The Greeks and Romans always thought that psychological disorders were biologically caused and so, they treated them like physical illnesses.
Hippocrates: already impressively close to the truth in 400 B.C.
Hippocrates, a Greek physician (470-366 B.C.) and many others contributed to a manual called the Hippocratic Corpus, on how psychological disorders could be treated like any other disease. However, Hippocrates and his associates didn’t stop there; they had the notion that psychological disorders might also be caused by brain pathology or head trauma and also, they had the idea that psychopathology could be influenced by genetics.
It’s quite interesting to see how close Hippocrates came to the truth. Many of his deductions have been supported in recent years. Hippocrates also recognized the importance of social contributions to psychopathology, such as the negative effects of family stress. In some cases he even removed patients from their families.
The Roman physician Galen (approx. 129-198 A.D.) took the ideas of Hippocrates even further. He created a powerful and influential school of thought within the biological tradition of psychology that extended well into the 19th century.
Galen’s theory was the humoral theory, and perhaps the forst example of associating psychological disorders with chemical imbalance, which is a widespread theory still to this day.
It was initially assumed that normal brain functioning was related to four body fluids (or humors): blood (the heart), black bile (the spleen), yellow bile (the liver) and phlegm (the brain). Physicians believed that too much or too little of any of these humors would lead to disease. For instance, it was believed that too much black bile lead to melancholia (depression).
The four humors were related to the Greeks’ conception of the four basic qualities: heat, dryness, moisture and cold. Each humor was associated with one of these qualities. Terms derived from the four humors are still used today to describe personality traits. For example sanguine (red, like blood) describes someone who is ruddy in complexion, cheerful and optimistic. Melancholic means depressive, and a phlegmatic personality indicates apathy and sluggishness, but can also mean being calm under stress. A choleric (from yellow bile or choler) person is hot tempered.
Treatment of an excess of humors
An overabundance of any of these humors was treated by regulating environmental factors. They increased or decreased heat, dryness, moisture or cold, depending on which humor was out of balance.
In addition to rest, good nutrition and exercise, two treatments were developed. In one, bleeding, or bloodletting, a carefully measured amount of blood was removed from the body. This was often done with leeches. The other was to induce vomiting to treat depression (in Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Robert Burton advised to eat tobacco and a half-boiled cabbage to induce vomiting).
What do you think of these theories? It’s interesting to see that these theories are already so old, but still so close to the truth. Of course, the humoral theory has become obsolete somewhere in the last two centuries, but people have always considered the theory to be true.
Also, isn’t it great that this theory had such a big influence of a part of our language, on how we describe personality traits?
Please share your thoughts!
Source: Barlow, D.H., & Durand, V.M. (2009) Abnormal psychology: an integrative approach (5th Edition). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.