1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Catalepsy

CATALEPSY (from Gr. κατάληψις, a seizure), a term applied to a nervous affection characterized by the sudden suspension of sensation and volition, accompanied with a peculiar rigidity of the whole or of certain muscles of the body. The subjects of catalepsy are in most instances females of highly nervous temperament. The exciting cause of an attack is usually mental emotion operating either suddenly, as in the case of a fright, or more gradually in the way of prolonged depression. The symptoms presented vary in different cases, and even in the same individual in different attacks. Sometimes the typical features of the disease are exhibited in a state of complete insensibility, together with a statue-like appearance of the body which will retain any attitude it may be made to assume during the continuance of the attack. In this condition the whole organic and vital functions appear to be reduced to the lowest possible limit consistent with life, and to such a degree as to simulate actual death. At other times considerable mental excitement will accompany the cataleptic symptoms, and the patient will sing or utter passionate exclamations during the fit, being all the while quite unconscious. The attack may be of short duration, passing off within a few minutes. It may, however, last for many hours, and in some rare instances persist for several days; and it is conceivable that in such cases the appearances presented might be mistaken for real death, as is alleged to have occasionally happened. Catalepsy belongs to the class of functional nervous disorders (see Muscle and Nerve: Pathology) in which morbid physical and psychical conditions are mixed up. Although it is said to occur in persons in perfect health, careful inquiry will usually reveal some departure from the normal state, as is shown by the greater number of the recorded cases. More particularly is this true of females, in whom some form of menstrual derangement is generally found to have preceded the cataleptic affection. Catalepsy is sometimes associated with epilepsy and with grave forms of mental disease. In ordinary cases, however, the mental phenomena bear close resemblance to those witnessed in hysteria. In many of the subjects of catalepsy there appears to be a remarkable weakness of the will, whereby the tendency to lapse into the cataleptic state is not resisted but rather in some measure encouraged, and attacks may thus be induced by the most trivial circumstances.