Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 13: Human Physiognomy, Psychology, and Brain Functions

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 13: Human Physiognomy, Psychology, and Brain Functions

Article excerpt

The fact that the brain is the one immediate bodily condition of the mental operations is indeed so universally admitted nowadays that I need spend no more time in illustrating it, but will simply postulate it and pass on.... Bodily experiences, therefore, and more particularly brainexperiences, must take a place amongst those conditions of the mental life of which Psychology need take account.. Our first conclusion, then, is that a certain amount of brain-physiology must be presupposed or included in Psychology.

william james, The Principles of Psychology (1890)

Nineteenth century neuroscientific research is generally defined in terms of studies on human physiognomy, psychology, and brain functions. In Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts, for example, Clarke and Jacyna tell us:

One of the reasons why the nervous system exerted a fascination upon late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century investigators, as it did upon those of other epochs, was its intimate association with the phenomena of mind.. the precise "seat" of the soul in the nervous system, and the nature of the relation between this organ and the mind remained highly contentious. Nevertheless, it was generally recognized that the nervous system did represent an interface between the material and psychic realms and was, therefore, an object of unique interest (Clarke and Jacyna 1987: 4).

Clarke and Jacyna's book brackets the neurological investigations of that time in terms of gross anatomy, physiological experiments, comparative anatomy, developmental anatomy, pathology elucidating physiology, and microscopical anatomy; this is essentially a standard scientific bracketing. Thus, for example, in terms of drugs or chemistry, they mention that François Magendie (1783-1855) did some experiments that revealed that drugs do act on the nervous system (Clarke and Jacyna 1987), but then point out that his contributions and those involving chemistry in general were so small as to pale when placed within the larger terrain of that century.

It was only in 1921, when the German pharmacologist Otto Loewi (1873-1961) confirmed that neurons could communicate by releasing chemicals that this changed. Loewi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1936 jointly with Henry Dale (1875-1968), who also worked on chemical transmission of nerve impulses. Before their work, scientists had assumed the majority of synaptic communication in the brain was electrical. In other words, 19th century studies of brain functioning were still operating in a space quite unlike our defined terrain in the sense that we have expanded the details experimentally and thus our histories have expanded topically. Still, as was the case in earlier eras, we can identify a range of original thinkers who again remind us of what creative minds can accomplish when paired with a project that connects with their sensitivities. The difference between what was known then and now is important to note because the expanse of the 19th century so easily blends into contemporary ideas, and yet distinct differences are still apparent in various areas.

The remaining chapters try to address this topically so as to identify the impact of new ideas; the interaction of scientific and cultural ideas; and how new technologies have come into play. Unfortunately, the vast sweep provided here will need to also leave out much relevant detail. Thus, this chapter will briefly review the fierce debates about localization and holistic functioning, a tension that was a mark of 19th century studies on the brain. It will also examine the evolution of anatomical descriptions and documentation of the body so as to expand on the lengthy anatomical interface among the nervous system, the mind, and human emotions discussed in earlier chapters. In addition and to stress environmental factors, it summarizes some conjunctions and omissions. In other words, on the whole, the chapter is intended to survey creative projects that brought artists and those with an interest in the brain together for creative purposes or for teaching, research, and documentation. …

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