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When the brain was named king

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain -- and How It Changed the World; Carl Zimmer; The Free Press: 368 pp., $26

March 21, 2004|Ross King | Ross King is the author of several books, including "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," "Brunelleschi's Dome" and "Domino: A Novel."

We live in what Carl Zimmer, one of our most gifted science writers, calls a Neurocentric Age, in which the physical workings of the brain are seen as inextricably linked to reason, emotion, language, morality and mental illness. How we came to that realization, which Zimmer describes in his fascinating book, "Soul Made Flesh," amounted to a kind of second Copernican revolution -- one inside the body.

The thrilling story Zimmer tells begins 350 years ago in Oxford, a town that in the 17th century was to science what 15th century Florence had been to art: a smallish provincial city from which a clutch of trailblazing geniuses suddenly burst out of the blue. If Florence produced Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello in the span of a single generation, Oxford created its own renaissance in the 1650s through the efforts of the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club, a group that came together on Thursday afternoons to debunk age-old textbooks by performing wide-ranging -- and often grisly -- experiments. Members included Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and a young prodigy named Christopher Wren, who was at the time more celebrated for operating on dogs than for building churches. Also present at these sessions was a short, stammering and rather charmless red-haired country doctor named Thomas Willis. His contributions to the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club were as pioneering as they were gruesome: "I addicted myself to the opening of heads," he later recalled, with typical sangfroid, of his groundbreaking studies of the human brain.

Willis is the subject of Zimmer's book, which seeks to rescue him from the relative obscurity into which he has faded despite far-reaching influences as the father of neuroscience and the author of the founding text on the anatomy of the central nervous system. Willis is too easily lost in the glare of other heroes of the 17th century's scientific revolution, such as Galileo, Harvey and Newton. But Zimmer makes a convincing case that Willis is just as pivotal a figure in the history of Western thought, having recognized that emotions and many illnesses were products of the brain, at a time when more often than not they were considered the work of comets or demons.

Despite his achievements, Willis is in many ways, as Zimmer shows, an improbable scientific hero. Unlike so many of his brilliant colleagues, he matured slowly, serving a long and obscure medical apprenticeship before launching himself on the world. After acquiring a medical degree from Oxford University in 1646, he spent more than a decade as a "pisse-prophet," inspecting the color of his patients' urine and prescribing time-honored but highly dubious remedies, such as ground-up millipedes, amulets of mistletoe and roasted apples stuffed with frankincense. Zimmer suggests that Willis would have turned into just another quack doctor had he not fallen under the spell of an enterprising young physician named William Petty, who arrived in Oxford in 1649 after studies in Leiden and Paris. Holding to the latest Parisian theory that the body was a mechanical contraption, Petty ignored the official medical textbooks and, with Willis at his side, began cutting open the cadavers of executed criminals to peer at their inner workings.

Armed with a new knowledge of anatomy, Willis ambitiously turned his attentions to the brain, hoping to, as he put it, "unlock the secret places of man's mind." The brain, as Zimmer shows, was still quite low in the hierarchy of body parts when Willis began opening heads. Taking their cue from Aristotle, who had situated the soul in the heart rather than the head, most writers believed the brain to be little more than, as the philosopher Henry More wrote in 1653, a "bowl of curds." Reason, will and passion were all assigned to more philosophically esteemed organs, such as the heart or the liver.

Occasional attempts had been made to give the brain its due: Galen had located the rational soul in the ventricles of the brain, Descartes in the pineal gland. But such hypotheses were undermined by the fact that neither Galen nor Descartes had ever actually dissected a human brain. Those who had done so -- such as Andreas Vesalius in the middle of the 16th century -- were plagued by both primitive techniques (Vesalius clumsily sawed slices off the top of the head as the brain steadily rotted) and very real anxieties that attempts to plant the soul in the inert-looking gray matter of the brain might be denounced as heretical.

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