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Boris Sidis, M. A., Ph.D., M.D.
William A. White, M.D., George M. Parker, M.D.

© 1908
Boston: Richard G. Badger


Some General Remarks Concerning Pathological Research






        THE entrance to the province of psychopathology lies through the domain of so-called functional psychosis. It is in functional psychosis that we find the initial stages of the more advanced states of mental degeneration. This necessity of investigating first the initial stages holds true in the experimental scientific investigation of all natural phenomena. Whenever we want to determine the relations and laws of certain types of facts, we do not study them in their manifestations on a grand scale. To grasp the laws of phenomena, the latter must be entirely under our control, but such control is impossible when the phenomena under investigation are displayed in their full force and grandeur. We do not study electrical phenomena in the lightnings of the storm, nor do we study the laws regulating the tides in the grand sweeping waves of the ocean. The laws of electricity would never have been discovered had we been confined to the direct observation of electrical storms, nor would the laws of tides ever have been revealed in the observations of floods. It is by getting hold of similar phenomena reduced to a more insignificant state, and having them isolated, getting them thus under efficient control, ascertaining the conditions, and having them manipulated, changed, modified, and observing the effects―it is only under such circumstances that the nature of the phenomena can be clearly comprehended. The nature and laws of galvanism and magnetism become revealed in the feeble current of a small battery, and it is from this that we gain an insight into the nature of electrical storms. The electrical spark explains the lightning. The majestic sweep of the awe-inspiring billows of the ocean is replaced in the laboratory by waves produced in a bowl of water. The aurora borealis is explained by the glowing of the cathode ray in a small glass tube. The chemist does not require an ocean to find out the constitution of water,―a drop of water in a test tube is all that is requisite. Combustion is not explained in the great fires sweeping over a prairie,―a candle suffices. Composition of light was not learned from the observation of the rainbow, but on the contrary the rainbow found its explanation in the refraction phenomena of the prism by which a ray of white light is decomposed. An insight into the nature of phenomena is given by a study of the processes on a reduced scale in their feeble initiatory stages. Universal gravitation and the movements of solar systems are, as the story runs, learned from the fall of an apple. The scientist can study his phenomena only when they are on a reduced scale, and only under such conditions can he handle his material efficiently.

        In the study of the nervous system, we do not put a whole brain under a microscope,―a single section, often limited to but a few isolated neurons, suffices. In the investigation of the causes and laws of biology, we do not carryon researches on elephants or hippopotami,―amœbę, cells give us a far better insight. In geology, the formation of strata, of islands, of mountains and continents is learned from the actions of rills, brooks, and from the sediment slowly formed in glasses and jars. Great effects are often wrought by the persistent action of small, insignificant causes. The theories of grand catastrophes had to be abandoned, and the slow and gradual action of infinitely small forces recognized; these alone were sufficient to reveal the mechanism of grand and complex manifestations.

        In this respect the very theory of evolution may serve as an excellent illustration. The pre-Darwinian biologist worked with whole species and genera, and as such his work was a failure. Darwin started with observations and experimentations of initial stages of insignificant variations produced in domestic animals, especially in pigeons. The study of insignificantly small differences known as individual variations and divergences gave him a deep insight into the origin of species. Modern biology goes even farther into the minutię of cell structure, and the slightest differentię in the stages of cell development are followed up and experimented upon, with the result, that the insight into the relations, laws, and conditions of biological phenomena becomes wider and deeper. The study of the initial stages of cell life permits the biologist to get for the first time a glimpse into the great problems of biological science, those of heredity and variation. It is in the seemingly insignificant that science discovers the secrets of the most potent natural forces; it is in the apparently trivial that the scientist finds the key to the deepest mysteries of nature.

        This principle of reduction is all the more important in the domain of abnormal mental life, because the phenomena presented to the investigator are of extreme complexity. Great scientific caution must therefore be exercised in the study of psychosis, and only the strictest application of the principle of reduction can help us to gain an insight into the nature and laws of abnormal mental life. Moreover he who deals with the investigation of mental phenomena, whether normal or abnormal, has the disadvantage that his material cannot be directly modified at will without extreme caution, since the factors entering, into the problem are complex and form an organic whole the least disturbance of which may produce permanent injury to the mental or physical constitution of the organism.


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