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Idiocy: And Its Treatment By The Physiological Method

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: 1907
Publisher: Teachers' College, Columbia University
Source: Available at selected libraries

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According to this Trinitarian hypothesis, we shall have to educate the activity, the intelligence, the will, three functions of the unit man, not three entities antagonistic one to the other. We shall have to educate them, not with a serial object in view (favorite theory of A. Comte), but with a sense of their unity in the one being.


Activity, besides its unconscious and organic functions, divides into contractility and sensibility, with their specific tendencies; Intelligence branches into many sub-functions, and Will into its protean expressions, from love to hatred.


The predominance of any of these functions constitutes a disease; their perversion leads to insanity; their notable deficiency at birth constitutes idiocy, afterwards imbecility, later yet dementia.


Physiological education, including hygienic and moral training, restores the harmony of these functions in the young, as far as practicable, separating them abstractedly, to restore them practically in their unity.


This is the psycho-physiological principle of the method.


Before deducing its applications for the treatment of idiocy, we must see how it may be made available for its prevention.


Like most maladies and infirmities idiocy may, to a great extent, be prevented.


When dependent on local and hereditary causes, the prevention follows, as a matter of course, the avoidance of such conditions. Already, in the Alps, many pregnant women migrate from the valleys to the uplands; the opening of routes in these long secluded localities permits their population to marry outside of their blood-relations, thereby sensibly diminishing cretinism and idiocy.


But idiocy is not all endemic or hereditary. We have seen it creep out from the couch of the young, of the healthy, of the talented, as well as from that of the lowly or of the vicious. Young men and women qualify for all sorts of social and scientific attainments, and disqualify themselves for the task which ranks us with the gods. In one class, the privations are suffered particularly by girls and newly married couples in other classes stimulants of all kinds are used nearly from infancy, instead of being kept as the solaces of old age. Intellectual or business excitement has taken possession of both sexes; a young woman with child has to contend with social difficulties, as if she were not engaged in a labor which requires all the resources of her constitution, supposing she has any. These exactions, of food from the ill-fed, of strength from the weak, of innervation from the enervated, in favor of the future being, do not seem rational, and are too often followed by the ruin of the mother's health, and by the moral or physical crippling of her child. How much more sensible it would be for young couples to try to live according to hygienic rules, to keep the pregnant woman in comfortable conditions, without anxiety, with an abundance of substantial food, with air for two, day and night, and with plenty of exercise, sooner than to act as if relying upon the wisdom of the embryo to feed himself out of no food, and to keep himself unmoved amidst the emotions of his mother. This is not to say that idiocy depends exclusively upon voluntary circumstances; some accidents may be prevented, some not. Hereditary affections and nervous disorders transmissible in some mutable form, accessory diseases accompanying pregnancy and destroying the powers of nutrition, such as disordered appetite for unnutritious food and drink, vomiting, costiveness, etc., cannot always be counteracted by professional interference; but in such cases the skill to correct disordered functions, to prevent steady impressions and sudden shocks, is the highest attainment of our art.


The new-born infant escapes the dangers of intro-uterine life, to enter into another crisis of its development. The withering of the cord, and the maturing of the breast, declare the new relations of nutrition between mother and child; but this sudden change is fraught with danger. To this change, and to the transition from a liquid to a gaseous medium, is attributed the loss of substance, of weight, and of caloric, suffered by the child in the first week; deficiency of nutrition from these causes producing convulsions, idiocy, and death. We can prevent these accidents by a proper control over the internal and external means of keeping up the warmth. Besides, at that time, the brain is soft, almost pulpy; has a reddish tint throughout, without well marked differences between the white and grey substance, nor well defined circumvolutions; the nerves only being firmer, the general or tactile sensibility precedes all others. Hence, in early youth, and particularly at the time when the body of the new-born actually loses weight, caloric, and substance, if it takes nourishment, this is mostly applied to the consolidation and distinction of the two substances composing the encephalon. But if this nerve-food is not timely supplied to the infant, it becomes idiotic, epileptic, paralytic, or hydrocephalous, whatever may have been the cause of the deficiency of nutrition.

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