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Showing posts with label description. Show all posts

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Mind, Madness and Melancholia

On 10th May 2016 the Royal Society of Medicine hosted a one-day conference on Mind, Madness and Melancholia: Ideas and institutions in psychiatry from classical antiquity to the present. I attended the two morning sessions which focused on the concept of madness and melancholy in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and in the golden era of Arab medicine.

The first speaker was Glenn Most (pictured below), professor of Greek Philology at the Scuola Normale, Pisa, Italy. He started by challenging the view that there was a smooth transition from mythos to logos in the Greek thought, that is, that phenomena previously regarded as mysterious and supernatural were then explained by human reason. When it comes to mental phenomena concerning insanity, for a long time a multiplicity of methods and approaches co-existed. People who manifested strange behaviour could be 'treated' in phases: confined first, asked to try physical remedies second, conceived of as possessed by the gods and subject to religious rituals third, and then left to simple prayer. Thus, madness could be approached medically by the ancient Greeks, but was also given some religious and moral significance, as if being mad were a punishment by the gods.

Plato in the dialogues distinguished between illness of the body and illness of the soul, further dividing the latter into mania and melancholia. A gradual medical approach to illnesses of the soul followed, with Hippocrates developing a humoral theory of them (according to which illnesses are causes by imbalances among elements such as yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood), and Galen identifying the brain as the organ where problems arise. Although Galen studied the anatomy of the brain, his remedies were not based on such investigations, but more akin to modern 'talking therapies'.