Minds Behind the Brain

Minds Behind the Brain
Author: Stanley Finger


This whirlwind history of the brain is viewed through the perspective of the men, and two women, who the author credited with establishing our understanding of the nervous system. By an approach that linked individual biographical sketches to specific themes, the book was able to present a coherent history of the brain that explains the current state of neuroscience. Although the number of innovators and pathfinders covered in the book is exhaustive, the author made it clear that he did not set out to investigate the life of ‘every great contributor to the brain sciences’. Rather, his objective was to extract veritable lessons from the lives and works of those pioneers who demonstrated the concepts that advanced brain science, and these ranged from the importance of asking the appropriate research questions, to the wisdom of focusing on the bigger picture. The book also highlights the merits of questioning the opinions of authority figures, and of viewing prevailing dogmas with healthy scepticism (pages 301-301).

Brian model. Biologycorner on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/biologycorner/4160835158


The book’s chronological depiction of the history of neuroscience is as exhaustive as it is enlightening. The author traced the earliest records of neuroscience to the third dynasty of Egypt’s old kingdom when Imhotep set down the first written account of the brain, and to the Edwin Smith papyrus which documented the ancient treatments of head injuries. These were followed by the contributions of the fathers of medicine such as Hippocrates, who was convinced ‘the brain was the major controlling centre for the body’, and Galen who disagreed with Hippocrates that ‘the brain’s job is to cool the passions of the heart’, and rather argued that it is ‘the true organ of mind ‘. The book also explored the contributions of the early pioneers of the experimental approach to the study of the brain, amongst whom were Charles Sherrington, who established a ‘coherent’ scheme of the reflex arc and mapped the spinal sensory nerves to the skin; Edgar Adrian who pioneered the recording of the electrical activity of single neurones; Eduard Hitzig and Gustav Fritsch who localised the brain’s motor cortex; and Hans Berger who introduced electroencephalography. Relatively more recent investigators the book profiled included Roger Sperry whose inspired split brain experiments involved severing the corpus callosum, and Rita Levi-Montalcini who discovered nerve growth factor (pages 7-10, 29, 44-45, 112- 114, 217- 224, 249-251, 159-162, 253, 287-290 and 290-299).

Myelinated motor neurone. NIH Image gallery on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/20929871656

A characteristic feature of the book is the emphasis it places on the history of the key paradigm-shifting landmarks of neuroscience. In this regard, perhaps the most significant watershed breakthrough the author discussed is the establishment of the neurone doctrine by Santiago Ramón y Cajal. The book described how Cajal meticulously elucidated the framework whereby nerves communicate without making physical contact with each other; by this achievement, the author pointed out, Cajal was able to disprove the prevailing reticular hypothesis which advocated that nerves fuse and form nets to transfer information. The author particularly highlighted how Cajal used sophisticated nerve staining methods, and his expert drawing skills, to clearly demonstrate the independence of each nerve. The author portrayed Cajal as a single-minded and determined scientist who translated his own work, and funded his own journal, to get his work recognised. These measures, the author stressed, were important at a time when the prevalent opinion was that ‘only second-rate work would come out of a backward country like Spain‘.

Neurona de Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Irene Tobón on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/airin/8695895801

A feature that greatly enhanced the book’s narrative is its portrayal of the curious events that surrounded many seminal neuroscience discoveries. One such fascinating backstory is the dream which inspired Otto Loewi to carry out the experiments that confirmed the chemical nature of synaptic transmission. The author described how Loewi wrote down his dream the first night he experienced it, but was unable to read his illegible handwriting the following morning. Therefore when the dream recurred the subsequent night, he went straight to his laboratory and performed the experiment, completing it within two hours. Loewi’s background story was also compelling for his having to give up his Nobel Prize money to enable him emigrate to England from the Nazi regime in Austria. Other enthralling backstories included that of David Ferrier who ably defended himself in court against charges of animal cruelty made against him by the anti-vivisection society (pages 269, 278, 157-159 and 169-172).

Synapse Illustration. NIH Image Gallery on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nihgov/37842371675

As expected, the scientific rivalries and controversies that played out in the history of neuroscience featured prominently in the book. One of such heated disputes the book explored in depth is the row that emerged between the establishment figure Paul Broca, and the lesser known Marc Dax, over priority for demonstrating the localisation of cerebral functions. The author explained that Broca had achieved fame by attributing the aphemia of the famous patient Leborgne, better known as Tan, to the autopsy finding of a lesion in his left frontal region – now known as Broca’s area. Dax on the other hand had purportedly reported cases recognising the same area as relevant for speech. Another rivalry the book discussed, characterised by its intensity, was the conflict that involved Nobel Prize winners Emilio Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal on the nature of neural communication. Other controversies explored by the book were between Luigi Galvani and Allesandro Volta on the relevance of electrical nerve activity, and between Charles Sherrington and Victor Horsley over who first mapped the simian motor cortex (pages 142-147, 123-124 and 229-230).

CC BY-SA 2.1 jp, Link
Although the book emphasised the laboratory scientists that elucidated the function of the brain, it also provided insights in those who made sterling contributions to clinical neurology. In this regard, the person who stood out in the book for the indelible marks he left on clinical practice was Jean-Martin Charcot, the French neurologist the author referred to as ‘one of the most honored physicians of all time’. The author specifically attributed Charcot’s accomplishments to his keen powers of observation – his ability ‘to see things that others may overlook’. He credited Charcot for his meticulous organisational efficiency, and the diversity of his interests which included multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and the neuropathy that bears his name – Charcot Marie Tooth disease. The book however also highlighted Charcot’s less creditable studies of hysteria which it characterised as ’embarrassing’. Denouncing Charcot’s ‘loose speculations‘ about the disorder, the author also condemned his dramatic public demonstrations which featured his famous subject Blanche Wittman, who he said provided ‘convincing performances’ of the benefits of hypnosis in the treatment of hysteria. Other noteworthy clinicians the book discussed included John Hughlings Jackson ‘who recognized the role of the right hemisphere in spatial perception’, and Mary Walker who was the first physician to treat myasthenia gravis with physostigmine, the so-called ‘miracle at St Alfege’s‘ (pages 177-195, 149 and 276-277).



This adventure into the exhilarating history of neuroscience is both exhaustive and insightful. Just as the book highlights the major breakthroughs in the understanding of the brain, it also portrays the pathfinders who unlocked its secrets. As for any list, it is inevitable that some giants of neuroscience will be overlooked, but the inclusion of only two women, and the exclusion of neurosurgeons such as Wilder Penfield stood out. The choice of personalities included is however uncontested, their impact on our understanding of the brain being profound. Some names are household but many are relatively unknown outside the circles of science historians. This book has therefore done an excellent job of promoting the history of the brain, and scientists who practiced at its cutting-edge.

Overall assessment

This book is a source of inspiration for clinicians and scientists alike. The book’s content crosses across all aspects of the nervous system and spans the whole time spectrum of neuroscience. The author extracted fundamental lessons highlighting the ingredients that drive scientific progress and enable breakthroughs to emerge. These lessons are instructive for healthcare, and I recommend the book to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000
Number of chapters: 18
Number of pages: 364
ISBN: 9780195085716
Star rating: 5
Price: £17.95

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