(This is an excerpt from "Masters of the Mind"―an article well worth reading.)
Dr. Sidis―a Russian Revolutionist
Dr. Sidis has a two-fold claim on the interest of the readers of this magazine, as being the father of that wonderful the eleven-year-old Harvard student, William James Sidis―he was twelve in April―whose remarkable achievements I described in an article which appeared recently in this magazine.* As his name implies, Dr. Sidis is a Russian, but all his scientific work has been done in the United States.
Born in a city of southern Russia, he became involved, while still a very young man, in the Russian revolutionary movement; was arrested, clapped into a fortress, and narrowly escaped a sentence to Siberia. After his release the police made matters so uncomfortable for him that he fled the country, and, after a brief sojourn in Germany, came to New York, knowing not a word of English, friendless, and almost penniless.
This was in 1888. Less than a decade later―the young Russian having managed to put himself through Harvard, where he came under the stimulating influence of Professor William James, and was led to specialize in psychology―he astonished the veterans in that science by the publication of a striking book on "The Psychology of Suggestion." In the meantime he had been appointed Associate in Psychopathology in the then recently established Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals. Here he remained several years, developing his method of hypnoidization and effecting many impressive cures.
One of these may well be given to illustrate with increased emphasis the subtle and farreaching influence of the mind in causing disease, and the diagnostic and therapeutic value of hypnoidization.
There was brought to Dr. Sidis, as a last resort before committing the sufferer to an asylum, a young man of twenty-five who presented as complex and astonishing a combination of symptoms as is to be found in medical annals.
He was afflicted, for one thing, with an insistent belief that he was always making mistakes, even with regard to the most trifling matters. If, for instance, he wrote a letter, he was never sure that he had addressed it correctly, and others had to read the address over in order to satisfy him, In locking his bedroom door, he had to try the lock over and over again, to get full assurance that he had really locked it. When retiring he never felt certain that he had turned off the gas-jet, and felt obliged to get up and test it with a lighted match, Besides this perpetual "folie de doute," as it is technically called, he was troubled with an absurd desire to "tear out his eyes, put them under a weight, and have them crushed." He frequently suffered, too, from brief attacks of psychic paralysis, or "aboulia," feeling temporarily deprived of all power of speech and motion.
Nor does this exhaust the catalogue of his ills. He had an irrational fear of contracting some deadly disease, more particularly consumption, and was forever washing his hands "to rub the germs off." He complained of a palpitation of the heart, and was unquestionably troubled by a chronic irritation of the bladder, which caused him a great deal of inconvenience. and which ordinary medical treatment had utterly failed to relieve. Altogether, his condition seemed to be hopeless, and such as to justify the fear of his family that he was doomed to spend the remainder of his life behind the walls of an institution.
But Dr. Sidis, by the application of some delicate tests, ascertained that, whatever the nature of his complicated malady, the unfortunate young man was not really insane. The likelihood, therefore, was that his entire complex of symptoms, physical as well as mental, was actually nothing more than the outward manifestation of unpleasant subconscious ideas, associated with forgotten experiences of his earlier life. To get at these subconscious ideas, Dr. Sidis made use of his method of hypnoidization.
How Dr. Sidis Hypnoidizes His Patients
Here is his own account of the manner in which he puts his patients into the hypnoidal state:
"The patient is asked to close his eyes and keep as quiet as possible, without, however, making any special effort to put himself in such a state. He is then asked to attend to some stimulus such as reading or singing (or to the monotonous beats of a metronome). When the reading is over, the patient, with his eyes shut, is asked to repeat it and tell what comes into his mind during the reading, or during the repetition, or immediately after it. Sometimes the patient is simply asked to tell the nature of ideas and images that have entered his mind. This should be carried out in a very quiet place, and the room, if possible, should be darkened so as not to disturb the patient and bring him out of the state in which he has been put.
"As modifications of the same method, the patient is asked to fix his attention on some object, while at the same time listening to the beats of a metronome; the patient’s eyes are then closed. After some, when his respiration and pulse are found somewhat lowered, and he declares that he thinks of nothing in particular; he is asked to concentrate his attention on a subject closely relating to the symptoms of the malady.
“The patient, again, is instructed to keep very quiet, and then is asked to look steadily into a glass of water on a white background, with light shining through the contents of the glass; a mechanism producing monotonous sounds is set going, and after a time, when the patient is observed to have become unusually quiet, he is asked to tell what he thinks in regard to a subject relating to his symptoms. In short, the method of hypnoidization is not necessarily a fixed, it admits of many modifications; it is highly pliable and can be adjusted to the type of case as well as adapted to the idiosyncrasies of the patient's individuality."
A Remarkable Cure
Simple as this process sounds, it has a peculiar effect, sending the patient into a half-waking, half-sleeping state―the hypnoidal state―during which he can recall, sometimes with startling vividness, memories of events and experiences which have long faded from his consciousness. It was thus with the young man whose case has just been outlined.
Fragmentarily but vividly a host of grim memory pictures floated into his mind, and were described by him as he lay hypnoidized. When he was a very young child, it appeared from the statements he made during hypnoidization, he had lived with an aged grandfather who had been a sufferer from a peculiarly distressing bladder trouble, had been remarkably absent-minded, and had had difficulty and hesitancy in handling anything given to him. All this the child had watched with great sympathy and grief. After his grandfather's death, however, he had gradually forgotten, so far as his conscious memory was concerned, all about the old gentleman and his troubles; but the impression made on his sensitive, imaginative nature had been too profound to allow the sad experiences he had witnessed to fade away completely. In other words, the young man's bladder trouble, his "aboulia," and his "folie de doute," were symptomatic of no organic malady but were purely functional, and were the “working out" of the painful emotional experiences of childhood, which subconsciously he had lever forgotten, and which had been able to spring into baneful activity and develop into disease-symptoms as soon as he had weakened himself by overstudy.
So with his other symptoms. By means of the method of hypnoidization, his irrational fear of contracting consumption was traced back to his having witnessed, at a tender age, the death agonies of an aunt who had died of tuberculosis. His absurd desire to tear out his eyes and crush them had its origin in another experience of childhood, when he had an inflammation of the eyes and had to undergo the ordeal of having them bathed with various washes. During hypnoidization he also recollected having heard, when a child, horrible stories about people whose eyes "swell and bulge and then crack and break." One can readily imagine, as Dr. Sidis says, "what a deep and lasting though subconscious influence such gruesome tales may exert on the sensitive mind of a highly imaginative child."
Not all of these forgotten memories were recovered by a single hypnoidization. It required weeks of patient endeavor to bring them fully above the threshold of consciousness. But eventually Dr. Sidis had in his possession, so to speak, a complete map of the starting-points of his patient's symptoms, and was able to work an absolute and permanent cure.
All that he had to do, having once got at the specific disease-producing memories, was to recall them one by one to the young man's waking consciousness, showing them to him in their true light as mere memory-images of past events, and at the same time impressing upon him, through suggestions given during hypnoidization, the belief that they would henceforth have no ill effect on him.
A Doctrine of Reserve Energy
Now, while he has been curing his patients, Dr. Sidis has also been studying them, and has reached some novel and startling conclusions. Chief among these is his doctrine of reserve energy.
According to this doctrine, each of us possesses a stored-up fund of energy, of which we ordinarily do not make any use, but which we could be trained to use habitually to our great advantage. Dr. Sidis contends that it is by arousing this potential energy that the patients whom he treats are cured; and he further insists that, by the remarkable results he has obtained in educating his boy, he has demonstrated the possibility of training people to draw readily and helpfully on their hidden energies.
If he is right in this contention his psychopathological researches obviously have a vital bearing, not only on the problems of medicine, but on equally important problems in the domain of educational and social reform. In any event, it is conceded that by his masterly analysis of the laws of suggestion, his development of the hypnoidal state, and his classification of the factors governing the production of mentally caused diseases, he has made highly original and valuable contributions to the growth of the new science which seems to promise so much for the future of humanity.
This being so, it is interesting to know that Dr. Sidis will soon be in a position to carry on his investigations more extensively and systematically than in the past, since, through the generosity of a wealthy New England woman, Mrs. Martha Jones, he has come into possession of a beautiful estate near Portsmouth, N. H., given for the express purpose of establishing a psychopathological institute―the first of its kind in the United States.
Here he will not only receive patients for treatment, but will install a complete laboratory equipment for careful experimental work; and he also hopes, as soon as he has the institute organized, to found a training-school to which physicians can come for instruction in the principles and methods of psychopathology.
* “Bending the Twig,” in the March, 1910, issue of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.