This week I read a review in Nature of Matthew Cobb’s forthcoming book, The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience. The review by Stephen Casper is here: “Neuroscience needs some new ideas”.
As recounted by Casper, the book covers the history of metaphors for the brain, looking at the ways that these metaphors have shaped research agendas over the decades, and sometimes impeded understanding.
The late-nineteenth-century discovery of neurons led to a clash of rival images. Reformers imagined separate components, comparable to the wires and signals of the nascent telecommunications infrastructure. Conservatives cast the nervous system as a continuous network (or reticulum) akin to the blood circulation, feeling that this explained how volition and mind might work; to them, discrete signalling implied heterodox notions of mind, perhaps even of the soul.
The post-1940 proliferation of references to enchanted looms, ghosts in machines, logical circuits, reptile brains, parallel processors and uploaded minds grew from those foundations. Cobb notes, but only in passing, that we need new images to make sense of research developments ranging from artificial intelligence to mini-brains grown in the laboratory to brain implants. He doesn’t try to invent examples.
I’m looking forward to this book coming out later in the month. I put a lot of history into my course on evolutionary neuroscience, Biology of Mind. The history is important to enable students who are not themselves neuroscience students to understand how the science has shaped other fields, as well as to think through the limits on current knowledge.