JANET, PIERRE MARIE FELIX (1859-1947)

Janet, one of the first systematic students of neurosis, was bom and raised in Paris, and studied at the University of Paris. There he attracted the attention of Charcot and others by hypnotizing a dissociated young woman who claimed to have psychic powers. Charcot accepted him as a pupil, and a few years later, appointed him director of the psychological clinic at the Salpetriere Hospital. In addition to his activities at the clinic, he taught psychology at the Sorbonne and the College de France. Among his published works are L’Automatisme Psycholo- gique (1889), The Mental State of Hys- tericals (1892; English translation, 1901), Neuroses et Idees Fixes (1898), Les Obsessions et la Psychasthenie (1903), The Major Symptoms of Hysteria (1907; English translation, 1920), and Les Debuts de Vlntelligence (1937). Janet turned his attention to the study of hysteria and other neuroses as a result of his association with Charcot. One of his major contributions was a distinction between neurasthenia and psychasthenia, two categories which he differentiated from convulsive and hysterical disorders. Neurasthenia comprised such symptoms as depression, inability to eat, and easy fatigability, and was considered a relatively mild disturbance similar to the familiar “jangled nerves.” Psychasthenia, on the other hand, was characterized by phobias, obsessions, and loss of willpower. To Janet this appeared to be a more serious condition since it involved a greater degree of psychological tension and internal conflict than neurasthenia.In using concepts of this kind, Janet was suggesting that factors outside of consciousness can affect behavior. Some people have therefore concluded that he recognized the dynamic character of the unconscious. This, however, is a misconception, for instead of attributing psychiatric symptoms to unconscious forces, he offered the theory that parts of the psyche become split off, or dissociated, from consciousness due to physical debility. Some individuals, he claimed, are endowed with a weaker nervous system than others. When they are subjected to sexual or emotional trauma or excessive stress, they cannot act in an integrated fashion, and as a result develop feelings of exhaustion, morbid fears, or other disturbances such as paralysis and amnesia.In adopting this “physical stress” explanation, Janet was greatly influenced by the British neurologist Hughlings Jackson, who had advanced a theory based on levels of nervous activity. In Jackson’s view, one of the primary functions of the brain is to inhibit and control the activities of the lower spinal tracts, and when destruction of brain tissue takes place, conscious control is weakened and the reflexes gain the upper hand. Janet applied this idea to mental symptoms, suggesting, in 1882, that ideas which would normally be under conscious control might not only split off but even develop an autonomous system of their own. He called these dissociated ideas “idees fixes,” and even spoke of them as “unconscious” in the special sense mentioned above. By 1892 he held that hysteria was a result of the splitting of the personality due to a concentration of consciousness on one set of ideas and active avoidance of another set. The neglected set, however, remained active and expressed itself in symptom formation. In extreme cases, this process might even bring about the coexistence of two or more independent personalities. See MULTIPLE PERSONALITY.Although these concepts have much in common with Freud’s theories of repression and symptom formation, it must be recognized that Janet never advanced a psychological explanation of hysteria. Even though he used the term unconscious, he did not employ it in a dynamic sense, but interpreted symptoms as the “automatic” product of a weakened consciousness which could not keep all ideas in harness, with the result that some broke away and sought outlets on their own. His use of the term unconscious was therefore a fa?on de parler, a descriptive and not a dynamic concept.Janet was as interested in therapy as he was in theory. He kept reminding his colleagues that mental illness can and must be actively treated, and even went so far as to suggest that quackery should not be frowned upon if it brought the desired results. He was one of the first to make a systematic investigation of the effectiveness of suggestion, and claimed that hypnotic techniques could be used to counteract the idees fixes which were causing the patient’s symptoms. But, as Zilboorg and Henry point out (1941), his view that neurosis is based upon degeneration of the nervous system precluded the development of a fully effective psychotherapy.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "JANET, PIERRE MARIE FELIX (1859-1947)," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/janet-pierre-marie-felix-1859-1947/ (accessed October 17, 2019).
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