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SOUL MADE FLESH by Carl Zimmer


The Discovery of the Brain--and How It Changed the World

by Carl Zimmer

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-3038-8
Publisher: Free Press

Seventeenth-century England forms the tumultuous backdrop for science journalist Zimmer’s account of the handful of thinkers who established that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of the soul.

The author singles out as his hero Thomas Willis, a name best known today among anatomy students for the “circle of Willis,” a ring of blood vessels at the base of the brain. A poor boy educated in medicine at Oxford, Willis eventually removed to London to become a rich and famous society physician. But it was his Oxford days, at the center of a circle of scholars that included Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and Robert Boyle that marked the revolution that dethroned Aristotle and Galen. Meticulous autopsies of Willis’s patients and multiple experiments on animals dead and living (PETA would weep) established that it was the brain and the system of nerves carrying “spirits” to and fro that accounted for thoughts, emotions, and actions. Moreover, the dissections were also able to point to brain specialization, linking diseased parts to symptoms suffered by the deceased. Willis and his peers were not ready to surrender all to a mechanistic view. They posited a dual soul: a sensitive, material soul subject to disease and a “rational” soul deep in the brain that was immaterial and immortal. And for all Willis’s acute observations of patients’ signs and symptoms, his treatments stuck to the potions, purges, emetics, and bloodletting that were standard care at the time. Zimmer details all of these developments, along with brief bios of the principals, against the chaos and calamities of the English civil war, the beheading of Charles I, the rise of Cromwell, the Restoration, the Irish rebellion, the devastating plague of 1664–5, the great London fire of 1666, and enough bloody religious battles to satisfy the Taliban. Indeed, the many parallels that can be drawn between politics, religion, science, and human behavior then and now add unexpected dividends to this engaging narrative.

Absorbing and thought-provoking.