Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Insanity and the Katzenklavier

I am, as you know, a cat-lover (or ailurophile to be accurate), but history has not always been kind to moggies. Take Athanasius Kircher's cat piano (or katzenklavier, pictured above).

Designed in the mid 17th-century, it comprised a line of cats sat in six to eight cages, which were in turn sunk into the body of a piano. Each cat had its tail stretched underneath the instrument's keyboard. Nails were placed under the keys, causing the cats to cry out in pain when the keys were pressed. The animals were organised by the respective tones of their voices to create a harmonic sound.

Needless to say, this was a hypothetical instrument which Kircher seems not to have made; it was designed by the German Jesuit scholar purely as an elaborate joke (and it's testament to the robustness of the age that animals in pain were considered amusing - see Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty for more on that subject).

Interestingly, the idea was then taken up in the 18th century by German physician Johann Christian Reil who felt the katzenklavier would be useful in his treatment of insanity, in particular patients who had lost the ability to focus their attention. He believed that the katzenklavier was so ridiculous that if his patients were forced to see it, it couldn't fail to capture the attention and thus cure them.

It's not clear whether Reil knew of Kircher's design or independently came up with the same idea, but either way, it must be one of the weirdest theories in the history of psychiatry. Incidentally, Reil is often credited with coining the term psychiatry (meaning 'healing the soul') in 1808.

Picture: Wiki Commons

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