Historical Perspectives of Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal psychology is field of study that deals with scientific study of abnormal behaviors and experiences like psychoses, psychoneuroses and mental backwardness among others. It also involves itself with the study of dreams and hypnosis to understand and correct these abnormal behaviors.

Down the historical line, abnormal psychology has stirred massive debate concerning causes of mental illnesses. The causes of these conditions remain a mystery prompting scholars to study widely the causes of the same. Origin of abnormal psychology dates back to prehistoric times where people attributed these illnesses to natural spirits. People in these prehistoric times could see no difference between magic, medicine and religion. In Mesopotamia, these illnesses were mainly mystical, or so people thought. Scientific explanation of mental illnesses set in at around 800 BC-1000 AD during Roman civilization (‘History of Abnormal Psychology’, 2008). However, the strong mystical beliefs toppled this perspective of explanation. Scientific explanation resurfaced and established roots in this field of study in the Dark Ages and eventually in 17th century onwards.

Now that this is a scientific study, how did it evolve into a field in science? Fundamentally, theories explaining cause of mental illnesses fall into three broad categories that include humanitarian, scientific and supernatural causes. The scientific theory applies medicine in establishing causes and treatment of these illnesses. Development of abnormal psychology into medicine is gradual and it dates back to Greek philosopher Hippocrates when he wrote numerous papers about mental disorders. Hippocrates concluded that people associated mental sicknesses to supernatural powers because they did not know what caused the illnesses. He theorized that four body fluids namely black bile, blood, phlegm and yellow bile caused imbalances in the body that led to disturbances in the body (‘History of Abnormal Psychology’, 2008).

Later on, in the first century, Asclepiades, a Greek physician differed with Hippocrates and emphasized that mental disorders resulted from emotional problems. He further differentiated between severe and chronic psychological problems. Between 50 and 130 AD, Aretaeus further differed with Hippocrates and adopted a more emotional and humanitarian point of view. Scientific aspect of study gained full momentum in 131-200 AD with Galen Claudius conducting research on animals to determine how the body functions (‘History of Abnormal Psychology’, 2008). This was a landmark in abnormal psychology as it moved from philosophical view to a more practical medicinal view. Galen adopted Hippocrates’ ‘four humors’ theory but maintained other factors like lack of self-control would cause some degree of madness.

Development of abnormal psychology continued through Dark Ages and persisted into 16th century where Benjamin Rush did outstanding job in this field. People like Sigmund Freud also made major advances in this field. However, Clifford Whittingham Beer, a graduate from Yale threw this field into disarray after he suffered mental breakdown. After recovery following a four-year rehabilitation program, he wrote a book about his experiences. He claimed his was a mind that had found its self, raising questions about mental disorders and one’s consciousness (‘History of Abnormal Psychology’, 2008).

Nevertheless, the first mental hospital came to be in Baghdad in 792 AD and this shows how old scientific study of abnormal psychology is. This study persisted into 20th century where diverse studies of the same emerged with branches in psychoanalysis, brain pathology, genetics, diathesis stress model and environmental influences among others coming to existence.

There are theoretical models associated with development of abnormal psychology. Psychological point of view associates itself with determining the nature of conditions that lead to these illnesses. According to this model, an organic condition exists and it causes structural impairment responsible for the disorder. In other situations, the condition may be functional, that is, no structural impairment but a faulty operation that leads to vitiated mode of action (Hollingsworth, 1930, p. 214). Psychological perspective emphasizes on cognitive responses to the surrounding environment, together with issues like childhood trauma among other issues.

Socio-cultural models focus on the role played by external social factors towards mental illnesses. These external factors emanate from family members or wider population leading to stress, depression or even trauma (Bennet, 2003, p. 23). Research has shown that effects of socio-cultural issues like unemployment lead to depression and consequently indulgence to substance use. Research indicates that women in urban settings undergo stress as compared to their counterparts in rural settings. This extends to people from minority ethnic groups and disparity in resources distribution leads to mental disorders. Socio-cultural theories try to explain all these occurrences.

The biological or medical theories try to tackle abnormal psychology on basis that brain controls behavior and mood of an individual. Brain allows someone to perceive information, integrate it and relate it to past emotions leading to emotional or behavioral response of the same. Thus, interrupting brain’s structure and functioning leads to improper perception and integration, leading to weird responses. The damage may be structural to the brain or disruption of neurotransmitters: chemicals responsible for coordinating information within the brain. When key areas like thalamus, hypothalamus, limbic systems and ventral tegmental areas in brain function improperly, someone’s mood changes (Bennet, 2003, p. 62). These parts regulate moods and behavior in an individual.

History of abnormal behavior is thus long and it has evolved gradually to establish itself as a scientific field of study. There are biological, psychological and socio-cultural theories that explain abnormal psychology.


Bennet, P. (2003). Abnormal and Clinical Psychology: an Introductory Textbook. Web.

‘History of Abnormal Psychology.’ (2008). Abnormal Psychology Time Machine. Web.

Hollingsworth, H. (1930). Abnormal Psychology: Its Concepts and Theories. Web.