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Interests In Abnormal Behavior

Updated on February 19, 2011


Abnormal behavior is something that can be exhibited in many different ways.  Depending on the culture, abnormal behavior might be shown in various forms.  For example, behavior that is considered normal or routine in one culture may not necessarily apply to another culture.  Throughout history, there has been a fascination with the causes and treatment of abnormal behavior which has now transformed into a scientific discipline known as abnormal psychology.

In early history many people considered abnormal behavior to be attributed to possession of demons, gods, and magic. How a person was possessed, whether it was good or bad, was determined by their symptoms. With these possessions was a lot of religious or spiritual influence of how to rid a person of their abnormal behaviors. Some methods used to cure a person of abnormal behavior in these days consisted of trephining, which released the demon or evil spirit out of their head. Also, they performed exorcisms in order to cast demons out of the body. Sometimes they would perform a frontal lobotomy on someone showing abnormal behavior. They would damage or take out parts of the frontal lobe in order to relieve a person’s strange behavior. This usually led to a dramatic change in personality. During the time of ancient Greece, abnormal behavior became more scientific and biological. Hysteria that was found in young women was considered to be a result of a dislodged uterus. For example, they thought anxiety was caused by a dislodged uterus where the uterus had landed at the heart.(Berg, 2006) During that time, signs of a woman having a Greek uterus were somatic symptoms, extreme emotionality, and anxiety. This is now thought to be when a woman has her menstrual cycle. Some of the treatments used to correct a Greek uterus where marriage and the use of sweet smelling flowers. Hippocrates also came out of this era. He is known as the father of modern medicine. He was the first to describe psychopathology as a disease. He thought mental illness was due to natural causes. For example, he considered the brain the central organ of intellectual activity. With this in mind, mental disorders are due to brain pathology. Hippocrates pointed out that head injuries could lead to sensory or motor disorders. He also emphasized the importance of heredity and predisposition. Hippocrates developed the theory of humors which said that “imbalance of bodily humors creates abnormal behavior…temperament depends one which predominates.” (Berg, 2006) Temperament is still used and was the first connection between personality and psychopathology. His theory of humors consisted of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Blood was “generally optimistic, cheerful, even-tempered, but can be day dreamy to the point of not accomplishing anything and impulsive (mania).”(Berg, 2006) Phlegm was “consistent, relaxed, and observant, but can be apathetic and sluggish.”(Berg, 2006) Yellow bile was “a leader, but can be controlling, easily angered or bad tempered.”(Berg, 2006) Black bile was “kind, considerate, can be highly creative - - but also can be obsessed with tragedy and cruelty (depression).” (Berg, 2006)

The Middle Ages came with the return of the demonological and supernatural model. With the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity, people rejected the more scientific ways of thinking, and were highly influenced by religion. In many parts of Europe, the clergy were responsible for dealing with the mentally ill. Typically their form of treatment consisted of “prayer, holy water, ointments, and exorcisms.”(Berg, 2006) Also, there was much speculation about witchcraft during this time. Many people who were mentally ill were labeled as witches and were severely punished. During this period, Malleus Maleficarum, “The Witch’s Hammer”, was written by two Dominican Monks. This was a manual for hunting witches which gives a better understanding of how the mentally ill were portrayed at this time. (Berg, 2006) The mentally ill were thought to be possessed by animals (Lacanthropy). They were portrayed to have no self control (Tarantism), capable of violence, and had the ability to live in inhumane conditions. Because the mentally ill were thought to act like animals, people thought they should also be treated like animals. The mentally ill were put into asylums and lived in brutal conditions where violent patients were put on display and harmless patients were made to beg.

The first mental hospital was established in Baghdad in A.D. 792. Mental hospitals and asylums began as a way to remove the mentally ill from society. They were often described as nothing more than residencies or storage. During this era, there was also another book, written by an Arabian named Avicenna, called The Canon of Medicine. In his book, he classified and defined different diseases such as hysteria, manic reactions, and melancholia as well as the causes of these diseases. He is now considered to be ahead of his time because “he described symptoms complications for diabetes and asserted that Tuberculosis was contagious.” (Berg, 2006) During the 1500’s, John Weyer became the first physician to specialize in mental disorders. “His works were scorned by his peers and were banned by the church until the 20th century.” (Berg, 2006) He rebutted Malleus Maleficarum, which was also written during this period.

During the age of enlightenment (1700’s and 1800’s), there were many advances in medicine and psychiatry. Wilhelm Griesinger, who was a German psychiatrist, “suggested roots of abnormal behavior in the brain.” (Berg, K. 2006) He is also remembered for taking the mentally ill out of the asylums and integrating them back into society after short term hospitalization and cooperation of support systems. Another German psychiatrist, Emil Kraeplin, created a classification of mental disorders and applied the medical model to psychopathology. (Burgmair, Wolfgang & Eric J. Engstrom & Matthias Weber, 2000-2008) During this time, there was also the discovery of the cause of syphilis, which is caused by bacterial microorganisms and can cause delusions and bizarre behavior. In the late 1700’s, psychological disorders were seen as similar to physical disorders. Philippe Pinel used moral therapy for more humane treatment of the mentally ill. (Weissmann, 2008). He removed the chains from the patients and put them in sunny rooms with regular exercise. He found this treatment to work better than the previous conditions in the asylums. An Englishman by the name of William Tuke changed the attitude of the public when he opened the York Retreat. His staff consisted of trained physicians and nurses who treated the patients with humanity and kindness. (Digby, 1984)

In the 20th century there were many developments in psychological theory, treatments, the understanding of neuroscience, assessment, and classification. Two major theoretical movements are Freud’s psychoanalysis and Watson’s behaviorism. These two theories advanced our approach in psychopathology. Psychoanalysis established the importance of psychological factors in etiology by placing emphasis on unconscious motives in understanding behavior. Behaviorism established psychological research tradition by looking at the role of learning in human behavior and the importance of our environment. Once looked at as scary and inhumane, asylums have been replaced with mental health facilities. There has been a shift in the way people view mental health care programs. Today there are community based programs, day treatments, and outreach programs which are considered to be more humane.

Throughout the years, abnormal psychology has come a long way. In the early years, people viewed someone who was mentally ill as being possessed by demons. Through much change in society and research in support of abnormal psychology, it has now become a scientific discipline where people are more accepting of the mentally ill. It has given more awareness to the public about mental illness and provided many people who suffer from mental disorders with help.


Berg, K.. (2006). Available:

Borthwick, Annie; Holman, Chris; Kennard, David; McFetridge, Mark; Messruther, Karen and Wilkes, Jenny (2001). "The relevance of moral treatment to contemporary mental health care". Journal of Mental Health 10 (4): 427–439. Routledge. doi:10.1080/09638230124277. Retrieved on May 29, 2008.

Burgmair, Wolfgang & Eric J. Engstrom & Matthias Weber, et al., eds. Emil Kraepelin . 7 vols. Munich: belleville, 2000-2008.

Digby, A. (1984) The changing profile of a nineteenth-century asylum: the York Retreat Psychological Medicine, Nov;14(4):739-48.

Tuke, Samuel [1813] (1996). Description of the Retreat. London: Process Press. ISBN 1-89920904-2.

Weissmann, Gerald (May 2008). "Citizen Pinel and the madman at Bellevue". FASEB J . 22 (5): 1289-93. doi:10.1096/fj.08-0501ufm. PMID 18450644



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