Tag Archives: neurasthenia

New Article: Breathing Exercises as Treatment for Neurasthenia in Japan

Yu-Chuan Wu

The July 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences includes an article of interest to AHP readers. The piece describes the use of breathing exercises as a treatment for neurasthenia in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. Full details follow below.

“A Disorder of Qi: Breathing Exercise as a Cure for Neurasthenia in Japan, 1900–1945,” by Yu-Chuan Wu. The abstract reads,

Neurasthenia became a common disease and caused widespread concern in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century, whereas only a couple of decades earlier the term “nerve” had been unfamiliar, if not unknown, to many Japanese. By exploring the theories and practices of breathing exercise—one of the most popular treatments for neurasthenia at the time—this paper attempts to understand how people who practiced breathing exercises for their nervous ills perceived, conceived, and accordingly cared for their nerves. It argues that they understood “nerve” based on their existing conceptions of qi. Neurasthenia was for them a disorder of qi, although the qi had assumed modern appearances as blood and nervous current. The paper hopes to contribute to the understanding of how the concept of nerves has been accepted and assimilated in East Asia. It also points out the need to understand the varied cultures of nerves not only at the level of concept and metaphor, but also at the level of perception and experience.

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New JHBS: Child Science, Ink Blots, Subconscious Conflict, & More

V. M. Bekhterev

The Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences is now online. Articles in this issue explore the work of V. M. Bekhterev, patient experiences of “subconscious conflict” in prewar America, the history of the Rorschach test in Britain, and the mid-twentieth century relationship between the Carnegie Corporation and the Social Science Research Council. Full titles, authors and abstracts follow below.


In the early 20th century the child population became a major focus of scientific, professional and public interest. This led to the crystallization of a dynamic field of child science, encompassing developmental and educational psychology, child psychiatry and special education, school hygiene and mental testing, juvenile criminology and the anthropology of childhood. This article discusses the role played in child science by the eminent Russian neurologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev. The latter’s name is associated with a distinctive program for transforming the human sciences in general and psychology in particular that he in the 1900s labelled “objective psychology” and from the 1910s renamed “reflexology.” The article examines the equivocal place that Bekhterev’s “objective psychology” and “reflexology” occupied in Russian/Soviet child science in the first three decades of the 20th century. While Bekhterev’s prominence in this field is beyond doubt, analysis shows that “objective psychology” and “reflexology” had much less success in mobilizing support within it than certain other movements in this arena (for example, “experimental pedagogy” in the pre-revolutionary era); it also found it difficult to compete with the variety of rival programs that arose within Soviet “pedology” during the 1920s. However, this article also demonstrates that the study of child development played a pivotal role in Bekhterev’s program for the transformation of the human sciences: it was especially important to his efforts to ground in empirical phenomena and in concrete research practices a new ontology of the psychological, which, the article argues, underpinned “objective psychology”/“reflexology” as a transformative scientific movement.


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JHBS early view: Neurasthenia and Patient-Psychiatrist Interactions in Pre-war America

JHBSThe Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences has published an article online-first by Susan Lamb. It’s titled ‘My resisting getting well: Neurasthenia and subconscious conflict in patient-psychiatrist interactions in prewar America.’

The abstract reads as follows:

This study examines experiences of individual patients and psychiatrists in the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins between 1913 and 1917. The dynamics of these patient-psychiatrist interactions elucidate the well-known conceptual shift in explanations of mental illness during the twentieth century, from somatic models rooted in the logic of “neurasthenia” and damaged nerves to psychodynamic models based on the notion of “subconscious conflict.” A qualitative analysis of 336 cases categorized as functional disorders (a catchall term in this period for illnesses that could not be confirmed as organic diseases), shows that patients explained their symptoms and suffering in terms of bodily malfunctions, and, particularly, as a “breakdown” of their nervous apparatus. Psychiatrists at the Phipps Clinic, on the other hand, working under the direction of its prominent director, Adolf Meyer, did not focus their examinations and therapies on the body’s nervous system, as patients expected. They theorized that the characteristic symptoms of functional disorders—chronic exhaustion, indigestion, headaches and pain, as well as strange obsessive and compulsive behaviors—resulted from a distinct pathological mechanism: a subconscious conflict between powerful primal and social impulses. Phipps patients were often perplexed when told their physical symptoms were byproducts of an inner psychological struggle; some rejected the notion, while others integrated it with older explanations to reconceptualize their experiences of illness. The new concept also had the potential to alter psychiatrists’ perceptions of disorders commonly diagnosed as hysteria, neurasthenia, or psychoneuroses. The Phipps records contain examples of Meyer and his staff transcending the frustration experienced by many doctors who had observed troubling but common behaviors in such cases: morbid introspection, hypochondria, emotionalism, pity-seeking, or malingering. Subconscious conflict recast these behaviors as products of “self-deception,” which both absolved the sufferer and established an objective clinical marker by which a trained specialist could recognize functional disorder. Using individual case studies to elucidate the disjunction between patients’ and psychiatrists’ perspectives on what all agreed were debilitating illnesses, this analysis helps to illuminate the origins of a radical transformation in psychiatric knowledge and popular culture in the twentieth century—from somatic to psychodynamic explanations of mental illness.

The article can be found here.

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Tropical Neurasthenia and Leprosy Asylums

The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences has just posted two forthcoming articles on its website. Anna Crozier (pictured left), of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has written on the history of tropical neurasthenia in British East Africa. In “What Was Tropical about Tropical Neurasthenia? The Utility of the Diagnosis in the Management of British East Africa,” Crozier explores the diagnosis of tropical neurasthenia in the early twentieth century. The abstract reads,

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, tropical neurasthenia was a popular diagnosis for a nervous condition experienced by Europeans in the topics. Tropical neurasthenia was not psychosis or madness, but was rather an ennui or loss of “edge” brought about by the strains of tropical life, especially the unfamiliar, hot climate. A catch-all for a wide range of symptoms, many missionaries, colonial staff, and settlers throughout Empire were repatriated because of it, although this article concentrates on Colonial Service employees working in British East Africa. While histories of tropical neurasthenia have usefully (and correctly) explained this diagnosis as an expression of the anxieties of the colonial regime, this article adds a new dimension to the historiography by arguing that tropical neurasthenia can only be properly understood as a hybrid form, dependent not only upon the peculiarities of the colonial situation, but also descended from British and American clinical understandings of neurasthenia. Continue reading Tropical Neurasthenia and Leprosy Asylums

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