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The Discovery of the Brain


Robot Monkey
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Today Terry Gross talks to Carl Zimmer about his book Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain-and How it Changed the World.

 

The Discovery of the Brain. Health and Science writer Carl Zimmer's new book is Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain-and How it Changed the World. It's about Thomas Willis, the scientist whose research on the workings of the brain during the 17th century became the basis of modern neurology. Zimmer's work appears regularly in The New York Times, National Geographic, Newsweek, Discover, Natural History, and Science. He is also a John S. Guggenheim Fellow and received the Pan-American Health Organization Award for Excellence in International Health Reporting.

 

http://freshair.npr.org/day_fa.jhtml;jsess...dayDate=current

 

-j

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[about halfway through the program]

 

Pretty cool. I've never heard of Thomas Willis before. To think that he was formulating theories that the brain was responsible for thought, and bodily monitoring and control in the 1600's is something else. That must have been quite a challenging idea to accept for most people.

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Descartes and Willis were alive at around the same time, but from the sound of it, Willis' ideas about the brain were far ahead of Descartes. Descartes had formulated a rather basic theory that the body worked via hydraulics, and that the pineal gland (in the center of the brain) was the place where the immaterial soul interacted with the body.

 

Of course, Descartes never provided a viable idea for how something immaterial can have any effect on something made of matter. He was uncharacteristically vague, attributing it to 'winds' of the soul blowing through the chamber of the pineal gland.

 

I wonder if he read any of Willis' works?

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Dunno. Some of Willis' experiments sounded pretty horrific! Like you, 1600's doesn't exactly sound like an Age of Reason, you know? But there we are.

 

It reminds me of a minister I heard about in the 1600's or 1700's who wrote about a lot of math stuff that people were saying (a year ago) is on the cutting edge of information retrieval. Or something. There were a couple pieces about him in Wired.

 

-j

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Some of Willis' experiments sounded pretty horrific!

 

Yeah, but to be honest, a lot of the experiments done more recently are almost as bad. This is one thing I'm torn about when it comes to medical research. I've read accounts of experiments on animals that made me uncomfortable, but there's no doubt that they have enhanced our understanding of the brain, and in turn ways to treat various illnesses, etc. It's very tough to condone some of the acts, which must have been quite awful for the animal (we're not talking about fish or snails here), but I also can't face choosing ignorance as the alternative.

 

The good news is that non-invasive techniques are improving rapidly (which of course is a requirement to do experiments on humans), fMRI can resolve brain activity with a spatial resolution of about .5 mm, and temporal resolution of 5 seconds (essentially .2 FPS in gaming terms :D ). There's a ton of room for improvement, but it's getting there.

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