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Boris Sidis, Ph.D.

© 1898. New York, D. Appleton and Company.




        IMPORTANT as the problem of amnesia is for psychology and psychiatry, no case of amnesia has been studied carefully and experimented on, so as to bring out the inner nature of the subconscious self. Fortunately, a very important case of amnesia recently fell under my care and observation. Dr. S. P. Goodhart, of New York, in making a clinical examination of a case of amnesia and not finding any external signs of organic lesion, had the kindness to refer the case to me for psychological investigation. Thanks to the scientific spirit and excellent facilities for research work at the Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals, I was enabled to undertake the work. Dr. Goodhart was so much interested in the case that he gave up much of his time to assist me in my psychological investigations of the intricacies of this case.

         This case of amnesia is certainly unique in the annals of psychiatry, because it presents such a rich store of manifold phenomena bearing an intimate relation to many important problems in the science of psychology, and especially because no other case within my knowledge has been so closely and vigilantly watched, so carefully experimented upon, and so many momentous results elicited concerning the nature of the subconscious. From a clinical standpoint, too, this case of amnesia is of the utmost consequence, on account of the methods worked out for the diagnosis of different types of amnesia. From a practical therapeutic stand point the case can not but be of the highest interest, because of the psycho-therapeutic methods first worked out and applied by me to this case in order to effect a complete cure.

         I give here but a very brief outline of this extremely interesting case, since a full account of it, together with a discussion of the methods used and the results arrived at, will appear in the State Hospitals Bulletin, published by the New York State Hospitals. For our purpose, meanwhile, a short account of the case will suffice to reveal the presence and the nature of the secondary self, to work out the different forms of subconscious states, and to classify the different types of amnesia to which these states may give rise.

         The following is a brief statement of the case:

         The patient, Rev. Thomas C. Hanna, of Plantsville, Conn., twenty-five years of age, is a man of extraordinary abilities and high aspirations. He has an excellent university education. He has a good family history, free from any taint of degeneration. He is possessed of a vigorous, healthy constitution and of a strong power of will. On April 15, 1897, Mr. Hanna met with an accident; he fell from a carriage, and was picked up in a state of unconsciousness. When the patient called to himself he was like one just born. He lost all knowledge acquired by him from the date of his birth up to the time of the accident. He lost all power of voluntary activity, knew nothing of his own personality, and could not recognise persons or objects. He had, in fact, no idea whatever of an external world. Objects, distance, time did not exist for him. Movements alone attracted his involuntary attention, and these he liked to have repeated. Nothing remained of his past life, not even a meaningless word, syllable, or articulate sound. He was totally deprived of speech. He had lost all comprehension of language. The conversation of the people around him was to him nothing but sounds, without any meaning. He had lost all sense of orderliness in his responses to the calls of Nature. The patient was smitten with full mental blindness, with the malady of complete oblivion. Impressions coming to him from the external world had lost their meaning; the patient did not know how to interpret them. He was like a newborn babe. The patient opened his eyes on a fresh world. Impressions received by his sense organs kept his attention busy in the elaboration of his new world of experience. He did not know, could not recognise anything from his former life. No object, no person, however intimate and near, awakened in him even the vaguest sense of familiarity.

         The patient had to learn all over again. He soon regained the use of his voluntary muscles from involuntary movements and instruction. He learned to use his arms and legs in walking and working, and acquired a knowledge of objects and their distance; he no longer attempted to seize his own image in the mirror, no longer stretched out his hand to grasp distant trees or far-off shining lights. He learned to know different articles of food; he no longer ate apple, core, and stem, nor did he any more attempt to devour cakes of soap given to him; with a strong intelligence left entirely intact the patient learned things very quickly. His progress in the acquirement of knowledge was such a rapid one that in a few weeks he was fairly able to comprehend his environment and to communicate with people. At first he imitated words and phrases heard, thinking that this would help him to make his wants known to others; then he dropped this method, and by systematic imitation of words in connection with the objects they indicated the patient learned to speak. He also gained a knowledge of reading and writing, in a very imperfect way, though. In reading, he asked for the meaning of nearly every third word, and his writing was like that of a child who had just begun to learn the formation of letters. His reading was extremely slow, hesitating, and his handwriting awkward. He was ambidextrous; he could write equally well with both hands, something the patient could not achieve before the accident.

         All knowledge of his life before the accident was totally gone; all his scholarly attainments, all his higher scientific and linguistic acquirements, an the memories of his former experience, seemed to have been wiped out by the destructive violence of the catastrophe. Persons whom he once knew intimately had to be introduced to him again. He could not recognise his parents, nor the young lady to whom he was attached. From a later inquiry it was found that the patient lost his sexual instincts. He bad no idea of the sexual functions and of the difference between men and women. The only life experience known to him dated from the time of the accident. He was practically but a few weeks old, and in this brief period of time he rapidly passed in his development through all the stages an infant passes in its slow growth of years.

         When I first met the patient I found him in a state of complete amnesia. To quote from my notes taken at that time:

         "H. has absolutely no recollection of any experience previous to the accident. His former life is completely gone from his memory. He has recollections only for such events of his life as have occurred since the injury. The patient is like one just born, a being that had just entered into life. Patient says 'I know' of events that have occurred since the accident; of experiences previous to that time he knows from reports, of what 'others tell him.' He regards the history of his life before the accident as an experience that had occurred within the life of quite a different person.

         "He is but a few weeks old, and no memory of his previous life spontaneously occurs to him. The accident may be considered as the boundary line separating two distinct lives of the same individual. What had occurred in his former life before the accident is unknown to the personality formed after the accident. Two selves seem to dwell within H. One seems to be deadened, crushed in the accident, and the other is a living self whose knowledge and experience are but of yesterday. It seems to be a case of double consciousness, and the patient is now in a secondary state."

         Such was the cursory diagnosis of the case the very first time I met the Reverend Thomas Carson Hanna, and I was glad to find that the diagnosis was fully verified by the results.

         The patient was then examined and tested in different ways and was found perfectly normal in all other respects. No lesion was found anywhere; no abnormality could he discovered in his organic or psychomotor life. He was well and healthy. There was not the least disturbance in his sense organs, no sign of peripheral or central injury. His sensibility and reactions to sense stimuli were fully normal.

         His intelligence, his power of inference, his acuteness for distinguishing fine points, his persistence in carrying on a long and complicated train of reasoning, were truly remarkable. His sense of number and his perception of form and symmetry were admirable. He showed the superiority of his mind by his inquisitiveness and his great anxiety to learn new things. Although he had not yet learned (in this state) his fractions, nor did he know anything of geometry, he still could solve very complicated problems in a simple way, making the best use of the knowledge he acquired.

         The tenacity with which he retained the knowledge once acquired was truly astounding. His memory was extraordinary, and whatever was mentioned to him once was retained by him down to the least detail ever after. His appreciation of the beautiful was keen; his disgust for the ugly was extreme; he shivered and turned away at the sight of deformity. He was extremely sensitive to the harmonious. In his morality he was as pure and innocent as a child. What struck me especially was his patience, and the total absence of any angry moods. The only flaw was the incompleteness of his acquired material. He asked the meaning of the simplest words, did not know the spelling of the most commonplace names, and wondered at trite things of ordinary life, as if witnessing something unusual, something he had "never seen before," to use the patient's own words.

         His keen sense of the proportionate, the harmonious, and the musical, his delicate appreciation of the good and the beautiful, his remarkable logical acumen, his great power of carrying on a long train of reasoning, the extraordinary rapidity and facility with which he acquired new knowledge, the immediate use to which he put it, the significant fact that in the course of a few weeks he learned to speak English correctly, pronouncing well and making no mistakes―all that, taken as a whole, confirmed me in the conclusion that the old personality was not crushed to death, that it was only dissociated from the rest of conscious life, and that from the subconscious depth into which it sunk it still exerted a great influence on the newly formed personality of the patient.

        To tap the subconscious self and find whether or not the seemingly dead experiences are present there, the patient was asked to relate his dreams.

         "I have two kinds of dreams," he answered. "In the one kind the pictures are not clear; I can recall, but I can not see them well. In the other kind of dreams it is so clear that even now I can see them well." The first kind of dreams, the indistinct ones, were those commonplace dreams of everyday life. They were all experiences coming from the patient's life after the accident. The second kind of dreams, however, proved to be of the highest importance; they were rifts through which one could catch a glimpse into the darkness of the subconscious life.

         It turned out that the dreams related by the patient, and characterized by him as "clear picture dreams," and afterward as "visions," and which we may term "vivid experiences," in contradistinction to dreams being "faint experiences" if compared to those of the waking life, it turned out that these dreams were real occurrences of the patient's former life now lapsed from his memory. The patient, however, did not recognise them, as past experiences. To him they were extraordinarily vivid dreams, strange visions, having taken place within his present life experience and without the least hint as to their qualitative pastness. The meaning of these visions was beyond the patient's ken.

         In these visions, incidents, names of persons, of objects, of places, were arising from the depths of the patient's split-off subconscious life, and, reaching the surface of the upper consciousness, were synthetized within the narrowed circle of the patient's waking self. This synthesis in memory, however, lacked the element of recognition in so far as the life previous to the accident was concerned. The patient did remember well the "visions," but he did not refer them to his previous life history; he regarded them as "lively dreams." The different proper names brought up to his memory by the "visions" were to him meaningless, so many empty sounds which could only be understood by the experienced observer, or by his parents, who were acquainted with all the details of his life. Thus, in one of his dreams the patient saw a house on which there was it sign with the following letters (he spelled them out): N-E-W B-O-S-T-O-N J-U-N-C. He could now make out what N-E-W meant, as he had since learned the word "new," but the meaning of the rest of the letters was to him entirely unintelligible and unfamiliar.

         The patient's father, who was present at the recounting of the dreams, identified the places described by his son, and found that all the names of the places, persons, and objects were perfectly correct. Mr. Hanna not having heard of all that since the accident, regarded these experiences as "strange dreams" which he could not understand, because he saw in them places, persons, and objects which, according to his own statements, he had "never seen before." The patient, greatly wondered at the comments and amplifications the father was making on "the visions." When the father accidentally happened to mention the name "Martinoe," the patient's amazement knew no bounds. "That is the name of a place I passed in my dream (vision)," the patient exclaimed, "but how do you know it? It is only a dream!"

         The subconscious memories of the patient were then tested by different methods, especially by the method which I term "hypnoidization." This method consists in the following procedure: 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 then asked to attend to some stimulus, such as reading or singing. When the reading is over, the patient, with his eyes still shut, is asked to repeat it, and tell what came into his mind during the reading, during the repetition, or after it. Sometimes, as when the song-stimulus is used, the patient is simply asked to tell the nature of ideas and images that entered into his mind at that time or soon after. This method, simple as it is, I find to work wonders, especially in cases of amnesia.

         In the case of our patient the hypnoidization brought forth phenomena of the utmost interest and value. Events, names of persons, of places, sentences, phrases, whole paragraphs of books totally lapsed from memory, and in languages the very words of which sounded bizarre to his ear and the meaning of which was to him inscrutable―all that flashed lightninglike on the patient's mind. So successful was this method, that on one occasion the patient was frightened by the flood of memories that rose suddenly from the obscure subconscious regions, deluged his mind, and were expressed aloud, only to be forgotten the next moment. To the patient himself it appeared as if another being took possession of his tongue.

         The probing of the patient's subconscious self made it perfectly clear that his old and forgotten memories did not perish, that they were present to the secondary consciousness.

         To be still more sure of my conclusion, I arranged with Dr. Goodhart, who assisted me in my psychological examination and investigation of the ease, to watch for the appearance of "the vision." After having watched in vain a whole night, we were at last amply rewarded for our vigilance: we were fortunate enough to be present at the visitation of one of those "visions." Dr. Goodhart was taking notes, while I was trying to insinuate myself by means of questioning into the patient's mind, and lead him on so as to reveal the inner working of his subconscious mental states.

         The patient acted out and lived through experiences long forgotten and buried. He was in what may be called a "hypnoidic" state. In these hypnoidal states moments-consciousness not synthetized within the focus of the ego, moments-consciousness dissociated from the main stream of personal life, but present to the less organized and less focalized life of the subconsciousness, emerge from the obscure depths of the mind in focalized clusters, in synthetized systems of moments-consciousness. Outlived personalities with these moments­consciousness come to life again, run through in a short period the whole cycle of events and actions they had once worked through. These outlived personalities with their moments-content of consciousness become infused with new life activity, only once more to merge into the ocean of disaggregated consciousness and to give place to new focalization, to new resurrected personalities seemingly dead years ago.

         By leading questions, without his least knowledge of it, the patient, as if answering to his own thoughts, was induced to tell of his life forgotten in the waking state. Thus the rich store of the subconscious self was laid bare. The amnesia was only for the self-conscious waking personality, but not for the aggregated totality of moments-consciousness of the subconscious life.

         A week later the patient was transferred, for the sake of further investigation, to the Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals, and under the influence of psychic and physiological stimuli1 fell into a state of double consciousness or double personality. The old memories, instead of rising in the form of hypnoidic and hypnoidal states, rose to the full light of the upper consciousness. The "primary state" included the patient's whole life lip to the time of the accident; the "secondary state" dated from the accident, and included all the knowledge and experience acquired in that state. In the primary state the patient was discussing metaphysics, philosophy, theology, and even once wrote for me a concise statement on the science of pathology; in the secondary state he did not even know the meaning of these terms. In the primary state his handwriting was fine and delicate; in the secondary state it was awkward and childish, and he could only print capitals, as he had not yet learned to write them. Whatever he did in one state he could remember only when he again passed into that state. The events of one state were not known to the patient when in the other state. Complete amnesia separated the two states.

         In the artificially induced persistent alternation of the two states, all the primary entered into one synthetic unity of consciousness, and so also all the secondary states. By means of the psychic and physiological stimuli used by me, two personalities were crystallized in the depths of his subconsciousness and kept alternating in the upper consciousness. A short interval of complete unconsciousness or of a low desultory consciousness with full anæsthesia and analgesia intervened between the two states. This interval lasted from one to about three minutes. This intermediate state was an attack; it was sudden in its onset, and may be termed hypnoleptic.2

         By means of a method used by me―a method the value of which seems to me to be inestimable for theoretical and practical purposes-the two alternating personalities were finally run together into one.3 The patient is now perfectly well and healthy, and has resumed his former vocation.



1.  During the whole course of investigation and treatment of the case hypnosis was not and could not be used. The reasons will be given in the full report of the case.
2.  A knowledge of the hypnoidal state is of the utmost value to therapeutics. A discussion of this state will appear in the State Hospitals' Bulletin.
3.  An account and discussion of the method of cure will be given in the State Hospitals’ Bulletin.


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