Early Influences on Freud’s Theory
Freud’s Visit with Charcot
Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hypnotism.
In 1885, Freud received a small grant that allowed him to study with the famous French neurologist
Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) who was experimenting with hypnotism. At that time, Charcot was
at the peak of his career and in French medicine was considered second in prominence to only Louis
Pasteur. By endorsing the use of hypnotism, Charcot dramatically reversed the negative attitude toward
the phenomenon held by members of the medical community since, in the 1770s, Franz Anton Mesmer
(1734–1815) had claimed it resulted from the rearrangement of animal spirits within the body.
After hypnotizing a patient, Charcot demonstrated that various types of paralyses could be created and
removed artificially through the inducement of the hypnotist. Thus he demonstrated that physical
symptoms could have a psychological origin as well as a physical or organic origin. Charcot was so
impressed by the mind’s ability to create and remove physical symptoms that he wondered if his
discovery could eventually explain faith healing (Sulloway, 1979, p. 30).
Charcot’s observations had clear implications for the treatment of hysteria. Hysteria is a term used to
describe a wide variety of symptoms such as paralysis, loss of sensation, and disturbances of sight and
speech. Originally, it was assumed that hysteria was exclusively a female disorder (hystera is the Greek
word for uterus). Because it was often impossible to find anything organically wrong with hysteric
patients, the medical community tended to view them as malingerers, and the physicians who agreed to
treat them were typically discredited. Charcot’s research indicated that the physical symptoms of
hysteric patients could be psychogenic, and therefore the disease must be taken seriously even if
symptoms could not be explained in terms of organic dysfunction. Thus Charcot did much to make the
treatment of hysteria respectable. Charcot also convincingly demonstrated that, contrary to what most
physicians had believed, hysteria was not an exclusively female disorder. By showing the psychogenic
nature of bodily symptoms, Charcot provided a new approach to studying hysteria, an ailment that had
puzzled the medical community for centuries. Freud soon explored the implications of this approach.
Freud was so impressed by Charcot that he named his first son, Jean-Martin, after him.
Freud’s Visit with Bernheim
After Freud returned from his visit with Charcot, he attempted to use hypnotism in his private practice
but was only partially successful. In an effort to improve his skills as a hypnotist, Freud returned to
France in 1889. This time, however, he visited Hippolyte Bernheim (1840–1919) in Nancy, France.
Like Charcot and his colleagues, members of the “Nancy School” were experimenting with hypnosis as