Sunday, April 17, 2016

10 Bizarre Pre-Psychological Theories

The mysteries of the mind baffle us today. In an era where we have stringent research standards, billion dollar endowments at high-powered universities, and a scientist's choice of brain scan equipment, we're constantly surprised by its complexity and ability to adapt. So can you imagine how confusing human behavior would have looked before the field of psychology even existed? One day, history will laugh at what we think we currently know about psychology; today, let's laugh (or cry) at these ten bizarre pre-psychological theories.

10. Restrained Happiness: Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi might have a lot going on in his name, but he believes in having very little go on in your mind. A master physician from around 1000, al-Razi also dipped his toes into philosophy and the study of happiness (Link 26).

Al-Razi believed that the spirit is preoccupied with death, which naturally causes distress in the mind. To alleviate this distress, the individual must convince the spirit that good things happen at death, rather than bad. In order to do so, the individual must spend much of their time studying scripture, setting off a chain reaction that would clear the mind of distress. In fact, time is specifically better spent studying than indulging in food or drink (Link 27).

Al-Razi may have been on to something, as current models of mindfulness believe in living in the moment but not intentionally overindulging, but his style would not make for the most interesting life today. Happiness exists within a variety of lifestyle choices (Link 32); you can be joyous studying the scriptures, spending more nights than not at the bar, or presumably both. Additionally, having honest conversations about death with the dying is important, and these conversations are not always rosy (Link 31).

9. Hysteria: With a backstory running all the way to ancient Greece, this is one of our oldest pre-psychological traditions. Hysteria was a medical condition that served as a catch-all for disruptive behavior in European civilizations, and didn't really disappear from the discourse until the past hundred years or so. Of course, it affected men and women differently. The male version described symptoms similar to today's post traumatic stress disorder, and was diagnosed much less frequently (Link 12).

The more diagnosed (and interesting) female variant of hysteria led to faintness, irritability, a loss of appetite, nervousness, sexual desire, and "a tendency to cause trouble". Whatever that means. The Greeks believed this unfortunate mental state was caused by a physical ailment, known as "wandering womb", which is as ridiculous/unscientific/choose your adjective as it sounds. The womb, according to Hippocrates, was drawn to pleasant scents and disgusted by foul ones, and when a womb found its regular location's smell to would wander to other places in the body (Link 13). When this unusual myth was dispelled, sexual frustration became the clear underlying source. Skilled physicians began offering private masturbation sessions for the sexually repressed women of Europe, many of whom knew nothing about their own genitals. Eventually, the awkwardness of this practice caught up with the physicians, leading to the 18th century invention of sex toys for this purpose (Link 12).

Hysteria did not appear as a disorder in the DSM-IV, but was instead engulfed by the dissociative disorders. These are an entirely different cocktail, with an extremely disputed history of their own. Just know that you cannot get diagnosed with "hysteria" anymore, and there is certainly no such thing as a wandering womb!

8. Mesmerism: Ever been mesmerized by something (like this article)? The word comes from Austrian physician Franz Mesmer, who believed in an invisible magnetic fluid in humans and animals (Link 7). When the magnetic field reached an imbalance, it caused hysteria (see #9). To treat the hysteria, Mesmer used a technique, creatively titled mesmerism, which involved putting magnets up to his patients' bodies, causing them to fall into a trance-like stupor that apparently healed them upon awakening. The practice garnered a bit of a following in Europe and the United States. Unfortunately for Mesmer, when the French government's experts (which weirdly included Ben Franklin, a resident of Paris at the time) assessed his method, it concluded that the key words he used during his magnetic treatment were playing on his patients' suggestibility, causing the stupor (Link 8) The magnets were thrown out, but the intriguing debate between suggestibility and psychical powers was born, leading to the eventual creation of hypnosis and its silly cousin, stage hypnosis (Link 35).

7. Demonic possession: Another phenomenon that still appears in the minds of some today, demonic possession would have explained many modern mental disorders to our ancestors. Many forms of popular media, such as The Exorcism or The Bible, mention the presence of otherwordly spirits controlling a person's actions from inside them. With no real comprehension of neurology or abnormal psychology, outside forces causing otherwise unexplainable behavior probably seemed to be the most obvious answer (Link 20). Bipolar disorder, for example, can cause alternating periods of depression and mania, which causes a person to have intense, day long bursts of energy with little to no sleeping, spontaneous decision making, and an interruption of routine. A manic episode like this would certainly mystify the community, and perhaps cause a ritualistic "casting out" of a demon (Link 21). Schizophrenia would also be attributed to demonic possession, for obvious reasons. The presence of "other" voices in one's head could easily be attributed to other beings inside the mind. Many, many more psychological disorders could fall into this category, like psychosis, dissociative identity disorder, etc (Link 22).

In the mainstream lexicon, demons are problems that haunt or plague us figuratively, not literally. In this way, their general perception hasn't changed much; they are still difficulties that take time and energy to deal with, and many people still struggle with spirits of an 80 proof variety. But now, we cast them out through medicine and therapy, not Holy Water or isolation.

6. Phrenology: Phrenology was developed around 1800 by Franz Gall, who had a novel idea - what if your brain was the source of your intelligence and your personality? And what if you could tell someone's intelligence and behavioral pattern by measuring the shape of their head and studying the bumps and fissures on it? Phrenology contributions can be separated into three distinct categories - the true, the false, and the other.

True: Gall theorized that the brain was the organ of the mind. He was right about this, obviously, and paved the way for neuroscience today (Link 14).
Gall pontificated about different regions of the brain being responsible for different personality traits, another key facet of neuroscience.

False: You can't actually determine someone's intelligence or personality from looking at their head.
Or from measuring it.
Some phrenologists used phrenology to "prove" the superiority of white, European males over others.
Some people still use this argument today...sigh (Link 15).

Other: Giving phrenology as a personal service is a taxable source of income in Michigan, which begs so, so many questions. Was someone still practicing phrenology and getting off tax free from it? Was this a joke? Does Michigan know its racial demographic, and how many of their residents would have been hurt by this in a past life? Actually, if you're in the parapsychological crew, you probably believe they were hurt by it, because they had a past life. This will make more sense later on.
Essentially, Gall had the right theory and the wrong execution. And picked up some of the wrong followers along the way.

5. Lie detection: A search engine query for "how to tell when someone is lying" brings up millions of results, many of which offer basic but useful analysis on noticing the obvious psychological signs of lying. But before we had click bait to inform us to watch for a lack of eye contact and offering too much detail, humans had to find other way to suss out liars from truth tellers (Link 36).

In ancient times, cultures around the world used ordeals to determine the veracity of accused liars (Link 38). Some of these were relatively innocuous; in India, an accused liar would be subject to the weight ordeal. In this trial, s/he would be weighed, a judge would deliver an exhortation to the counterweight, and the liar would be weighed again. If the accused was lighter than before, s/he was honest; if not, s/he was dishonest. However, most ordeals were more gruesome. In Europe, an accused liar was resigned to the hot iron ordeal, where the potential falsifier stuck their tongue on a hot iron nine times. If they weren't burned, they had told the truth; if their tongue burned, they would be executed. Eventually, when ordeals proved ineffective around the 17th century, societies moved onto a safer, more humane technique: torture!

Torture ranged from the creatively gory contraptions used in Medevial times (Link 42) to the enhanced interrogation employed as recently as the mid-2000s by the CIA (Link 43). Unfortunately for the government and fortunately for human rights, torture is ineffective for lie detection, showing a high number of false positives and producing unreliable information generally (Link 37). Luckily, with its lack of a basis in psychology, it has become obsolete in the United States (Link 40).

In the never-ending quest for untainted truth, the 20th century brought along truth serums and the polygraph test. Truth serum, a drug administered to a subject with the intention of causing him/her to provide information s/he would not otherwise offer, certainly loosens the tongue, much like alcohol (Link 39). However, like that conversation you had last Thursday at the pub with the townee at 1 AM, much of the information given after receiving a truth serum is overly boastful and generally unreliable. The polygraph, on the other hand, measures one's blood pressure, pulse, respiration and other physiological measures to determine whether someone is lying. Sadly, it is not considered reliable either (Link 41). Some people, such as sociopaths, may not show any physiological change regardless of what they are saying. Others take countermeasures, like pricking oneself with a needle at random points in the test to skew the data. Finally, members of the scientific community doubt that these measures are even associated with lying, and a greater understanding of the neurological processes behind lying must exist before lie detection can be an objective process. Essentially, until voice stress analysis research is finalized, you're best off just trying to determine if the story you're being told makes sense or not (Link 44).

4. Graphology: Can you tell much about me from my style of writing? Graphology suggests you might be able to, if only I had written this piece by hand. Graphologists study quirks and styles in handwriting to determine the writer's psychological profile, personality traits and mood at the time (Link 16). Graphologists advertise their work as the ideal way to recruit candidates to jobs, tell personality compatibility, or even decide if you're working in the right career. All from your handwriting! It's all the rage in Europe at the moment, and it's just about to turn the corner in the United States.

If this all sounds too good to be true, well, it is. And you didn't even need an analysis of my handwriting to confirm it. Dazzi and Pendrabissi performed a study in which 101 college students provided an autobiographical writing sample to two graphologists (Link 17). They also provided personality information to the researchers, using the most common personality measure in psychology, the Big 5 Personality Traits (Link 18). The graphologists, using the written text, created personality profiles for the students. Not only did they not match the Big 5 test results, they didn't even match each other. This type of study has been repeated over and over, and consistently produces no correlation between handwriting and personality (Link 19).

On a personal level, I have terrible handwriting. When I took my high school SAT, I received a perfect score on my multiple choice writing section, and a 7/12 on my handwritten essay, a barely average result. Perhaps I simply had a bad response, but this pattern continued in my AP tests. After college, I took the GRE, which includes two essay responses, both typed. I received a nearly 100% increase in my score. Is it possible that my bad handwriting made me appear unintelligent to a grader? Maybe. So even though Criminal Minds used to have a graphologist on it, it is correctly considered a false science.

3. Dream interpretation: An unusual pre-psychological theory, because its usage remains popular today in lieu of a universally accepted theory as to the real meaning of dreams. Different cultures had vastly disparate explanations for the existence of dreams, beginning with metaphorical interpretation of symbols. This dream interpretation occurs often in the Bible, with an early documented example springing out of the glorious kingdom of Babylon, whose peaceful regime foreshadowed the tranquil nature of its modern location, on the border between Iraq and Syria.

The Bible's book of Daniel provides excellent anecdotes about Babylonian dream culture, mentioning that wizards, magicians, and astrologers could be hired for dream interpretation. Daniel, however, won the favor of the king after deciphering that the freakish creature made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, clay and mud he dreamed of actually symbolized Babylon and several other future kingdoms (Link 1). Suffice to say, assigning hidden meanings to dreams was even more popular then than it is now!

Thousands of miles away, in ancient China, dreams were considered more of an evaluation of reality and identity. The famous story of Chuang Chou comes to mind - Chuang dreamed of flying around as a butterfly, only to find himself to be human when he awoke. So, did Chuang dream of being a butterfly, or did a butterfly dream of being Chuang? (Link 2). The Chinese treated dreams as less of an identification of symbolism, and more of a philosophical exploration.

Freud, of course, later came into the discourse and followed the theme of symbolism. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud outlined the many ways dreams served as wish fulfillment fantasies, distorted through mental operations so irrelevant to modern dream analysis that I can't be bothered to describe them. Essentially, we dream of what we want, and we have nightmares about our failures to receive our wishes. A skilled dream interpreter, like Freud, could tease out their real meanings (Link 3).

Today, scientists believe in several theories for dreaming, including memory consolidation, problem solving (Link 4), and random brain activity (Link 5), my personal favorite. However, most people still subscribe to the Freudian theory, and studies have shown that Americans are as likely to skip a flight if they dream of a plane crash the night before than if a plane had recently crashed on their specific route (Link 6).

2. Racist Eugenics: Many may wonder why I bothered to write "racist" in front of "eugenics". All eugenics are racist, right?

Not exactly. The concept of eugenics is first recorded with Plato in The Republic (Link 23), under the idea of selectively breeding a "guardian" or elite class in Greece. Being that Greece was homogeneous at the time, this had little to do with race, and everything to do with moral character and intelligence within Greek society. The term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton (no relation to Franz Gall), who wrote the book Hereditary Genius (Link 24). In it, he postulates that talent is hereditary, and societies should stop wasting time protecting the untalented (read: the poor) and instead focus on facilitating a greater "race" of people. And speaking of race, Galton did mention it, in a racist but weird way. His introduction to his amended edition of Genius notes that ideally, society would be best served if a new race sprung up that was superior over "the modern European", the way "the modern European" was to the "negro".

 Soon after, the United States became interested in eugenics, leading to over 64,000 forced sterilizations of the poor, disabled, and "feeble-minded", in the early 1900s especially in California (Link 33). This horror show even helped inspire Adolf Hitler in his mass genocide of non-Arians. This is the most common memory most people have of eugenics, which mostly died out due to moral problems after World War II (Link 25). Yet even after the Holocaust, forced sterilization continued to exist within the legal bounds of some American states.

Eugenics are beginning to make a comeback, as artificial insemination and surrogate mothers renew the cycle of trait selection. Some worry about the implications of this, and how it could create a gap between the rich and poor (Link 34). Your thoughts on the immorality of this unnatural process are your own, but so far, so good on leaving the racist aspect of eugenics behind.

1.  Parapsychology: The most theoretically appealing theory on this list! The Rhine Research Center, one of the most prominent modern parapsychology labs, "explores the frontiers of consciousness and exceptional human experiences in the context of unusual and unexplained phenomena" (Link 9). The Rhine Center, like other parapsychology institutes, attempts to explain everything science cannot. This sounds interesting and potentially insightful, until you remember that psychology, long ago, decided to study concepts that exist, not ones that consistently fail validity and reliability tests.

Parapsychology covers a litany of paranormal phenomena, but hones in most closely on telepathy (mind to mind communication); clairvoyance (knowledge of things hidden by space or time, like the order of a deck of cards, face down); precognition (ability to see the future - if you have this, contact me so we can hit the Powerball lottery soon); and psychokinesis (ability to interact with matter at a distance, like turns the dice at the craps table so seven and 11 hit every time). Seriously, it's tough to overstate how good a gambler you'd be with parapsychological powers.

Parapsychology peaked in popularity in the late 1800s, when many prominent educators and intellectuals whose names you've never heard joined the Society for Psychical Research in London (Link 10). The field lost this popularity quickly when a torrent of the Society's claims did not hold up to rigorous scientific examination (11 Stokes, 2015). For example, Charles Richet performed a clairvoyance experiment in 1884, sealing playing cards in envelopes and having a subject guess their identity. The subject was highly successful...until asked to replicate the feat in front of a group of scientists. His score fell to a chance level equivalent. Hey, maybe the scientists disrupted the psychical power in the room, and he wasn't cheating. Despite experiment after experiment like this, suggesting cheating in parapsychological experiments that are not repeatable, some people continue to believe in parapsychology.

Bonus: current pseudo-psychological theory - Conversion Therapy - A rousing (no pun intended) addition that would certainly have made this list outright 20 years from now, conversion therapy is the treatment of gay, lesbian, or otherwise not straight people. It is illegal in California, but practiced widely still across the United States, mostly by the many family therapists that belong to The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Although to paint a whole organization with one broad stroke would be unfair; the AAMFT official opposes conversion therapy, though some of its more cavalier members remain the primary practicioners (Link 30).

 The therapy presupposes that homosexuality is a mental disorder causing a lack of character or morality, a stance not supported by the DSM-5, the APA or any other health organization (Link 28). Furthermore, the preferred outcome of the therapy is for the patient to come out (so to speak) as heterosexual. The efforts to convert the patient are done either via therapies or by ministries, and the views opposing homosexuality are generally either cultural or religious in nature.

Conversion therapy is opposed by all major medical organizations. It is considered harmful to the individual, and harmful to society. It tells the confused client that their beliefs are a mental disorder, or against a higher cultural or religious power. The APA shows anecdotal evidence of growing self-hatred through these camps, as well as a lower threshold for noticing surrounding prejudice. So why is this just a bonus, and not on the list out-right? While the idea of moral fortitude (or lack thereof) causing a "disease" like homosexuality is surely pre-psychological, the misguided therapy itself uses some tenants of modern psychological treatment. In a bad way. So, even if your children are confused, don't send them to Gay Camp (Link 29).

1 (
4 Psychoanalytic psychotherapy: A handbook (Matthias Elzer, 2014). (
5 Cognitive Patterns in Dreams and Daydreams (Aaron T. Beck, 2004) (
6 The Rise of Experimental Biology: An Illustrated History (Peter Lutz, 2002) (


11  Parapsychology: A handbook for the 21st century. Douglas M Stokes, 2015. 



17 Graphology and personality: An empirical study on validity of handwriting analysis. Dazzi & Pendrabissi, 2009.
19 Tall tales about the mind and brain: separating fact from fiction. Barry Beyerstein, 2007, pages 233-270.









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