Linking surrealism with neuroscience may appear to be a formidable endeavor. The potency of the unconscious, championed by this artistic movement, encounters the realm of science and the rational outlook on life. Astonishingly, André Breton (1896–1966), a pivotal figure in the inception of surrealism, studied medicine and gained experience in various hospitals before embarking on his journey as a renowned writer and poet. Furthermore, he contemplated a career in psychiatry for a brief spell, influenced by his interactions with the neurologist Joseph Babinski at La Pitié. This infusion of neuroscience lent a distinct nuance to surrealism.

The tale begins in 1913 when Breton embarked on medical studies. During this period, his intrigue in psychiatry burgeoned, particularly in the clinical conditions popularized by Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), encompassing hysteria, psychosis, and paranoia. The inception of neurology as a separate discipline is credited to Jean-Martin Charcot and his contemporaries. Another noteworthy figure, Raoul-Achille Leroy (1869–1941), kindled Breton’s fascination with psychiatry. A celebrated alienist — a medical expert recognized by legal courts to assess the mental competence of individuals involved in legal proceedings —, Leroy authored numerous treatises on mental disorders during his tenure at Saint-Dizier. Under Leroy’s tutelage, Breton immersed himself in neurology and contributed to several case studies under his mentorship. Herein lies the initial intersection between Breton’s literary pursuits and neurology. He crafted a poetic piece inspired by a case of locomotor ataxia he had diagnosed, which found its way into Nord-Sud (1918). Another trace of Leroy’s influence is discernible in the poem «L’Air de l’Eau» (1934), penned by Breton, which features ‘lilliputian hallucinations,’ a phenomenon studied by Leroy in 1909.

After his tenure in Saint-Dizier, Breton served on the front lines for four months during World War I, fulfilling roles as a stretcher-bearer and physician. Upon his return to Paris, the burgeoning writer underwent a period of apprenticeship under Joseph Babinski (1857-1932) at La Pitié from January to September 1917. Despite preparing for his medical examination that year, he never officially qualified as a doctor. The profound influence of Babinski is evident, as underscored by Breton himself in the First Manifesto of Surrealism.

Babinski, initially a histologist and anatomopathologist, gravitated towards psychiatry under Charcot’s guidance. His initial paper was an extension of Charcot’s work, but he eventually formulated his own theory about hysteria, coining the term «pithiatism» to describe his version. Notably, Breton’s conceptualization of hysteria closely echoed Charcot’s perspective.

Following the culmination of World War I, Breton immersed himself in the avant-garde art scene, particularly intrigued by the concept of mental automatism — the practice of spontaneously jotting down sentences or words without conscious thought. In 1919, Breton’s attention turned to a publication called «Les Champs Magnetiques,» co-created with Philippe Soupault. This magazine is seen as the precursor of surrealism. The concept of ‘association of ideas,’ which had been employed by psychiatrists shortly before the war, including figures like Bleuler, Claparède, and Toulouse, was pivotal. The technique of automatic writing had also found significant usage among psychiatric patients preceding the advent of psychoanalysis.

In the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Breton defined surrealism as ‘pure psychic automatism,’ referring to thought devoid of rationale, morality, or aesthetic considerations. This text, replete with quotes and references derived from his own experiences, features mentions of Ganser syndrome and echolalia — topics prevalent in the art brut. Additionally, entire sentences in the manifesto were culled from Constanza Pascal’s book «La dèmence prècoce» (1911).

Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), a multifaceted artist deeply intertwined with surrealism, hails from Lancashire, England. However, driven by World War II and her escape from a psychiatric institution, she embarked on a migration to New York in 1941, ultimately settling in Mexico for the remainder of her life.

In 1940, Carrington suffered a mental breakdown after her partner, Max Ernst, was incarcerated alongside other Austrian and German residents in the Les Milles internment camp. Her mother admitted her to a psychiatric facility in Santander, Spain, where she underwent electroconvulsive therapy and received medications like Cardiazol (a potent convulsant) and Luminal (a barbiturate). This episode left an indelible mark on her, which she articulated in her book «Down Below» (1943). The enigmatic passages within this work blend symbolism and hallucinatory experiences, leaving one uncertain whether these events were real or not. The narrative might be decoded through what Carrington termed «narratological differential diagnosis.» In this context, differential diagnosis becomes crucial in deciphering the nature of a story that fuses surrealist aesthetics, retrospective narration, and the experiential dimensions of mental illness.

This experience not only permeates the pages of her book but also infiltrates her paintings and sculptures. André Breton recognized the value of her work, even encouraging her to write about her psychotic experience. Breton hailed her as the sole individual who had «returned from the other side.»

Although Breton often invoked Freud when discussing the importance of dreams in his writings, his work delved deeper than that of the father of psychoanalysis. The emphasis on automatic writing in the early 1920s hints at the surrealists’ desire to parallel aspects of the experiences of hysteric and psychotic patients in their artistic processes. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, they interwove elements of hysteria and psychosis into their creations as a means of psychic release, a rebellion against the rational world. In «L’immaculè e Conception» (1930), published by Breton and Eluard with a frontispiece by Dali, the chapter ‘Possessions’ incorporates essays on acute mania, general paresis, delirium, and precocious dementia.

The theme of ‘madness’ finds further illustration in Breton’s partly autobiographical novel «Nadja» (1928), chronicling the love affair between André, the narrator, and Nadja. The second Manifesto of Surrealism (Breton, 1924) opens with a reproduction of critical reactions to «Nadja» by a psychiatrist, originally published in «Les Annales Médico-Psychologiques,» the oldest journal in mental medicine. Breton lauds hysteria as ‘the greatest poetic discovery of the latter part of the century,’ co-authoring a manifesto with Louis Aragon to celebrate its clinical origin.


Haan, J., Koehler, P. J., & Bogousslavsky, J. (2012). Neurology and surrealism: André Breton and Joseph Babinski. Brain : a journal of neurology135(Pt 12), 3830–3838.

The texts and this website have been developed by Erik Aostri. All rights reserved.