Saturday, November 02, 2013

Ailurophobia (fear of cats) and the ability to sense their presence

Here's a leftover Halloween treat from American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914).1 Mitchell was an illustrious physician known for discovering complex regional pain syndrome, coining the term "phantom limb", and prescribing the sexist "rest cure" (bed rest) for 19th century nervous maladies.2 His work on the treatment of neurasthenia and hysteria had an influence on Sigmund Freud, although the treatments were medical in nature and not psychoanalytic.

In 1902, he consulted on a case of a young female patient who had an extreme fear of cats, and claimed she could always tell if one was nearby. Mitchell was skeptical, and he wrote about his doubts in an entertaining fashion (Mitchell, 1905):
She declared that she could always detect the presence of an unseen and unheard cat. Since, however, she was constantly announcing the presence of a cat, it was not surprising that, like a clock that has stopped and tells the time correctly twice in the twenty-four hours, her occasional successes confirmed her belief. Her failures had of course no contradictory value.

Nevertheless, he became curious about this general phenomenon. Three years later, he reported the results from a self-selected sample who responded to a series of questions about cats (Mitchell, 1905). Specifically, he was searching for people who were afraid of cats.
A. 1. Have you any antipathy to cats?
     2. Are you subject to unusual feelings or symptoms in the presence of a cat?
     3. What are these?
     4. Does the presence of a tiger in a menagerie affect you as do cats?
     5. Can you account for your cat fear by anything obvious, as, for example, any incident of childhood?
     6. At what age did you first discover your peculiarity as to cats?

B. 1. Are you surely aware of the presence of a cat when it is not in sight, or known to be near?
     2. If yes, give the evidence, your own, and that of others as to the fact.
     3. What feelings or symptoms make you sure of the cat's presence?
     4. Is it the cat odor?
     5. How long have you had this peculiarity? 

Ailurophobia (the irrational fear of cats) is a type of specific phobia, one less common than the fear of spiders or snakes. Since this was 1905, Mitchell couldn't embed a poll at his LiveJournal or use SurveyMonkey. Instead, he published the questions in the journal Academic Medicine. The responses were impressive in number, in my view, but suffered from some of the same pitfalls you might expect from an internet poll:
The request was widely copied, and I received 159 replies from persons in America, England and Germany. Many were from well-known persons — professors, army officers, physicians and the like. About a third were valueless. A few were from men or women who were personally well known to me, and who I am certain may be trusted.

Some responses were thrown out because the individual suffered from asthma — a trivial explanation for the ability to sense an unseen cat. The reactions of the non-asthmatic individuals were typically immediate:
There may be only fear, terror, disgust; there may be added chilly sensations, horripilation, weakness, locked jaw, or, as in one case, fixed, open jaw, rigidity of arms, pallor, nausea, rarely vomiting, pronounced hysteric convulsions and even temporary blindness. These pass away with removal of the cat, but in a few examples leave the sufferer nervously disturbed for a day. Two report themselves as apt to have dreams of cats, what one of them calls "cat-mares."

The affliction did not differentiate between men and women, although women often suffered from more "extreme symptoms" (according to Mitchell). But even a macho military man, a big game hunter of tigers, was not spared from the terror of domestic house cats.

When asked whether there was a specific incident that caused their fear, the majority could not name a single one. Three mentioned a scary incident in childhood and one "a prenatal incident affecting the mother. Nothing of value was obtained." There was no attempt to provide a psychoanalytic explanation for ailurophobia.

Mitchell identified 27 cases of cat phobia with what he deemed a credible ability to detect an unseen cat in the room, who were without asthma and who denied any ability to smell the hidden creature. He appears to have conducted some experiments with concealed cats, but he doesn't want to bore us with any of the methodological details:
I should overload my paper if I were to relate in detail the cases in which cats were concealed in order to test the disbelieved capacity to detect them when not in sight and in which the hidden cat was at once known to be near. One or two permit of doubt; others are unassailable.

Assuming "unassailable" is accurate (a strong assumption), how were these people able to know a cat was nearby? Mitchell favored the ability to detect an odor that did not reach conscious awareness:
There may be olfactory emanations distinguished by some as odors and by others felt, not as odors, but only in their influential results on nervous systems unusually and abnormally susceptible. No other explanation seems to me available...

What he cannot explain, however, is why the irrational fear of cats developed in the first place. But leave it to a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s to come up with a sexual explanation...

Ailurophobia and Ornithophobia (Cat Phobia and Bird Phobia)

Mitchell made a horrible mistake with his "rest cure" (which was depicted in The Yellow Wallpaper), but at least his didn't try to blame cat phobia on Mommy or Daddy. That angle was covered by Louis S. London almost 50 years later (London, 1952). First, he reviewed the [fortunately] meager psychoanalytic literature of the day, and found two examples: a supposedly paraphilic 48 year old woman who "identified herself with the cat, an embodiment of infantile, criminal ideas, a force which repressed sexual interest" and a 41 year old man with bird phobia in "in which a large homosexual component and identification with the father were found."

London was the author of a slew of books on [supposedly] abnormal sexual behavior and sexual deviations, so you know where this is headed. His published case of interest here is that of dual animal phobia in a 25 year old female patient (London, 1952). She hated her mother, of course. In brief, "her phobias symbolized fear of genitals and constituted the cause of her marked sexual frigidity." The presentation of her sexual history is downright embarrassing (and unbelievable), so I won't recount it here. Suffice it to say that she probably made things up to please/shock/alienate her psychiatrist:
During analysis, the patient, supporting her procrastination by a plea of amnesia for sexual events, did not disclose anything about sexuality until 75 sessions had passed. She was so reluctant to give information about her sex life that she sent the analyst a letter reporting some of her experiences.

The analyst, however, ignored the letter and waited for the woman to speak freely of the matters she had described in writing.

She was married to a man who was a terrible lover. She hated being a housewife and wanted to work outside the home. However, the explanations for her unhappiness were frigidity and latent homosexuality, respectively. The history devolves and London's explanations become more and more preposterous:
She became frightened whenever she saw a strange woman. This fear, representing fear of latent homosexuality, was similar to her fear of birds... It was especially strong when she was in the presence of women who were angry.

The kicker, though, is the opinion expressed by the patient's surgeon:
In the middle of analysis she developed acute abdominal pains. The possibility of a psychogenic etiology was considered, but the acuteness of the pain, coupled with the fact that her mental condition had improved, made this improbable. She was sent to an internist who made a diagnosis of appendicitis and advised an operation. He scoffed at the psychoanalytic treatment she had been getting.

Then we have two pages about dreams (none of which contained cats or birds, but the interpretations did dwell on "sadistic and bisexual conflicts"). And then we get the final pronouncement:
The cats and birds [not snakes] were symbols of the phallus, and she feared them because she feared heterosexuality. This is interwoven with her sexual frigidity with the consequent clinical picture shown in this paper.

But there's more! There's an Epilogue. London interviews the patient 14 years later. She's no longer afraid of cats and birds, yet she's still disinterested in sex with her husband. So much for a causal connection...


1 The contemporary actor of the same name is a descendent.

2 I recommend a post by Dr. Romeo Vitelli for those interested in learning more about The Bed Rest Cure prescribed to writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.


Louis S. London, M.D. (1952). Ailurophobia and ornithophobia. The Psychiatric Quarterly 26: 365-371.

S. WEIR MITCHELL, M.D. (1905). OF AILUROPHOBIA AND THE POWER TO BE CONSCIOUS OF THE CAT AS NEAR, WHEN UNSEEN AND UNHEARD. Transactions of the Association of American Physicians 20:  4-14.

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At November 03, 2013 9:07 AM, Blogger jonathan said...

Interesting, I have autism and suffer from ornithophobia. I'm not sure what the link is. Usually, the Freudian perspective isn't that women aren't afraid of a penis, but rather they have penis envy.

I was in psychoanalysis as a small child late 50's to late 60s. Castration anxiety was one of the explanations for my autims, as I had a sister 3 years younger and my analyst thought I saw her naked and thought they'd cut off her penis and mine would be cut off, and that was about the time of the onset of my autism.

At April 06, 2017 7:09 AM, Blogger shadow said...

>Castration anxiety was one of the explanations for my autims

yea, well stupid pseudo scientists of the past


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