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Posted By Patrick

I recently finished reading Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain - And How it Changed the World, which came out in 2004 – it’s an engaging, intelligent history of Thomas Willis and his investigations into the brain, which were the first steps in figuring out just what the brain did (it wasn’t there to use its ventricles to pump animal spirits through the body, as Galen, the ancient Roman physician whose ideas were influential into the 18th century, thought). Willis wanted to keep a space for the rational soul somewhere in his new conception of the brain, and kept dedicating his writings to archbishops, partly, says Zimmer, as a way of stressing that he was a good Anglican, not some ranting atheist. Basically, Willis worried that if mental processes were located in the brain, and not the soul, it would open a door to the concept that rationality might be innate in humans. It would be part of the body’s make-up, rather than something conferred through God via the rational soul. Willis didn’t want to give rationality and the soul any corporeality – that is, he wanted to keep it outside the body, as a sort of spirit-essence. But that’s not what happened, and before long the brain became the centre of rationality, instead of the soul (hence Zimmer’s title).

One of Willis’ main scientific contributions came from the fact that, unlike many before him, he compared animal and human brains, and discovered that they were built in similar ways. The obvious conclusion was that they also performed similar functions. However, something had to be different, he thought – after all, humans had rational souls and animals didn’t. But there were too many basic similarities to ignore the implications that animal and human brains must have had a lot of the same responsibilities in governing how the body works.

Willis was also part of the Oxford circle that would eventually form the Royal Society; his teachers (including William Harvey), students (such as John Locke) and collaborators (Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Richard Lower, & Robert Hooke) are fascinating characters in their own right, and Zimmer gives them all enough attention to give a sense of the intellectual energy that must have been circulating through Oxford and London in the mid-late seventeenth century.

Another consequence of Zimmer’s book is that I feel the urge to read more of Willis’ works again myself. And here's an image of the brain from Willis' Cerebri Anatome (The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves), as drawn by his collaborator, Christopher Wren.
The brain, as drawn by Christopher Wren

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