Pierre Janet: French Neurologist and Psychologist

Key Takeaways

  • Pierre Janet was a French psychologist responsible for the development of psychological analysis, widely considered to be a precursor to Freud’s psychoanalysis.
  • Janet believed that mental traumas were one of several factors that cause mental illness or neurosis. He argued that the coping strategies someone had developed over their life — tendencies — served as armor against mental illness.
  • According to Janet, neurosis occurs when the mental force of a traumatic event is stronger than the tension someone could counter by using their coping mechanisms. As a result, the person would resort to primitive and low coping mechanisms in an attempt to relieve mental pain.

Life Overview

Pierre Janet was born in Paris in the mid-19th century and taught philosophy at a grammar school before doing volunteer work at a hospital, where he engaged in psychiatric research and published his philosophical thesis, L’automatisme Psychologique, in 1889.

Janet then returned to Paris to continue his study of medicine and came to be regarded as the founder of medical and clinical psychology in France.

Although he was well-regarded in the Anglophonic world in his time, Pierre Janet fell into obscurity in the mid-20th century before his ideas were revived by Henri F. Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious in 1970.

Today, he is most regarded for his work on posttraumatic and dissociative disorders, his stance on psychoanalysis, and his ideas on the psychology of action, memory, and personality (Bühler & Heim, 2001).

Fixed Ideas

One important idea in Janet’s psychology is the concept of “fixed ideas,” or the formation of cognitive-emotional complexes.

Janet believed that these fixed ideas could lead to an impairment of mental processes on a biological level.

This impairment, according to Janet, causes not only a constricted field of consciousness but a reduced ability to synthesize ideas at all. In this view, fixed ideas could become subconscious and greatly influence conscious mental activity (Heim & Bühler, 2006).

Janet argued that emotional shocks cause trauma because they prevent people who are not well-prepared from adapting successfully to specific situations. As a result, people are exposed to feelings of fear, rage, sorrow, or incompleteness.

Fixed ideas are distorted memories, experiences, imaginations, or appraisals of a traumatic event. A similar term is a rigid-thought complex, which describes what happens when an individual cannot change their views on or consider alternatives to a situation.

Traumatic Events

Janet believed that responses to a traumatic event are inadequate — and can thus lead to fixed ideas — when the person who was traumatized does not have access to the appropriate tools to allow them to cope with traumatic events (Heim & Bühler, 2006).

Janet argued that the tendencies, or coping mechanisms, people used to deal with an event fell under a hierarchy, with some being more advanced than others.

The lowest of these tendencies were disorganized movements and reflexes. Higher up were social tendencies and language — and higher still, one’s beliefs and rationality.

Janet believed that potentially traumatic events put a force on one’s tendencies. If this force was too strong, lower tendencies would be activated, replacing the incompletely activated higher tendencies. Agitated behavior would result.

When higher tendencies, which cause someone to become personally aware of a traumatic event and find a way to integrate it into their personal biography, break down, fixed ideas emerge in the subconscious.

Janet believed that these fixed ideas lead to dissociative and posttraumatic disorders (Heim & Bühler, 2006). On a broader level, Janet believed that all hysterical illnesses arise from fixed ideas.

Janet and The Development of Psychoanalysis

Pierre Janet is often referred to as the “French Freud.” He developed the idea of psychological analysis, which came to heavily influence Freud’s psychoanalysis.

Janet both predated and continually critiqued Freud’s work. In this critique, Janet often accused Freud of using concepts that he had introduced without attribution (Heim & Bühler, 2001).

Janet considered psychoanalysis to be much more limited in scope than Freud. He believed that it appeared to be valid if a mental illness had an already-established sexual source. However, in other situations, he saw it as little more than philosophical speculation.

Janet disputed the view that all mentally ill people have sexual trauma or that sexual trauma is universal. Instead, he argued that empirical evidence indicated that traumatic memories arise from the disorders themselves and cannot explain the disorder alone (Bailey, 1956).

Another difference between Janet’s psychological analysis and Freud’s psychoanalysis is that Janet did not use dream analysis as a way to crucify his interpretations of his patients” mental states.

Janet ascribed no other meaning to dreams than that manifest in their content. However, he did stress the importance of dreams and therapy, as they can contain clues to the traumatic experiences thought to cause an illness.

Finally, Janet viewed mental trauma in a way fundamentally different from Freud’s. Janet believed that traumatic memories are connected to other mental states and, as a result, can result in some symptoms of mental illness.

Freud’s psychoanalysis, however, contended that traumatic memories and subconscious conceptions are at the root of all mental illness (Bailey, 1956).


Mental Trauma and Emotion

Pierre Janet considered mental trauma to be one of several factors that cause mental disorders.

In his lectures, Janet recounted cases of people who had undergone “hysterical paralysis” following an accident.

He showed that the emotions immediately evoked by accident were not the sole cause of the mental illness that followed. Instead, the memory of the accident and the resulting ideas and worries that the patient built around the incident was.

Janet warned against speculative thinking. He believed that traumatic memories should only be taken into account when they often recur in the present and cause noticeable distress (Heim & Bühler, 2006).

Mental trauma results in chronic emotions, and emotions can cause mental trauma insofar as they can be viewed as maladjustment to a situation. To Janet, emotionally moving events are ones that someone who is poorly prepared cannot adjust to.

As a result, poorly prepared people cannot overcome the shock and the subsequent disorder that follows an event. As a result, the person must resort to older and more elementary reaction patterns to cope.

Mental Force and Mental Tension

Janet assumes that someone’s coping mechanisms, or tendencies, can be organized to carry out a certain action — to protect someone from mental illness.

Janet uses the term “tension” to characterize this protecting activity. Meanwhile, events can have a mental force on a person.

To Janet, mental force and mental tension are constantly in competition, with one constantly seeking to overtake the other (Heim & Bühler, 2006).

Janet believed that someone has high mental tension when they can carry out high-level mental functions easily and often.

Meanwhile, low-level coping mechanisms require a lower level of mental tension (Heim & Bühler, 2001).

Janet described a group of mental illnesses that result in reduced mental tension as “constriction of consciousness.”

This reduction of mental tension causes higher-level coping mechanisms to disappear, resulting in patients being unable to adapt to new and unexpected situations (Heim & Bühler, 2006).

Mental Illness and Personality

Along with mental trauma arising from emotions, Janet considered personality to be another factor that influences the formation of mental disorders.

Janet believed, in neurosis, that patients suffered from “Werdenshemmung,” or the inability to adjust to new obstacles. This “inhibition of becoming” is partly a stable character trait and partly a result of the reduction of mental force and mental tension that results from trauma.

Thus, when someone who already has werdenshemmung is exposed to traumatic events, their ability to adapt reduces to the point that they become neurotic (Bühler & Heim, 2001).

This results in an inability to access — and an inability to develop — higher tendencies or coping mechanisms.

To Janet, this caused a vicious cycle of trauma, mental exhaustion, and personality results in neurotic patients (Heim & Bühler, 2006).


Bailey, P. (1956). Janet and Freud. AMA Archives of Neurology & Psychiatry, 76 (1), 76-89.

Bühler, K. E., & Heim, G. (2001). General introduction to the psychotherapy of Pierre Janet. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 55 (1), 74-91.

Heim, G., & Bühler, K. E. (2006). Psychological trauma and fixed ideas in Pierre Janet’s conception of dissociative disorders. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 60 (2), 111-129.

Janet, P. (1889).  L’automatisme psychologique: essai de psychologie expérimentale sur les formes inférieures de l”activité humaine . Alcan.

Janet, P. (1894).  État mental des hystériques . Rueff.

Janet, P. (1907).  The major symptoms of hysteria: Fifteen lectures given in the medical school of Harvard University. Macmillan.

Janet, P. (1930). L’analyse psychologique.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.