Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/December 1875/Strange Mental Faculties in Disease

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 8 December 1875  (1875) 
Strange Mental Faculties in Disease
By Hezekiah Butterworth

THERE are certain mental mysteries associated with peculiar states of disease, and especially with low, nervous diseases, which discover unexpected powers of mind, and which illustrate some of the conditions on which human life depends, and the laws that govern its continuance. Among these are certain enlargements of the perceptive faculties, and a singular power which the mind seems to possess of acting independently of its organs.

Our attention was recently called to the subject by the mental condition of a near relative, suffering from extreme nervous debility. "I am in constant fear of insanity," she said to me one day, "and I wish I could be moved to some retreat for the insane. I understand my condition perfectly: my reason does not seem to be impaired, but I can think of two things at the same time. This is an indication of mental unsoundness, and is a terror to me. I do not seem to have slept at all for the last six weeks. If I sleep, it must be in a succession of vivid dreams that destroy all impression of somnolence. Since I have been in this condition, I seem to have very vivid impressions of what happens to my children who are away from home, and I am often startled to learn that these impressions are correct. I seem to have also a certain power of anticipating what one is about to say, and to read the motives of others. I take no pleasure in this strange increase of mental power; it is all unnatural; I cannot live in this state long, and I often wish that I were dead."

The faculty of memory is one of the first to be obviously affected by disease. When disease for a time seems to suspend the action of this faculty, or visibly to diminish it, the result is not looked upon as phenomenal, for it is common and expected. But when disease increases the power of this faculty, a thing not uncommon, the patient is not unfrequently regarded as possessing more than human wisdom, and the case usually excites comment as one of great mystery. Dr. Steinbech mentions the case of a clergyman who, being summoned to administer the sacrament to an illiterate peasant, found the patient praying aloud in Greek and Hebrew. The case was deemed wellnigh miraculous. After the peasant's death, it was found that he was accustomed in youth to hear the parish minister pray in those languages, and it was inferred that he must have been repeating remembered words without understanding their meaning. Dr. Abercrombie relates the circumstances of a more remarkable case. A poor shepherd-girl was for a time accustomed to sleep in a room adjoining that occupied by an itinerant musician. The man was an artist by education, a lover of his profession, and often spent a large portion of the night in practising difficult compositions. The violin was his favorite instrument. At last the shepherd-girl fell ill, and was removed to a charitable institution. Here the attendants were amazed at hearing the most exquisite music in the night, in which were recognized finely-rendered passages from the best works of the old masters. The sounds were traced to the shepherd-girl's room, where the patient was found playing the violin in her sleep. Awake, she knew nothing of these things, and exhibited no capacity for music.

A late number of the London Medico-Chirurgical Review, in an article on apoplexy, speaks of vivid dreams as a common warning in the first and often unrecognized stages of insanity, heart-disease, and phthisis, and one that it would be well to better understand and heed. Vivid dreaming, which in some cases seems to be a mental illumination, and in others a prophecy of impending ill, precedes many diseases long before the victim is aware of his condition. These dreams sometimes take the forms of waking fancies, double consciousness, and what is called mystic memory. In February, 1829, when Sir Walter Scott was breaking himself down by severe and protracted literary labor, and was suffering the first invasion of ill health which ultimately ended in death, he wrote in his diary on the 17th, that, on the preceding day, at dinner, although in company with two or three old friends, he was strongly haunted by a "sense of preëxistence," a confused idea that nothing that passed was said for the first time; that the same topics had been discussed, and that the same persons had expressed the same opinions before. "There was," he writes, "a vile sense of a want of reality in all that I did or said." Goethe relates that, as he was once in an uneasy and unhealthy state of mind, riding along a foot-path toward Drusenheim, he saw himself on horseback coming toward himself; and similar stories are told of other highly-imaginative persons whose mental balance has been disturbed by over-anxiety or incipient illness.

The states of physical prostration known as coma somnolentum and coma vigil exhibit, in their largest extent, the poetic capacities of the mind. The impressions, dreams, and illusions, in these conditions, are such as no healthy mind could possibly conceive. The patient seems to live in a charmed world, amid spectral beings and airy people, changing lights, luminous heights, and appalling shadows; in short, no glowing epic or work of the painter's art seems so much as to touch upon such richness of imagery. Mrs. Hemans on lier death-bed said that no pen could describe or imagination conceive the visions that passed before her mind, and made her waking hours more delightful than those spent in repose.

Rev. William Tennent, of Freehold, New Jersey, was an overworked student, and was supposed to be far gone in consumption. In a protracted illness he apparently died, and the preparations were made for his funeral. Not only were his friends deceived in his case, which was one of coma, but he himself was doubly illusioned, for he both thought that he was dead and that his spirit had entered paradise. His soul, as he thought, was borne aloft, to celestial altitudes, and was enraptured with visions of the Deity and angelic hosts. He seemed to dwell in an enchanted region of limitless light and inconceivable splendor. At last an angel came to him and told him that he must go back. Darkness, like an overawing shadow, shut out the celestial glories, and, full of sudden horror, he uttered a deep groan. This dismal utterance was heard by those around him, and prevented him from being buried alive, after all the preparations had been made for the removal of the body.

In certain forms of physical prostration, the mind seems to the patient to be capable of unusual freedom; to be in and out of the body at the same time, to be able to make impressions at a distance, and to have a knowledge of itself and of events transpiring around it quite beyond the usual range of the faculties. In analyzing these seeming powers, it is impossible to separate the imaginary from what may be real, and to determine the exact limit of mental action. Plutarch relates that a certain profligate and profane man, named Thespesius, fell from a great height and was taken up apparently dead. He remained in a state of seeming insensibility for three days, but on the day appointed for the funeral unexpectedly revived, and from this time a remarkable change was observed in his moral conduct and character. On inquiry being made as to the cause of the sudden reformation, he said that, in his state of apparent insensibility, he had been made so clearly to see the relation of mind to matter as to be convinced of the future existence of the soul. After his injury he had supposed himself to be dead, and his spirit to be separated from the body. He had seemed to float in an abysm of light, and to be surrounded by spirits transcendently bright and glorious. One of the latter at last announced to him that he must return to the flesh again, when he suddenly seemed to reappear on earth, as a being from another world. In 1733, Johann Schwerzeger, after a long illness, fell into a comatose state, from which he recovered. He said that he had seen as in a vision his whole life pass before him, even events which, before his sickness, he seemed to have quite forgotten. He further stated that he thought he was about to enter a state of rest and happiness, when he was recalled to the world; that he was sorry to have come back, but that he should remain here but two days. His death fulfilled the prediction.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all phenomena of this nature is a certain power a few patients have seemed to possess of "withdrawing from sensation," of becoming at will insensible to pain, and of producing a resemblance of death. Colonel Townsend, an Englishman, who died at the end of the last century, had in his last sickness the extraordinary power of apparently dying and returning to life again. "I found his pulse sink gradually," wrote Dr. Cheyne, his medical attendant, "so that I could not feel it by the most exact or nice touch. Dr. Raymond could not detect the least motion of the heart, nor Dr. Skrine the least soil of the breath upon the bright mirror held to his mouth. We began to fear that he was actually dead. lie then began to breathe softly." The colonel tried this experiment a number of times during his illness, and was able to render himself insensible at will.

Dr. Brown-Sequard, in a course of lectures before the Boston-Lowell Institute, last winter, illustrated many like remarkable powers of mind in mental and physical disease, by cases which had come under his own observation. From such cases it would seem that the mind is largely dependent on physical conditions for the exercise of its faculties, and that its strength and most remarkable powers, as well as its apparent weakness, are often most clearly shown and recognized by some inequality of action in periods of disturbed and greatly-impaired health.

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