Pierre Janet Research Paper

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Pierre Janet, pioneering French psychologist and psychiatrist, was born May 30, 1859 in Paris. He studied philosophy at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure and began his career teaching philosophy in aprovincial lycee. While teaching at Le Havre from 1883–9, he worked with local physicians to conduct experiments on hypnosis with hysterical patients. These experiments led to several publications, including the thesis for his doctorate in philosophy, L’automatisme psychologique (1889). In the same year, Janet obtained a position teaching in a Paris lycee and began formal training in medicine. He worked at the Salpetriere hospital under the direction of the foremost authority of the day on hysteria, the neurologist JeanMartin Charcot. Janet received his medical degree in 1893 and continued to work at the Salpetriere until 1910. The cases he studied there formed the foundation for some of his most important works. In 1902, Janet was named to the chair of experimental psychology at the College de France, where he taught until 1935. He also co-founded and edited the Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique. He died on February 24, 1947 in Paris.

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Janet’s thought can be separated into an early and a late period, with 1910 as a rough dividing line. In the early period, which was by far the more influential, Janet focused on extending the domain of mental life and on elaborating a psychology based on a distinction between automatic and synthetic mental activity. As a result of his investigations into hypnotism and post-hypnotic suggestion, Janet rejected the then-common assumption in scientific and medical circles that unconscious mental functioning was physiological in nature. He insisted that it depended on the intervention of ideas, just as conscious mental functioning does. These ideas simply are not connected with the consciousness of the self. Because the word unconscious implied ‘neurological’ for so many at the time, Janet coined the term ‘subconscious’ to characterize ideas separated from consciousness.

The distinction between automatic and synthetic mental activity separated Janet from British associationist psychology. Janet held that association could only recall connections previously established by the mind; in other words, association explained automatic functions such as habit and conditioned response. Associations initially are established by mental synthesis, which combines the disparate elements of perception into related wholes. Synthesis is the basis for the integration and interpretation of experience. Beginning at the simplest level of combining sensory data into perceived objects, synthesis works on its own products to build ever higher levels of object, culminating in the concepts of the self and the world. By conceiving the self as the product rather than the origin of synthetic activity, Janet rejected the traditional Cartesian notion of the self as simple and primary; rather, the self is one of the most complex mental phenomena, and it appears only at an advanced stage of mental development. In addition, Janet dismissed the philosophical tendency to characterize abstract reason as the pinnacle of human mental functioning. Influenced by evolutionary theory, Janet insisted that adaptive behavior in the real world required the greatest mental effort and that, in the real world, the social world posed more challenges than the natural world.

Synthesis requires energy, which Janet characterized through a concept of psychological force. An individual’s psychological force determines the quantity of psychological stimuli they can hold together in synthetic unity. To describe the quality or level as well as the quantity of synthetic activity, Janet developed the idea of psychological tension. When individuals lose psychological force, they can no longer synthesize all of the stimuli impinging upon them. The inability to integrate perception leads to various kinds of mental illness, which Janet grouped into two major classes. One was hysteria, in which sufferers respond by abandoning or dissociating whole classes of perception. They may lose consciousness and control of parts of their body (producing hysterical paralysis), memory (amnesia), or behavior patterns (tics and fugues). In extreme cases, synthesis continues to operate on the dissociated portions of mental life beyond the awareness or control of the self, producing what was then known as double consciousness and what today would be called multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder.

To describe the other major class of mental illnesses, Janet coined the term ‘psychasthenia,’ which he used instead of the existing term ‘neurasthenia,’ to emphasize the psychological rather than biological nature of the condition. Psychasthenics retain consciousness of their uncontrollable thoughts and actions even as they are powerless to stop them. Such individuals suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders and from feelings of inadequacy related to their inability to control themselves.

Janet attributed the lack of psychological force to two main causes—constitutional deficiency and traumatic emotions. Following in a long hereditarian tradition, Janet held that some people are born with less psychological force than others. Such individuals are more prone to mental illness, because they are more likely to be overwhelmed by the external world. In addition, traumatic incidents may produce emotions that sap energy and disrupt the normal process of synthesis. Individuals lose the ability and the desire to integrate into consciousness painful memories, which continue to play a disruptive role as dissociated subconscious ideas.

Janet’s treatment of patients began with what he called ‘psychological analysis,’ during which the therapist attempts to separate symptom complexes into their elements and to uncover the origins and development of the ideas behind these elements. Janet used a variety of techniques in psychological analysis. He began his career relying heavily on hypnotism to reveal subconscious memories and dissociated personalities. He supplemented hypnotism with automatic writing and other techniques designed to elicit responses from the patient’s subconscious. Such methods had limitations, however. Janet became sensitive to issues of suggestion in the production of hysterical symptoms. Indeed, he was one of the first historians of hypnotism, tracing the origin of the classic hysterical symptoms described by Charcot to the effects of earlier magnetizers on the patients Charcot examined. Janet also found that psychasthenics tended to be less susceptible to hypnotism. He came to rely more on repeated observations of and conversations with the patient over long periods. Through this interaction, Janet was able both to discover the origins of neurotic symptoms and to establish a relationship with the patient that would aid in the therapeutic process.

Once the origins and elements of the symptoms were discovered, Janet attempted to eliminate their pathogenic effects by a variety of methods. By enabling patients to reintegrate dissociated memories into consciousness, Janet was able to reduce their disruptive power. He also tried to dissolve such memories through suggestion and substitution. One case he reported was that of Justine, who had hysterical crises provoked by an intense fear of cholera. Through analysis, Janet discovered that as a child Justine had developed a fear of death by helping her mother, who was a nurse, care for dying patients. This fear was further focused by an incident in which Justine saw the putrefying corpses of two cholera victims. Janet recovered these memories, and then, through an elaborate and gradual process of suggestion, substituted more acceptable images—a Chinese general with the name Cho-le-ra for a diseased corpse. Eventually, the word cholera lost its power, and the symptoms disappeared.

Janet also tried various measures to adapt a patient’s psychological force to the demands of her or his environment in order to prevent a recurrence of symptoms and to avoid the development of new illnesses. He used mental exercises to increase the patient’s psychological force and recommended reductions in the stresses imposed by the patient’s occupation and social life. Though powerless in most cases to change the sufferer’s situation, Janet recognized the significance of environment in contributing to the onset of mental illness.

After about 1910, Janet began to redescribe his psychology in terms of conduct rather than ideas. He did this because he came to view the proper goal of psychology as the explanation of the adaptation of the organism to its environment. Ideas are instruments that lead to adaptive action. Janet also expanded and systematized his conception of the hierarchy of psychological levels. In addition, he became increasingly interested in the psychology of religious belief. These new directions came together in his most important late work, De l’angoisse a l’extase (1926), based largely on a case study of a highly religious patient with hysterical symptoms.

Janet’s influence was considerable at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. His concepts of dissociation and of subconscious ideas found adherents from Carl Jung to William James. Alfred Adler acknowledged his indebtedness to Janet’s analysis of feelings of inadequacy. Jean Piaget cited Janet’s work on the levels of psychological activity as inspiration for his own developmental theory. In 1906, Janet gave a series of lectures at Harvard Medical School, which made him better known in the US.

However, Janet’s influence diminished rather than grew with time. Janet failed to train many followers. He also suffered in competition with Sigmund Freud. Not only was Freud more adept at forming a devoted following, he was more successful at defending the issues over which he differed with Janet, such as the sexual etiology of neuroses and the origin of repressed memories in fantasy. The rise of behaviorism, which despite its focus on action owed little directly to Janet, also eclipsed Janet’s own psychology of conduct. In psychiatry, neurological and pharmacological approaches became dominant where Freudian psychoanalysis did not prevail, and in psychology, experimental methods replaced Janet’s reliance on psychopathology.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists began to study Janet anew. As Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory was challenged, some found a corrective in Janet’s emphasis on actual traumatic events. Theorists who questioned Freud’s insistence on the sexual origins of neuroses turned to Janet for a more inclusive view of psychological trauma. The resurgence of dissociative identity disorder as a diagnostic category also led researchers to seek guidance in one of the early students of that condition. Renewed interest in these and other areas to which Janet made substantial contributions assure him an important place in the history of psychology and psychiatry.


  1. Brooks J I III 1998 The Eclectic Legacy: Academic Philosophy and the Human Sciences in Nineteenth-century France. University of Delaware Press, Newark, DE
  2. Ellenberger H F 1970 The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. Penguin, London
  3. Janet P 1889 L’ automatisme psychologique: Essai de psychologie experimentale surles formes inferieures de l’acti ite humaine. Alcan, Paris
  4. Janet P 1893 L’etat mental des hysteriques, 2 Vols. Rueff, Paris, (1977 The Mental State of Hystericals, 2 Vols. University Publications of America, Washington, DC)
  5. Janet P 1898 Ne roses et idees fixes, 2 Vols. Alcan, Paris
  6. Janet P 1903 Les obsessions et la psychasthenie, 2 Vols. Alcan, Paris
  7. Janet P 1907 The Major Symptoms of Hysteria: Fifteen Lectures Given in the Medical School of Harvard University. Macmillan, New York
  8. Janet P 1919 Les medications psychologiques, 3 Vols. Alcan, Paris, (1925 Psychological Healing, 2 Vols. Macmillan, New York)
  9. Janet P 1926 De l’angoisse a l’extase: Etudes sur les croyances et les sentiments, 2 Vols. Alcan, Paris
  10. Prevost C-M 1973 La psycho-philosophie de Pierre Janet: Economies mentales et progres humain. Payot, Paris
  11. Sjovall B 1967 Psychology of Tension. An Analysis of Pierre Janet’s Concept of ‘tension psychologique.’ Together with an Historical Aspect. Svenska Bokforlaget, Stockholm
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