The woman who could read with her stomach

Catalepsy

Catalepsy is a strange condition in which the patient keeps a fixed, rigid posture, even one which looks abnormal and uncomfortable.  The limbs often display waxy rigidity, meaning that it is possible to move them into any position without resistance.  It is a typical feature of a catatonic state – in which patients are apparently unresponsive to pain or other external stimuli.  Catatonia has many different causes, including infections, tumours or degenerative disease; but in this unusual case recorded in The Lancet in 1832 it seems to have been a psychiatric symptom.

A young female, aged 25, after experiencing profound grief, was thrown into a state of extreme moral and physical susceptibility, and on the 10th of September, 1832, had an attack of catalepsy, which lasted from midday to midnight.

These attacks took place at the same time every day for the next forty-two days.  The young woman would sigh heavily and yawn, and become silent.

While the period lasted, she was as if paralysed, unable to execute any movement… She retained perfectly all the positions given her, however strange or embarrassing.  The body was, moreover, altogether insensible even to the most intense and painful physical impressions.

After a month of these daily attacks a new feature appeared: when she was about to emerge from her trance-like state she would execute a series of movements, the same each day:

The patient successively lifted up the left arm and right arm, the right foot and the left foot, and then let them subside heavily.  She shook her head, elevated both hands, leant them on the bed, assumed the sitting posture, and then fell back by her own weight.  Again she carried her hands to her head, rubbed her hair, and put on a gloomy and menacing aspect.  Lastly, there supervened some convulsive movements, and she then awoke without retaining any recollection of what had happened during the cataleptic sleep, and without complaining of any pain or uneasy feeling about the heart.

Although at first she seemed entirely oblivious to her surroundings, her doctors began to notice some strange anomalies.  They tried a series of experiments which produced some extraordinary results:

The patient heard no sound, however loud, which reached her by the ears; but if she was spoken to, even in the lowest whisper, directed on the hollow of the hand, or sole of the foot, on the pit of the stomach, or along the traject [course] of the sympathetic nerve, she heard perfectly the words addressed to her.  It was the same if, while speaking to her in a whisper, the speaker applied her hand to any of the places above-mentioned.  

Stranger still, they found that they could ‘speak’ to her in this manner from a considerable distance, or through several people’s bodies:

the chain was of four persons, three of whom held each other’s hands, and the fourth communicated with the third by the interposition of a very long wax-taper; the first of the chain, meanwhile, being the only person touching the patient.  Under these circumstances, she heard perfectly the whispers of the fourth person pronounced at a considerable distance.

She answered questions put to her through this unusual arrangement, but if the chain were broken for a second she would instantly know and stop speaking: the second the volunteers joined hands again she would resume her speech.

But that was the least of it.  In her cataleptic state she possessed almost supernatural abilities:

With her eyes closed, or even bandaged, she recognised things and their colours, when placed on the regions where this special sensibility existed.  She pointed out to the instant the hours and minutes on every watch.  She often, but not always, succeeded in reading words written on paper.  Later in the disease this facility became still more prodigiously developed.  It sufficed to tell her attention to any object placed in her room, or the next room, or in the street, or out of the town, or even at enormous distances, to have it described by her as perfectly as if she saw it with her eyes.

Several experiments to test this unlikely ability were performed.  She succeeded in describing in great detail a convent she had never visited, and a cellar in a country house.  From her descriptions, floor plans of these places were drawn up which corresponded exactly to the reality, including the precise arrangement of some barrels found in the cellar.  A distinguished professor from the University of Bologna asked her to describe a corner of his study; she astonished him by correctly telling him that it contained a table, on which were placed a book and a leopard’s skull.

She was also able to describe her own body using precise anatomical language, including descriptions in Latin, a language she did not know.  When her eyes were open they were usually motionless and turned towards the light, but if a magnet were moved behind her head they followed its motion.  They did so even if the magnet were on the other side of a wall.

Just as she could ‘hear’ through her stomach and the soles of her feet, it appeared that she could ‘smell’ through the same parts of her body, since when objects were placed there she described their odour.  And she developed unusual mathematical abilities:

Although she was acquainted only with the four rules of arithmetic, she succeeded, under the cataleptic influence, in extracting several roots of numbers; amongst others that of the number 4965.

The cataleptic state eventually passed, although the doctors recorded that the young woman could now reproduce it at will, and even offered to show how other people could experience the same state and abilities.

The observers propose to make known all these discoveries in a work they are preparing on the subject.

Although the original case became famous and was often quoted in later years, I’ve yet to find any trace of a follow-up.  I wonder if the Bolognese doctors realised they’d been conned.

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