Monday, October 13, 2008

Mind and Heart: -phren-

Sérgio Castedo, MD, Ph.D., writes from Portugal:

“Words like schizophrenic, oligophrenic, etc., have the same origin and apparently derive from the Greek "phren", meaning mind. However, in medicine, phrenic also refers to the diaphragm (the phrenic nerve, for example, is the nerve controlling the diaphragm).

Is there an ancient connection between the two, that is, between the location of the diaphragm and the mind? I performed a search on the internet and could not find an explanation for this use of the same word for apparently such different concepts.

Any comments you might have on this would be very much appreciated.”

As often happens, extension of meaning accounts for the confusion. The Greek -phren- had a range of meanings, at first applying principally to the mind or will. But we must realize that the seat of the mind for some Greek philosophers was not the physical brain, but the heart. Their view of mind and emotion was cardiocentric.

Some ancient Greek theoreticians believed that an inflammation of the diaphragm was responsible for mental disorders, so the meaning encapsulated in -phren- was extended to the midriff, diaphragm, or area surrounding the heart. Thus, the seat of all the -phrenia or -phrenic words was the diaphragm, where, as you point out, the phrenic nerve is to be found.

Let’s look at some of the interesting -phrenic words.

• electrophrenic: involving or designating electrical stimulation of the phrenic nerves.
• gastrophrenic: pertaining to the stomach and to the diaphragm
• hebephrenic: relating to a form of insanity incident to the age of puberty
• idiophrenic: relating to a form of insanity which is caused by disease of the brain itself (1886)
• oligophrenic: of, relating to, or exhibiting mental retardation
• paraphrenic: relating to mental illness with prominent paranoid or other delusional symptoms; paranoid schizophrenia
• phrenic: supplying the diaphragm; of, relating to, or affecting the diaphragm; diaphragmatic
• quantophrenic: relating to undue reliance on or use of facts that can be quantified or analysed using mathematical or statistical methods; inappropriate application of such methods, esp. in the fields of sociology and anthropology (1956)
• schizophrenic: relating to a mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, usually with a withdrawal from social activity and the occurrence of delusions and hallucinations

[Source: Oxford English Dictionary]

SIDEBAR: Body and Spirit in Greek medicine and philosophy

Addendum: Matan Fischer, a medical student at Hebrew University wrote with this information: "Surprising or not, the same double meaning exists in Hebrew. The word for diaphragm [sa-r-e-fe-t] also means "thought,"' like in Psalm 139:23."

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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