewed as a result of a curse put on you by a witch. Others might have been seen as a sign of witchcraft, so the mentally ill person would be accused of being a witch.

Many times, abnormal behavior was seen as a sign of weakness or moral vulnerability. Because the mentally ill were viewed as being at fault for their behavior, they were considered to be open to demons and witches. As a result, a deep stigma developed around abnormality. Residue of this can be seen in the stigma around people with psychological issues today, where some people still believe that certain types of mental illness are a sign of weakness.

Psychogenic Theory

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as medical advances brought forth an updated view of the biological underpinnings of abnormality, a new theory also developed. Psychogenic theory views the cause of abnormality as psychological problems.

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