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BBC Radio4: A History of the Brain

Starting today, BBC Radio4 is airing a 10-part series on the history of the brain. A History of the Brain, has been written and produced by historian of psychology Geoff Bunn (left), of Manchester Metropolitan University. As described on the program’s website,

Dr Geoff Bunn’s 10 part History of the Brain is a journey through 5000 years of our understanding of the most complex thing in the known universe. From Neolithic times to the present day, Geoff journeys through the many ideas of what the brain is for and how it fulfils its functions. While referencing the core physiology and neuroscience, this is a cultural, not a scientific history. What soon becomes obvious is that our understanding of this most inscrutable organ has in all periods been coloured by the social and political expedients of the day no less than by the contemporary scope of scientific or biological exploration.

The first episode in the series, on the topic of trepanation, aired today and can currently be listened to online. Further episodes, each 15 minutes long, air weekdays at 1:45pm on BBC Radio4 and will be available online thereafter. Descriptions of the first 6 episodes in the series – all those airing this week, as well as the episode to air next Monday – are currently available on the program’s website:

In Episode 1: A Hole in the Head, the focus is on trepanation, the practice of drilling holes in the skull believing that such operations might correct physiological or spiritual problems. Trepanation reveals much about the understanding of the brain from Neolithic to recent times. The Ancient Egyptians, however, rarely trepanned, even though their Secret Book of the Physician, one of the oldest medical texts in the world, shows that they recognised how damage to the brain can paralyze limbs on opposite sides of the body. Believing the heart to be the core organ, they discarded the brain altogether at death, since it had no part to play in the afterlife.

In Episode 2: The Blood of The Gladiators, the focus is Ancient Greek scholarship, with Hippocrates’ astonishingly prescient belief in the brain as the chief organ of control and his debunking of the myth of the ‘sacred disease’ with his assertion that epilepsy was the result of natural causes. Yet the belief that a cure lay in the magical properties of blood persisted for centuries. Continue reading

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