Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Psychological Trauma and Fixed Ideas in Pierre Janet's Conception of Dissociative Disorders

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Psychological Trauma and Fixed Ideas in Pierre Janet's Conception of Dissociative Disorders

Article excerpt

This article describes Janet's concept of psychological trauma and the formation of rigid thought complexes (fixed ideas). This concept forms the basis for Janet's functional nosology of the neuroses, and is related to his dynamic psychology of conduct or action. It can be viewed as an early self-regulation model, because it contains a stratified bio-, socio-, and psycho-genetic hierarchy of behavioral "tendencies" that produce a more or less adaptive act by means of two hypothesized intervening variables: psychological force and psychological tension. Fixed ideas are viewed within this framework as an outcome of deficient processes of adaptation to psychological trauma. The article closes by pointing out affinities between Janet's psychological concept and modern cognitive and behavioral therapies.


Along with organic and hereditary predispositions for psychological disturbances, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947) proposed a third causal factor-the psychological trauma. Janet conceived psychological trauma as a life event that triggers a strong émotion-choc-emotional shock. This emotion preserves the experience of the trauma. However, Janet emphasized the need to distinguish the émotion-choc from the sentiment or feeling that serves to regulate behavior. Emotional shock is an affective reaction that always reoccurs in the same way and is chronic. In this respect, emotions are the cause of the psychological trauma. They may be viewed as inadequate behavioral adaptations to stressful life-events. Janet proposed that individuals may possess a susceptibility or a predisposition for a type of reaction that manifests itself as a trauma and leads to the progressive loss of psychological energy.

Emotional shocks cause the trauma because they prevent ill-prepared individuals from adapting successfully to specific situations. These individuals are exposed to feelings of fear, rage, or sorrow, or to feelings of incompleteness and disturbed cognitive processes that may generate fixed ideas (idées fixes)-a kind of distorted experience, memory, imagination, or appraisal of the traumatic event. Although a more adequate translation of the term fixed idea may well be rigid-thought complex, we shall nonetheless stick to the original term throughout this article.

The response to a traumatic event is inadequate when the traumatized person is compelled to perform biogenetically, sociogenetically, and psychogenetically lower, elementary, response programs (tendencies-tendances) that do not allow the person to cope appropriately with the traumatic event. This refers to Janet's conception of a hierarchy of behavioral tendencies. More elementary tendencies are assigned a lower rank in a hypothesized hierarchically organized memory system, which Janet defined by the intervening dynamic constructs of psychological force (force) and tension (tension)-terms he adopted from physics. These terms have to be viewed as metaphors, with all the advantages (i.e., creative extension of concepts and formation of new ones) and disadvantages (formulation of misleading theories based on properties of the metaphor that do not fit the phenomena, i.e., restricted concept) this implies. In this context, force and tension are hypothetical constructs that economize theory formulation. They may be taken as symbols for as yet unknown, underlying psychophysiological states or processes.

Emotional shocks exert an influence on tendencies that were active at the time of the traumatic event and bring about their weakening. Such weakened tendencies do not have the capability of catalyzing reactions found higher in the hierarchy, particularly those reactions that lead to personal awareness and integration of the traumatic event into the personal biography. As a consequence of this weakening of the higher tendencies, subconscious, fixed ideas emerge. Janet developed the construct of the idée fixe in his pathopsychological studies at the end of the 19th century (Janet, 1898a). …

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