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A History of the BrainReview - A History of the Brain
From Stone Age surgery to modern neuroscience
by Andrew P. Wickens
Psychology Press, 2015
Review by Frank R. Faries
Oct 6th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 41)

Andrew Wickens presents a comprehensive history of our understanding of the human brain. He adequately highlights the major figures who have brought about major shifts in the ways in which we study and conceive of the brain. However, this is not just a mainstream account of brain science, as Wickens gives an account of such breadth that not only the main players, but minor figures in history. Moreover, he recounts not only the major breakthroughs in the science, but also the surrounding cultural milieu and personal histories which drive the science. For a tome of such ambitious scope, Wickens' account is very readable. Much of this owes to the narrative approach which he adopts. As such, the book provides a history of astounding depth and precision suitable for students, researchers, and laypersons alike. However, the narrative approach which Wickens adopts is not without its costs. But a clear and simple picture of all the knowledge of the brain throughout human history may simply be an unachievable goal, so we should expect that mode of presentation should highlight some aspects at the expense of others.

          A historical exploration of such breadth is forced to make crucial decisions in presenting five millennia of inquiry into the brain. One could adopt a straightforward approach, more or less following a linear chronological path, amassing and cataloging the various concurrent developments happening in various academic circles, and along various lines of inquiry. Such an approach might present a deliberate series of consecutive developments in the brain, but runs the risk of missing relevant themes which develop orthogonal to chronological or geographical divisions. Moreover, developments in the study of the brain occur in punctuated spurts throughout history. A straightforward history is ill-suited to extract the relevant threads in crowded periods of advancement like the 19th Century. An alternative approach, employed by Wickens, is to present an historical narrative which explores the various lines of inquiry into the brain as they emerge along a roughly chronological timeline. This approach allows Wickens to properly couch micro-level events, like, for instance, George Combe's traveling lectures, in the context of macro-level themes (i.e., phrenology) without having to extract these changes from among any of the other micro-level developments occurring around the same time, e.g., Joseph Lister's invention of the achromatic lens, or Marshall Hall's mechanical explanation of nerves of the spinal cord.

          Wickens' narrative is loosely organized along a timeline, and the author makes frequent reference to earlier figures to trace the influence of major players in brain science. This strategy is dutifully employed in cases like Galen, Albrecht von Haller, and Charles Sherrington. It is hard to underestimate the influence of Galen on all experimental physiology, and the study of the brain is no less a product of his vision. Galen's account of the brain, cranial and spinal nerves--complete with a 16th Century frontispiece from his De anatomicis adminstrationibus and woodcut of his “squealing pig” demonstration--comprises nearly all of Wickens' second chapter on the discovery of the nervous system. This is not the last word on the Greek physician, as his name pops up again in nearly all of Wickens' twelve subsequent chapters. Von Haller receives a similar treatment, first cropping up in discussions of early investigations of the “ghost in the machine”, in which his influential theory of irritability and sensibility is shown to be the first to thwart the dominant Aristotelian view of a soul-like force responsible for animating the body. He comes up again in relation to the animal electricity of Galvani and others, as a methodological foil to Flourens' lesioning techniques, and as an influence on Robert Whytt's studies on the eye. Likewise for Charles Sherrington, whose wide range of achievements accords him a frequency of appearance in Wickens' book second only to Galen himself, despite the ancient doctor's 1700 year head-start.

          However, a narrative approach like Wickens' is not without its trade-offs. There are two primary sacrifices which Wickens' choice of presentation makes. First, by dividing his account into chapters organized around particular themes, rather than biographical accounts of important figures, the broader views of important figures get obfuscated. Secondly, because of the sheer volume of information which the author provides, some important minor figures are glossed over. An example of the latter kind is Jan Swammerdam. Although Wickens notes Swammerdam's pioneering experiments in testing the animal spirits theory, and the similarity to the experiments of both Glisson and Galvani, a curious gem in the annals of neurophysiology is lost by rendering Swammerdam as little more than a historical footnote. Other minor characters receive in-depth biographical treatments (e.g., Robert Remak, Giovanni Aldini, Johann Spurzheim), but Swammerdam is neglected. His is a story of utmost curiosity, and one which captures the picaresque eccentricities of seventeenth century scientists. (Franklin Fearing (1930) examines Swammerdam's contribution and the sociological and personal circumstances which shape Swammerdam's life, as well as the manner in which his work was received.)  (Fearing, F. (1930). Reflex action: A study in the history of physiological psychology. Hafner Publishing: New York, NY. Pp. 41 – 53.) This is certainly not a damning indictment of Wickens' account. It is merely the observation that when attempting to capture the highlights in such a large span of time, there are bound to be a few interesting nuggets swept into the dustbin of history.

          It is trade-offs of the former type which could be more damaging to Wickens' overall picture. The same narrative structure which presents major themes with such clarity and succinctness threatens to muddy the views of some of the field's most prominent contributors. As mentioned above, Charles Sherrington is a major figure in the history of neurophysiology and brain science, and Wickens does a great job of tracking the areas into which his influence seeps. However, this makes it difficult to draw out a concise statement of Sherrington's broad views. As the author concedes in the caption to Sherrington's photo, he is “[a] man whose vast list of achievements over a long career are difficult to summarize briefly” (p. 205). Indeed, the four sections prior to that photograph are spent attempting to capture his major contributions, outline the principles supported by his achievements, and briefly sketch his legacy. However, his relationships with Santiago Ramon y Cajal, John Eccles, and Wilder Penfield are dispersed into other chapters, obfuscating the precise nature of the influence and influences of Sherrington on a wider scale. John Hughlings Jackon is another figure whose story is spread a bit thin. Owing to his breadth of interest, Jackon's accomplishments are relevant to both the effects of brain damage on language and epilepsy. His story is thus scattered between those two themes and separated by three full chapters. This sacrifice in brevity is by no means a fault of negligence or lack of detail. Both Jackson and Sherrington's stories can be pieced together from the disparate elements scattered among the chapters in the book. The details of a complete historical picture are all contained therein--the author just makes the reader work in these few isolated cases.

          Had Wickens chosen to present this account in another way, there surely would have been a different set of trade-offs which arose as a result. By focusing on separate themes, Wickens fleshes out the various strands of thought which hone in on a particular area of interest, or otherwise serve to preserve or overturn a dominant paradigm in understanding the brain. By placing these themes along a roughly chronological timeline, Wickens allows the reader to anticipate the questions which a particular discovery may generate, and he uses subsequent chapters to show how those questions generate their own research questions and discoveries. This reviewer found the narrative style to be particularly engaging, and the comprehensiveness of the account truly informative. One final observation is that there have arguably been as many discoveries about the brain in the 20th Century as there were in the 19th, yet the latter certainly gets the lion's share of the book. However, in Wickens' defense, the book is a history of the brain, and the focus should thus be on the past, not the present or future. The chapters leading up to the last have accounting for the understanding of the brain which drove the research of the 20th Century. Wickens does succeed in highlighting the major innovations of the past 50 years, and closes his work with a hopeful gesture towards the future.

          In sum, Wickens' book is highly recommended. It captures a wealth of knowledge in a thorough, well-organized account of the organ which arguably holds the secrets to what it means to be human. Wickens should be lauded for his success in such an ambitious venture. It is likely that future brain research may render a great deal of our present understanding of the brain meaningless. However, as a statement of the sum of cultural-historical forces which led to our current understanding, Wickens' book is a fantastic tool.  

 

© 2015 Frank R. Faries

 

Frank R. Faries, PhD Student (Philosophy), University of Cincinnati


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