Friday, May 15, 2009
Waterboarding as Psychotherapy
While we are properly horrified to learn about the use of deliberate near-drowning (waterboarding) as an interrogation technique, it is worth noting that for a period of nearly two hundred years the same procedure was regarded as a form of psychotherapy. The influential seventeenth century physician Jan Baptiste Van Helmont (1580-1644), originated this treatment after observing that a madman, who was revived following an accidental near-drowning, was relieved of his mental symptoms. The most influential eighteenth century physican Hermann Boerhaave. (1668-1738) mentions the use of submersion in the treatment of insanity but recommends it for only the most desperate cases. Boerhaave's student Jerome Gaub also discusses the treatment and attributes its efficacy to anxiety. "The most deeply seated mental defects and the most incurable forms of madness" he writes, "may sometimes be rooted out by anxiety." Perhaps, he speculates, this is "because the tormented and frightened mind is revived by the terrible punishment of her greatly depressed senses…." He cites "men with minds held captive by the violence of love or grief," who recovered their soundness of mind when revived after accidental near-drowning. He insists that the cause of this recovery is the "frightful torment that near loss of life from suffocation inflicts on the mind." Gaub acknowledges that "submersion therapy" is "a terrible remedy" but adds that it is "one hardly to be exceed in efficacy." Gaub took the trouble to attempt a medical explanation of "submersion therapy." He argued that "submersion therapy" worked by provoking anxiety, which he understood as a powerful emotion caused by bodily changes. The most frequent cause of anxiety, he felt, is interference with respiration, which hinders the passage of blood through the lungs and thus places life in jeopardy. These bodily events affect the "common sensorium" [where mind and body meet] so as to excite ideas in the mind that cannot be contemplated without horror and cannot be dispelled. The value of such shock therapy was widely recognized in the eighteenth century. “In mania,” a Montpellier doctor wrote in Diderot and D'Alembert's encyclopédie, “therapy is directed to the body, in which it aims to produce a shock and a deep disturbance .” Such ideas even influenced Philippe Pinel, who cites Van Helmont. Although Pinel did not use "submersion therapy," he did include the role of powerful emotions like fear in dispelling fixed ideas as a component of his moral therapy.