Medical History Special Issue on Material History of the Mind Sciences

A special issue of Medical History devoted to “Soul Catchers – A Material History of the Mind Sciences” is now available. The issue includes a number of articles – on drawing as an instrument, soul photography, and more – that may interest AHP readers.

Editorial: “Soul Catchers: The Material Culture of the Mind Sciences,” by Katja Guenther and Volker Hess.

“Brain Ways: Meynert, Bachelard and the Material Imagination of the Inner Life,” by Scott Phelps. The abstract reads,

The Austrian psychiatrist Theodor Meynert’s anatomical theories of the brain and nerves are laden with metaphorical imagery, ranging from the colonies of empire to the tentacles of jellyfish. This paper analyses among Meynert’s earliest works a different set of less obvious metaphors, namely, the fibres, threads, branches and paths used to elaborate the brain’s interior. I argue that these metaphors of material, or what the philosopher Gaston Bachelard called ‘material images’, helped Meynert not only to imaginatively extend the tracts of fibrous tissue inside the brain but to insinuate their function as pathways co-extensive with the mind. Above all, with reference to Bachelard’s study of the material imagination, I argue that Meynert helped entrench the historical intuition that the mind, whatever it was, consisted of some interiority – one which came to be increasingly articulated through the fibrous confines of the brain.

“Drawing as Instrument, Drawings as Evidence: Capturing Mental Processes with Pencil and Paper,” by Alicia Puglionesi. The abstract reads,

Researchers in the mind sciences often look to the production and analysis of drawings to reveal the mental processes of their subjects. This essay presents three episodes that trace the emergence of drawing as an instrumental practice in the study of the mind. Between 1880 and 1930, drawings gained currency as a form of scientific evidence – as stable, reproducible signals from a hidden interior. I begin with the use of drawings as data in the child study movement, move to the telepathic transmission of drawings in psychical research and conclude with the development of drawing as an experimental and diagnostic tool for studying neurological impairment. Despite significant shifts in the theoretical and disciplinary organisation of the mind sciences in the early twentieth century, researchers attempted to stabilise the use of subject-generated drawings as evidence by controlling the contexts in which drawings were produced and reproduced, and crafting subjects whose interiority could be effectively circumscribed. While movements such as psychoanalysis and art therapy would embrace the narrative interpretation of patient art, neuropsychology continued to utilise drawings as material traces of cognitive functions.

“‘It’s All Done With Mirrors’: V.S. Ramachandran and the Material Culture of Phantom Limb Research,” by Katja Guenther. The abstract reads,

This article examines the material culture of neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s research into phantom limbs. In the 1990s Ramachandran used a ‘mirror box’ to ‘resurrect’ phantom limbs and thus to treat the pain that often accompanied them. The experimental success of his mirror therapy led Ramachandran to see mirrors as a useful model of brain function, a tendency that explains his attraction to work on ‘mirror neurons’. I argue that Ramachandran’s fascination with and repeated appeal to the mirror can be explained by the way it allowed him to confront a perennial problem in the mind and brain sciences, that of the relationship between a supposedly immaterial mind and a material brain. By producing what Ramachandran called a ‘virtual reality’, relating in varied and complex ways to the material world, the mirror reproduced a form of psycho-physical parallelism and dualistic ontology, while conforming to the materialist norms of neuroscience today.

“Psychicones: Visual Traces of the Soul in Late Nineteenth-Century Fluidic Photography,” by Nicolas Pethes. The abstract reads,

The article discusses attempts to visualise the soul on photographic plates at the end of the nineteenth century, as conducted by the French physician Hippolyte Baraduc in Paris. Although Baraduc refers to earlier experiments on fluidic photography in his book on The Human Soul (1896) and is usually mentioned as a precursor to parapsychological thought photography of the twentieth century, his work is presented as a genuine attempt at photographic soul-catching. Rather than producing mimetic representations of thoughts and imaginations, Baraduc claims to present the vital radiation of the psyche itself and therefore calls the images he produces psychicones.

The article first discusses the difference between this method of soul photography and other kinds of occult media technologies of the time, emphasising the significance of its non-mimetic, abstract character: since the soul itself was considered an abstract entity, abstract traces seemed all the more convincing to the contemporary audience. Secondly, the article shows how the technological agency of photography allowed Baraduc’s psychicones to be tied into related discourses in medicine and psychology. Insofar as the photographic plates displayed actual visual traces, Baraduc and his followers no longer considered hallucinations illusionary and pathological but emphasised the physical reality and normality of imagination. Yet, the greatest influence of soul photography was not on science but on art. As the third part of the paper argues, the abstract shapes on Baraduc’s plates provided inspiration for contemporary avant-garde aesthetics, for example, Kandinsky’s abstract paintings and the random streams of consciousness in surrealistic literature.

“Animating Brains,” by Cornelius Borck. The abstract reads,

A recent paper famously accused the rising field of social neuroscience of using faulty statistics under the catchy title ‘Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience’. This Special Issue invites us to take this claim as the starting point for a cross-cultural analysis: in which meaningful ways can recent research in the burgeoning field of functional imaging be described as, contrasted with, or simply compared to animistic practices? And what light does such a reading shed on the dynamics and effectiveness of a century of brain research into higher mental functions?

Reviewing the heated debate from 2009 around recent trends in neuroimaging as a possible candidate for current instances of ‘soul catching’, the paper will then compare these forms of primarily image-based brain research with older regimes, revolving around the deciphering of the brain’s electrical activity. How has the move from a decoding paradigm to a representational regime affected the conceptualisation of self, psyche, mind and soul (if there still is such an entity)? And in what ways does modern technoscience provide new tools for animating brains?

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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