Cenesthesia and cenesthopathy have played a fundamental role in 19th and early 20th century French and German psychiatry. Cenesthesia refers to the internal, global, implicit and affective perception of one's own body. The concept of cenesthopathy was coined by Dupre and Camus in 1907 to describe a clinical entity characterized by abnormal and strange bodily sensations.
In this review, we examine the history of these concepts and the influence they have had on clinical, nosographical and phenomenological psychiatry and on cognitive neuropsychiatry.
We performed a narrative review of the published research literature.
Classical French and German psychiatrists have written extensively on cenesthesia and cenesthopathy although these notions are no longer in the mainstream of contemporary psychiatry. However, they are still present in contemporary psychiatric nosography in the form of some controversial clinical entities clearly related to cenesthesia such as cenesthetic schizophrenia, hypochondriacal monothematic delusions, or the Capgras and the Cotard syndromes. These clinical entities are all associated with a state of depersonalization. We point out the similarities between Ey's description of the depersonalization syndrome, especially in psychosis, and the characteristics of cenesthesia. Philosophers like Sartre or Merleau-Ponty have developed the concept of cenesthesia, and in particular have added new concepts like "body schema". Similarly, phenomenological psychiatrists like Minkowski or Tellenbach have attempted to describe psychiatric disorders associated with cenesthesia and have also proposed new concepts (i.e. atmospheric sense) in order to understand them better. More recently, cognitive neuropsychiatry has tried to discover the mechanisms, which cause or contribute to the genesis of delusions. The majority of delusion theories developed in cognitive neuropsychiatry consider that the explanation of monothematic delusions involves one or two explanatory stages. The first stage corresponds to an abnormal experience (the experiential stage) while the second is related to abnormal reasoning (the inferential stage). This theoretical first stage has been considered to be the result of a highly unusual or bizarre perceptual experience. According to the authors, this experience refers to a phenomenon of depersonalization, a loss of cenesthesia, or a loss of a feeling of familiarity. For example, the neurocognitive models of the Capgras and Cotard syndromes have in common the belief that they are both based on various kinds of unusual experiences. These unusual experiences are thought to include affective or emotional experiences. Capgras' syndrome is possibly triggered by an abnormal affective experience in response to the sight of closed-person's face. Similarly, the Cotard syndrome may result from a general flattening of affective responses to external stimuli. The inferential stage can also differentiate between the two syndromes. Some empirical validation has already been obtained in Capgras' syndrome but not yet in Cotard's syndrome.
This review illustrates that the historical descriptions of cenesthesia and cenesthopathy remain relevant in contemporary neurocognitive models and more generally suggests that the comprehension of quite complex phenomena like delusion requires a multidisciplinary approach.