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Psychic Contagion

The term psychic contagion is often thought of as merely figurative.
It is, however, quite literal. Many minds are influenced by what they
see happening round them and induced to imitate the activities of
others. The term psychic contagion is so thoroughly descriptive of
what happens that it deserves the place that it has secured.

Everywhere and at all times we find historical traces of psychic
contagion compelling people to perform in crowds or groups the most
curious and inexplicable and sometimes the most horrible things. Even
in the old myths before the times of the Trojan War, we have the story
of hysteria spreading among the daughters of King Proteus, so that the
famous old physician, Pelampus, had to administer white hellebore in
goat's milk in order to relieve them. It is probable that this rather
heroic remedy with its definite effect upon the bowels produced such a
revulsion of feeling as to cure the hysteria. Anyone who has read the
awful tragedy that Euripides has written in the Bacchae will have
had brought home to him a typical example of psychic contagion. The
queen mother in the midst of one of the Bacchic orgies kills her own
son in the frenzy that has come from the religious excitement
exaggerated by the association of a number of women in the religious
rites of the god Bacchus. It is well understood that this was not a
case of drunkenness, but of psychic intoxication.

Phrygian Bacchantes are described as overcome from time to time by
paroxysms of curious uncontrollable automatic movements with or
without disturbance of consciousness. This represents the earliest
form of what came to be known afterwards as St. Vitus Dance when it
spread among a number of people. Such manifestations were not at all
uncommon in the East in the earlier days and they have continued
during all history. In Hindustan epidemics of automatic movements,
evidently choreic in character, have been known for many centuries
under the name of lapax. Outbreaks of this kind were common in the
Middle Ages and Paracelsus has described them as happening early in
the sixteenth century. At any time the occurrence of an hysterical
seizure in a crowded hall, and especially in a schoolroom, will lead
to other hysterical manifestations. A case of chorea will induce
imitative movements in susceptible bystanders that may be quite
uncontrollable. Tics of various kinds are readily picked up by
children and special care must be exercised to prevent their spread.
In general the state of mind is extremely important in all these
conditions and they can be influenced favorably only through the mind.

Contagions Trifles.--Perhaps the extent to which psychic contagion
influences us can be seen better in little things than anywhere else.
Everyone knows how contagious yawning is. Again and again observations
have been made while actors were yawning upon the stage. Nearly
everyone in the theater begins to yawn in a few minutes and, in spite
of the most determined efforts, every now and then even the most
serious-minded elderly gentleman in the audience finds himself
unconsciously joining in. It seems foolish and to an onlooker appears
almost prearranged. It is only necessary, however, to yawn a few times
in a street car, especially at night, to have many imitators. Nearly
the same thing is true of all respiratory phenomena. Sighing, for
instance, is quite contagious. Coughing is often as much the result of
imitation as anything else. At certain pauses in church services a
preliminary cough is heard and then some scattering coughs here and
there, like the musketry of scouts, and then a whole battery of coughs
is let off, especially if it is in the winter time, because nearly
everybody within hearing is tempted to cough. To talk about yawning or
coughing or sighing before some people is almost sure to produce a
tendency to these manifestations. These apparently trivial happenings
help to explain many phenomena of human imitation in more serious

Most of the phenomena associated with expression are liable to be
initiated as the result of imitation. Laughing, for instance, is
particularly contagious among young folks and is especially likely to
be insuppressible when they wish to be particularly solemn. At
religious services it takes but little to make people laugh and
giggle, no matter how much they may wish to be dignified and
reverential. A few giggling girls will sometimes disturb a serious
service. Extremes are particularly prone to meet in this matter and
the sublime easily becomes the ridiculous. A titter will set off even
the best intentioned of young folks in spite of resolutions to the
contrary. Crying has something of the same contagious nature, though
it is not quite so strong, but among women tears are particularly
likely to evoke tears. The epidemic of curious manifestations of
expression, usually of an hysterical nature, that we know by tradition
to have spread in communities in the Middle Ages and much later, are
only typical examples of this tendency for modes of expression to be
contagious to an exaggerated degree.

Expectoration is largely dependent on imitation, sometimes conscious,
of course, but often quite unconscious. In the recent crusade
organized to prevent the spread of tuberculosis the question of
expectoration as a diffusing agent of the bacilli has given a new
importance to observations on this subject. It is recognized that we
have "a spitting sex" and that men spit from force of habit, boys
imitate them, while women and girls almost never spit. There is no
reason in the world why when men and women are engaged in the same
occupations there should be any difference in this regard between
them, yet employers know how hard it is to keep corners and by-places
in the rooms where men work free from expectoration, while no such
difficulty is found where women work. We have a spitting sex because
of psychic contagion, and in spite of the fact that there are serious
dangers connected with the habit. What is true of spitting may also be
true of other habits relating to the respiratory passages. Hawking and
blowing the nose more frequently than is needed are spread by psychic
contagion and certain habits in these matters that are injurious to
the respiratory apparatus often require considerable effort to break.

Fads and Health.--Enlightened as we think ourselves, we have many more
examples of psychic contagion in the present than we would perhaps
care to admit, unless the facts were called to our special attention.
At a particular period in the modern time it becomes the fad to
do things in a special way. We write alike, we build our houses after
a common type. We take our recreation in a particular fashion.
Bicycling comes in and goes out; roller skating attacks nearly every
one of the young folks and then is abandoned. There are fashions in
everything and fashions, after all, are recurring instances of psychic
contagion. The mental influence spreads from one to another. It may be
that a particular fashion, as in houses or in clothes, is especially
ugly. That makes no difference. After a time taste revolts against it,
but in the meantime the psychic contagion is enough to overturn the
canons of taste. There are fashions in literature, or at least what is
called literature. The nature novel comes and goes, then the novel of
adventure has its place, then the detective novel, after a time the
little-country prince or princess and their romance comes into
fashion. After a time we realize that these are passing fancies, but
in the meantime they have influenced many people.

Some of these fashions bring conditions that are deleterious to
health. The moving-picture show in places that almost never have a
stime of sunlight in them and are, in their way, quite as bad,
especially for respiratory troubles, as the dust-laden atmosphere of
the roller-skating rink, become the fad of the moment in spite of
knowledge or ignorance of hygiene. Just now we are in the midst of a
fad for fresh air, that, unfortunately, goes and comes with the
centuries and we have no guarantee that people will not learn again to
live in closely sealed houses. High heels come and go, as do corsets
of various kinds, more or less injurious, in spite of the admonition
of the physician. In fact, one of the most interesting studies in
psychic contagion is the history of the fashions. A particular
fashion, especially in its exaggerated forms, will probably look well
on about one-fifth of the women at a given time. About four-fifths of
them, however, adopt it in spite of the fact that on three-fifths it
emphasizes certain qualities that it would be well to keep in the
background. It is woman's principal desire to please, yet this is
completely perverted by the psychic epidemic of fashion which causes
people to follow after others quite as much as did the medieval people
in various fads that attracted attention and have come down to us.

Our enlightenment, at least in as far as that word means general
diffusion of the ability to read, has rather added to the power of
psychic contagion. People accept ideas from others almost as
unconsciously as they catch disease from those suffering from it. The
psychology of advertising shows how easy it is to make people accept
things just by insisting on them and by frequent repetitions of
statements. The psychology of the proprietary medicine business in
modern times is about as typical an example of psychic contagion
induced deliberately as one could well imagine. Those who stop to
reason do not fall victims. Most people, however, do not stop to
reason. They have not the mental resistive vitality to render them
immune to the influence of certain irrationalities and so literally
hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on perfectly useless,
oftentimes harmful drugs, which people had become persuaded through
the psychic contagium of printer's ink were sure to do them good. The
psychology of the mob has been studied somewhat in recent years and it
shows how clear it is that men follow after one another in doing
foolish things even more than in doing wise ones. Psychic contagion is
a prominent factor in life, it always has been, is now, and evidently
always will be, and must be reckoned with by anyone who wishes
to recognize the principles that underlie psychotherapy.

Suicide Contagions.--It is with regard to much more serious things
than fashions, however, that psychic contagion is most manifest. For
instance, there is no doubt that suicide is frequently the result of
such psychic influence. Seldom does it happen that a very queer
suicide is reported without there being certain imitations of it more
or less complete in various parts of the country afterwards. There is
no doubt that the reporting of suicides has a serious effect in this
matter. Perhaps the most striking example of this that we have ever
had in America was the well-known suicidal epidemic at Emporia,
Kansas, which reached its height just about the middle of June, 1901.
Two or three well-known people in town committed suicide at the end of
May and the beginning of June. A veritable epidemic of suicide broke
out as a consequence. Nothing seemed to stop it and the authorities
were much disturbed. Finally it was agreed that the most potent
influence in bringing about the imitation of the epidemic was the
publication of the details of the suicides in the papers. The Mayor of
the city, after consulting with the Board of Health, decided to issue
the following proclamation:

I have consulted the Board of Health, and if the Emporia papers do
not comply with my request I shall have a right to stop, and I will
stop summarily, the publication of these suicide details, under the
law providing for the suppression of epidemics. There is clearly an
epidemic in this city, and although it is mental, it is none the
less deadly. Its contagion may be clearly shown to come from what is
known in medicine as the psychic suggestion found in the publication
of the details of suicides. If the paper on which the local Journals
are printed had been kept in a place infected with smallpox, I could
demand that the Journals stop using that paper, or stop publication.
If they spread another contagion--the contagious suggestion of
suicide--I believe the liberty of the press is not to be considered
before the public welfare, and that the courts would sustain me in
using force to prevent the publication of newspapers containing
matter clearly deleterious to the public health.

Murder.--In almost the same way murders prove contagious. Especially
is this true of murder and suicide together. These occur notably in
groups. A man who is downhearted and for whom the future looks blank,
will, out of a sense of pity for those who are dependent on him,
murder them and himself; then the brutal story is reported and another
tottering intellect gives way and a similar story has to be told
within a few days. A mother who is melancholic about her health and
includes her children in her gloomy outlook makes away with them and
herself. Within a few days a similar story is reported because of the
influence of psychic contagion. Very often there are distinct
imitations of the methods employed in the first case. Often, however,
it is only the idea itself that has proved contagious. There is no
doubt that this suggestion brings about subsequent cases when
otherwise such an awful thought might not occur. The connection is too
clear for us to doubt the reality of it or to think that it is mere
coincidence. As in Emporia, doubtless the suppression of the
description of such events would have a beneficial effect. There are
many disequilibrated minds, apparently just tottering on the verge of
an insane act of this kind, that are pushed over by the suggestion
furnished by the details of another story.

Place of Psychic Contagion.--The physician who would treat nervous
patients successfully and use psychotherapeutics to advantage must
recognize the place that psychic contagion has in influencing the
generality of mankind. We know that direct suggestions are profoundly
influential. It must be constantly kept in mind, however, that
indirect suggestion, suggestion that does not come by any formal
method, but that is represented by the examples of those around, also
has great weight.

Favorable Influence.--Fortunately it is not alone for evil that
psychic contagion is manifest. People in a crowd stand fatigue better
than when alone. Soldiers marching in step do not notice their
tiredness to such a degree and even forget their sore feet. People
suffering from hunger, so long as there is a good spirit among them,
will help each other to bear it. The accidents in coal mines in recent
years in which men have been imprisoned for considerable periods have
shown that in groups they stand the hardships of confinement and of
lack of food and water better than they do when alone, men live
longer, they do not suffer so much or at least their suffering is not
so insistent, and they bear up better.

This has been particularly noticed in the cures at various watering
places. The very air of the place takes on a favorable suggestion that
is helpful to patients. The routine, the hopefulness of those who are
completing the cure, the stories of improvement, the evident
betterment, all these things combine to give a psychic contagion of
health. Health is, in this sense, quite as contagious as disease. This
must be taken advantage of just as far as possible for the advantage
of patients. On the other hand, ideas are contagious for ill and
patients may derive from their environment notions that prove
auto-suggestive and against which it is extremely difficult to work.
Ideas derived from the general feelings of those around, without any
direct suggestion, may become obsessions. The physician, therefore,
must be ready to secure prophylaxis against psychic contagion and then
by counter-suggestion relieve the patient, who has become afflicted by
it, of the resulting disturbance of mind. It must not be forgotten
that, instead of being less susceptible as education and civilization
progress, people really become more susceptible.

Psychology of the Mob.--The most interesting instance of psychic
contagion is the tendency just hinted at for crowds to run away with
the sober judgment of serious sensible people that happen to be among
them and do things that may be extremely regrettable. A mob always
follows the suggestions of the worst elements in it unless perchance
there is some extremely strong character who asserts himself and
imposes his views on the rest. The tendencies to panic, to cowardly
flight, sometimes to destructiveness, that come over crowds represent
the power of psychic contagion to override reason. An alarm of fire
will, if a few persons lose their heads, lead to the most serious
consequences. Persons trample over one another, pull and maul one
another, sometimes even pulling out hair or pulling off ears in their
insane efforts to escape what is often an imaginary danger, though a
few moments before they were rational beings and they will be quite
reasonable a short time after. It is possible, however, to overcome
even the worst tendencies in human nature by the suggestive power of
discipline. Fire drills in schools enable children to get out in a few
minutes without confusion when without them the most serious results
could be looked for. Discipline and training, following commands
and observing tactics, helps an army almost more than the individual
courage of soldiers. The suggestive influence of the thought that now
is the time to do something that has often been done before at the
word of command is enough to enable the soldier to control his panicky
feelings. The difference between the trained soldier and the raw
recruit is great, but it consists only in this mental discipline and

Prevention.--Evidently, then, in the many circumstances in life in
which psychic contagion manifests itself it is perfectly possible to
overcome its influence by such discipline and mental training as gives
the individual control over himself. In children corporal punishment
is often not effective in breaking up habits and tendencies and the
motive of fear often lessens self-control and makes conditions worse.
In older people the fear of punishment is likely to be forgotten,
whereas the suggestion of discipline will assert itself powerfully.
Psychic contagion can be neutralized by psychotherapy, but its force
in life must be recognized and its unfavorable influence guarded
against. While it concerns mainly the less serious things of life, it
may affect the most serious and imitation leads even to such serious
criminal acts as suicide and murder. The modes of psychic contagion,
then, must be constantly under surveillance.

With this before us it is extremely interesting to realize how
unfavorably suggestive for human health and happiness are our
newspapers. They are constantly suggesting disease and suicide and
murder and sex crimes and crimes against property, by giving all the
details available with regard to these subjects. Such news can do no
good, only excites morbid curiosity which requires still further
satisfaction in the same line, and keeps thoughts with regard to these
things constantly before the mind. We have had many burglaries and
holdups and stealings of various kinds as a consequence of boys and
even girls seeing the pictures of crimes in the moving-picture show.
The saturation of mind with disease and crime produced by daily
reading of unsavory and sensational newspaper accounts is sure to
produce evil effects. There seems to be consolation for some people in
reading of the crimes and punishments of others because they feel
that, bad as is their own state, there are others who are worse. This
schadenfreude, "harm-joy" as the Germans call it, is not satisfying
to think of for human nature and it has an inevitable reaction through
the unfavorable suggestion of these crimes.

I have found over and over again that the prohibition of reading the
newspapers for a time did many nervous people much good. This is
particularly true for sufferers from such forms of psychasthenia as
bring down on them dreads and premonitions of evil in fears for the
development of disease and in general a sense of instability with
regard to the future, lest dreadful things should happen to them. At
first patients object strenuously and seem to be deprived of a great
satisfaction. After a time, however, they are invariably persuaded of
the fact that the absence of mental contact with human misfortune, in
this morbid way, is doing them good and that their dreads and
premonitory feelings of evil drop from them.

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