The four humours and mental illness

By: Thea Louise Jordal Vikanes

Hippocrates' theory of the four humours was revolutionary because he believed diseases were no longer caused by divine punishment but as a natural consequence of one's lifestyle.
He believed that the humorus regulated our body function and that good health was associated with proper balance in our working of the humours. Moreover, the different humours were produced by the liver, spleen, gallbladder, and lungs. Next, humours were thought to vaporize upon crossing from the body to the brain, responsible for mental functions.

Furthermore, the four humours signified differences in age, gender, and behavior. On one hand, I do find it very interesting that they believed our personality traits and mental state was produced by the body. However, the idea that one organ such as the spleen or a liver is the sole provider for specific qualities, makes no sense to me.

The four humours are also associated with different personality traits. First, there is the yellow bile in which people make fast decisions and act before thinking. Second, there is the black bile also known as the humor of the devil. If you have a good balance of the black bile, you are expected to have usual periods of melancholy. Here it seems like they acknowledge the difference between having mental health and mental illness. This is because they acknowledge that it is normal to feel depressed in some periods but distinguish the severity by saying that imbalance of the black bile can lead to depression or other serious mental illnesses.

Likewise other treatments for mental illnesses in this period, the doctors used inhumane treatments to improve patients’ mental health. To obtain proper balance of the humours, the doctors needed to reinstate the patient's blood flow. This is because having a good blood flow was supposed to result in a balance of humours.

Furthermore, there were three common treatments utilized to relieve the excess of black bile. First, the doctors could use bloodletting, by cutting the main vessel of a patient's arm to examine the quality of the blood. If the blood was clean and red, the humour would be balanced. However, if the blood was blackish or thick the doctors would keep letting it bleed until imbalances were fixed. At last, the doctors could use leaching by attaching several leeches to a patient's forehead or as a last resort place them in a mental hospital. Although placing them in a mental hospital made society safer, the inhumane treatments usually made their symptoms worse.

Li. K, Haung.A and Makino. B (20.01.2016) Four humours and mental illness in Elisabethan England, Youtube, Retrived from:

Martins, S (2021) History of psychopathology

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