Apprehension and Pain: Eric Berne and his Dentist

In 1941, many years before Dr. Eric Berne put forth his theories on Transactional Analysis or wrote Games People Play, he was in private practice in Connecticut and also a Clinical Assistant in Psychiatry at Mount Zion in New York City.  He was married to his first wife, Ruth (this is incorrectly noted as Elinor in many of his biographies) and living in Norwalk, Connecticut.  His first child, Ellen, was due to be born in 1942.

Dr. Eric Berne visited his dentist, Dr. Norman Feitelson DDS in Westport, CT. Westport is one town east of the town of Norwalk. At this visit, as usual, Dr. Berne analyzed the interactions and spoke at length with Dr. Feitelson about his reactions as well as other patient’s reactions while in the dentist’s chair. Even for a trained physician, Dr. Berne was no fan of the dental chair!  From this, a paper was born, and it was published in the Journal of the American Dental Association. What type of psychiatrist would publish a paper in this prominent dental journal? Only Eric Berne.

Photo of Article by Eric Berne and his dentist on Berne's experience receiving dental care

Photo of the Dentist Article from Eric Berne’s personal collection. Note that he crossed out “Bernstein” to make it “Berne.” This paper was published in 1941, prior to Berne changing his last name.

Excerpts from the Article of Eric Berne and his Dentist

This communication is the result of some interesting hours spent by one of us (E. L. B.) in the chair of the other, where an opportunity was had, through intimate contact, to become familiar with the psychologic effects of the dentist’s drill. The concomitant introspections and intermittent discussions yielded some ideas which may be of practical interest to the dental profession at large.

The factors which differentiate the work of the dentist on the living tooth from the same work on the isolated tooth are matters of relative considerations: anatomic, physiologic, and psychologic. Since the physiologic factors (wetness or dryness, etc.) in a large degree, and the anatomic factors (position and steadiness of the head and jaw, etc.), in a lesser degree, depend on the psychologic, and since purely psychologic factors themselves are of more secondary importance, an understanding of the latter is especially desirable.

There are for all of us two psychobiologic experiences which are in the foreground during any dental operation: 1. The apprehension of pain. 2. The perception of pain. The apprehension of pain is highly, and the feeling of pain slightly, modifiable by purely psychologic measures which can be applied in everyday practice. The remainder–the residuum of pain actually felt–can be controlled by drugs or by other factors of operative technic, such as temperature control and the use of sharp instruments.

The apprehension of dental pain depends primarily on general conditions. When a sharp instrument is put in the mouth, especially when its potential painfulness has been previously proved by experience, there is a universal impulse to avoid the threatening instrument, by flight from it or by destroying the agent who wields it. The individual usually inhibits this impulse, so much so that, in most cases, it does not even reach the level of conscious attention, and the head and hands are kept immobile as a matter of course. There are two cases, however, in which this is not so.

Journal of the American Dental Association Citation

Citation of the Eric Berne and his dentist research paper

Citation from the paper from Eric Berne’s personal collection. Journal of the American Dental Association, Vol. 28, Pages 1129-1132, July, 1941


Eric Berne Trivia

Dr. Eric Berne had 4 blood children and 2 step children (in reality, he had 3 stepchildren, but one passed away; she is buried next to him in Pacific Grove, CA).  While he has grandchildren from his step kids, he has only 2 grandkids with a direct blood relationship to him.  Both are grandchildren from his first child, Ellen.  His other three natural children – Peter, Ricky, and Terry – do not have kids.   One of them, Nicholas Berne Calcaterra, is a dentist in Orange, Connecticut focusing on IV Sedation Dentistry. Dr. Calcaterra (Eric Berne’s only blood grandson) has read this article numerous times and actually uses some of the techniques that Dr. Berne describes. He bears a strong resemblance to Eric. Can you spot it?