A Historical Perspective of Schizophrenia

schizophrenia1by Jen L’Insalata

Schizophrenia cannot be explained in its entirety by one particular theoretical model and the underlying neurobiological foundation for the disease is still relatively unknown.  Rather it is the descriptions and observations of the primary psychotic symptoms that have allowed several theories surrounding schizophrenia to evolve (Mishara, & Schwartz, 2013). Historically, schizophrenia was considered to be constructive in which anomalous experiences provide the construct of one self. Early clinical observations emphasized subjective self-experiences and altered self-awareness. The concept of self-experience is still referenced in modern work with schizophrenia. (Parnas, & Henriksen, 2014).

The earliest depictions of schizophrenia were recorded in France during the 12th century but were not linked to any particular disorder. Writing described individuals who deviated from what was considered to be normal self-perception; anomalous self-experiences. In many cases writing illustrate a disunity of consciousness in which a person’s thinking, perception, movement, and vision were disjointed and incongruent with presented stimuli (Parnas, & Henriksen, 2014).

The modern understanding of schizophrenia rose form the work of Emil Krapelin, an influential German psychiatrist working in the late 19th and early 20th century. Krapelin research surrounding the combination of symptoms and psychiatric illness from a biological origin highlighted two forms of psychosis; manic depression and dementia praecox (Ebert, & Bär, 2010). The disturbance known as Krapelin’s dementia praecox consisted of the phenomenon currently recognized as schizophrenia. During his research, Krapelin described the deterioration of what he believed to be perception and attention in combination with muscular tension (Mishara, & Schwartz, 2013).

Throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s core symptoms were studied by individuals from a psychodynamic perspective such as Carl Jung, Josef Berze, and Hans Walter Gruhle. Many of these theorists called attention to various cognitive and affective characteristics of the disorder. Jung in particular was fascinated by patients displaying confused speech which he described as a state of sleep-drunken-ness and confusion. Their theories critiqued by many other early psychotheorists and the phenomenon later was renamed schizophrenia in 1908 by Eugen Bleuler (Mishara, & Schwartz, 2013).

Bleuler theorized individuals with schizophrenia experienced a general loose association with a fissure personality which was highly influenced by Jung’s work. Bleuler believed that such loose associations allowed aspects of the unconscious to invade the consciousness and lead to an ego disorder. The unconscious invasion would erode the functioning of the ego to the level in which it exists in dreams. Gruhle added to Bleuler’s work and theorized that the primary symptoms of schizophrenia operated independently and observed a dysfunction between the cognitive and the affective components of the disorder (Mishara, & Schwartz, 2013).

Josef Berze criticized Jung’s work and theories believing that the symptoms were due to a reduction in mental activity rather than attention. He theorized that mental activity is more closely related to consciousness than affect and highlighted the concept of a disruption in self as the essences of schizophrenia. Berze also noted diminished mental activity in goal setting, linguistic coherence, and the ability to access the autobiographical self. Much of his work was inspired by emerging neurobiological research. He theorized that schizophrenia symptoms originated at a subcortical area, specifically the thalamus which gave rise primitive drives and motivations (Mishara, & Schwartz, 2013).

Jaspers integrated and critiqued his predecessors work in his book General Psychopathology published in 1913. (Mishara, & Schwartz, 2013). Highly influenced by the philosopher Descartes, he solidified the concept of self-experience pertaining to schizophrenia. Jaspers recognized that an individual may have and recognize experiences that are invalid and referred to positive symptoms as first person symptoms (Parnas, & Henriksen, 2014).

During the 1940s Freud’s psychoanalytic work continued to influence much of the theories surrounding schizophrenia and emphasized an etiological root stemming from early relationships. Psychoanalytic writers produces detailed descriptions of the schizophrenic experience including disruptions in interpersonal relationships and the self-experience due to the psychosis (Hamm, & Lysaker, 2016).

Writers such a Freud and Searles illustrate individuals that were detached from the world and redirected psychic energies inward during psychosis. Such writings provide the concept of an altered self-experience from which the schizophrenic individual is unable to integrate life experiences. Psychodynamic approaches took a pessimistic view of schizophrenia treatment which failed to produce empirically supported and measurable treatment modalities. Eventually, such treatment modalities fell out of favor and were replaced by psychosocial and cognitive behavioral perspectives (Hamm, & Lysaker, 2016).

With the publication of the ICD 8 and 9, Schizophrenia was recognized as a disturbance of personality and involved disorder concepts of individual uniqueness and self-direction. During that time the term personality referred to a subjective self rather than the personality descriptions used in contemporary psychology. Research surrounding a subjective self could be measured using systematic approached however lacked reliability in its methods. This notion soon fell out of favor and was replaced with an operational model following the publication of the DSM-III in 1980 (Parnas, & Henriksen, 2014).

The DSM-III emphasized behavioristic components of schizophrenia which stress observable features over the subjectivity and inference of previous theories. Biological concepts such as genetics in the etiology of schizophrenia were highlighted and lead to the emergence of a spectrum of observable features and predictors. Among the most noted were deficits in emotion, eccentricity, and thought disorder which caused interpersonal difficulties in social and occupational function. The inclusion of the diathesis stress model illustrated how core vulnerability combined with environmental stressors and produce cognitive changes observed in schizophrenia (Parnas, & Henriksen, 2014).



Asenjo Lobos, C., Komossa, K., Rummel-Kluge, C., Hunger, H., Schmid, F., Schwarz, S., & Leucht, S. (2010). Clozapine versus other atypical antipsychotics for schizophrenia. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (11), CD006633. Advance online publication. http://doi.org.library.capella.edu/10.1002/14651858.CD006633.pub2

Ebert, A., & Bär, K.-J. (2010). Emil Kraepelin: A pioneer of scientific understanding of psychiatry and psychopharmacology. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 52(2), 191–192. http://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.64591

Hamm, J. A., & Lysaker, P. H. (2016). Psychoanalytic phenomenology of schizophrenia: Synthetic metacognition as a construct for guiding investigation. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 33(1), 147-160. doi:10.1037/a0038949

Mishara, A. L., & Schwartz, M. A. (2013). Jaspers’ critique of essentialist theories of schizophrenia and the phenomenological response. Psychopathology, 46(5), 309-19. doi:http://dx.doi.org.library.capella.edu/10.1159/000353355

Parnas, J., & Henriksen, M. G. (2014). Disordered Self in the Schizophrenia Spectrum: A Clinical and Research Perspective. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 22(5), 251–265. http://doi.org.library.capella.edu/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000040

Spencer, E. K., & Campbell, M. (1994). Children with schizophrenia: Diagnosis, phenomenology, and pharmacotherapy. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 20(4), 713-725.

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