Tag Archives: brain

New Journal: History of the Present

The recently released second issue of a new journal, History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, contains a number of articles relevant to the history of psychology. In particular, three articles deal with the history of psychoanalysis. Of these, one uses material culture to interrogate the case work of Jung and Freud, and two others address aspects of the recent history of neuropsychoanalysis. A further article traces the history of addiction, from its initial status as a moral disorder in the late-nineteenth century to its contemporary casting as a disease of the brain. Titles, authors, and brief excerpts follow below.

“‘I suffer in an unknown manner that is hieroglyphical': Jung and Babette en route to Freud and Schreber,” by Angela Woods. (See photo, left.) The article begins,

To begin: two fragments. The first is an embroidered jacket. It belonged to a woman called Agnes Richter who lived in an Austrian asylum in the late 1890s. In the words of artist Renée Turner, the jacket is “embroidered so intensively that reading is impossible in certain areas. . . . Words appear and disappear into seams and under layers of thread. There is no beginning or end, just spirals of intersecting fragmentary narratives. She is declarative: ‘I,’ ‘mine,’ ‘my jacket,’ ‘my white stockings. . . .’, ‘I am in the Hubert-us-burg / ground floor,’ ‘children,’ ‘sister’ and ‘cook.’ In the inside she has written ‘1894 I am / I today woman.'” Re-embroidering the laundry number printed on her jacket, “something institutional and distant” is transformed “into something intimate, obsessive and possessive.” She transcribes herself. This is “hypertext”; this is “untamed writing.”

“Another Neurological Scene,” by Elizabeth A. Wilson. The article begins, Continue reading New Journal: History of the Present

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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 BBC Radio4: A History of the Brain

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CFP for funded neuroskeptic workshop in Berlin

MPI-BerlinThe Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science is hosting a “neuro-reality check” workshop to be held in Berlin in December. Their purpose is to scrutinize “the ‘neuro-turn’ in the humanities and natural sciences.” But they also aim to look beyond the usual pro and con.

Our ambition is to take problematisations of the neurosciences to another level. While numerous new scholarly projects in the social sciences and humanities have recently emerged to analyze the growth of ‘neuromania’, our workshop aims to bring together scholars from a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds in order to step back a little, and to probe deeper into the alleged effects and actual causes of the ongoing neurohype. This will include exploring the extent to which discourses engendering neuroscience in fact do match neuroscience’s real world (social) effects; but it will also include interrogating the anatomy of the neuro-discourses themselves, and to locate the immense attractions and functions of the ‘neuro’ in the broader scheme of — intellectual and political — things: the promise and attractions of ‘interdisciplinarity’ within contemporary humanities; the surge of underlabouring specialities such as neuroethics; or the rise and growing acceptance, within recent years, of a new (neuro) ‘biologism’ in a great many academic disciplines and popular culture at large, as well as the opposition this engenders.

For successful applicants, MPI will cover the cost of travel and accommodation in Berlin. Continue reading CFP for funded neuroskeptic workshop in Berlin

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CFP for funded neurohistory workshop in Munich

Smail's bookThe Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society is sponsoring a workshop on neurohistory to be held in Munich in June. Broadly speaking, they are calling for papers to engage the following theme: “How can neuroscience help us understand the past?”

This interest follows Daniel Lord Smail‘s book of 2008, On deep history and the brain, which asked questions about when “history” ought to be conceived as having begun and also appealed to the brain as a way to reach behind the texts that typically inform historical research. This new workshop follows his lead:

  1. What ideas and methods have neuroscientists developed that historians can use to shed a new light on the past (and vice versa)?
  2. What new research questions can neuroscience suggest for historians (and vice versa)?
  3. What are the biggest challenges in developing neurohistory as a field, and how can they be overcome?
  4. How might neurohistory shed light on the interaction between people and their environment, in both the past and the present?

For those interested, the organizers are asking for participants to pre-circulate a short (1000 word) position paper, participate in a two-day workshop (6-7 June 2011), and then revise their paper for publication (in Rachel Carson Center Perspectives). Continue reading CFP for funded neurohistory workshop in Munich

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E. B. Titchener’s Brain on Display

The preserved brain of early psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927) is currently on display as part of Cornell University’s Wilder Brain Collection. Titchener, a British citizen who completed his doctorate in psychology with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, accepted a position at Cornell in 1892 and remained at the university for the rest of his career. At Cornell, he served as chair of the Department of Psychology and as head of the university’s psychology laboratory. From these positions, Titchener promoted his system of structuralism, which emphasized the use of introspection as a method of psychological investigation.

The Wilder Brain Collection, which features Titchener’s brain, was begun in 1889 by former Civil War surgeon Burt Green Wilder, an animal biologist and founder of Cornell’s Anatomy Department. WIlder’s desire to collect brains was not atypical for this time. As described in a 2005 article on the Widler Brain Collection in the New York Times,

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the “golden age” of brain collecting…

One force behind the effort was a desire to drive religion from the field of science. Another was a belief, inherited from Franz Joseph Gall, the 18th-century founder of phrenology, that different parts of the brain served different functions.

Even if experts could not tell people apart by their cranial bumps, the theory went, if science closely compared one brain with another it would eventually be clear why one person differed from another, why one was a genius and another a criminal. The brain would reveal the person.

According to Cornell University’s newspaper, The Chronicle Online,

Wilder wanted to see if differences could be detected in size, shape, weight and amount of convolution between the brains of “educated and orderly persons” and women, murderers, racial minorities and the mentally ill. Eventually, it was concluded that such differences could not be detected, at least not by the naked eye or any 19th-century tools.

At its peak, the collection had at least 600 specimens, perhaps as many as 1,200, including human and animal brains as well as some body parts and fetuses. By the time Barbara Finlay, professor of cognitive and brain science, took over curating the collection in 1978, most of the specimens — many more than 100 years old — were dried up. All but 70 were purged; the eight selected for display, including Wilder’s, were chosen because they had biographies to go with them. The rest are stored in a cramped Uris Hall basement closet.

The full Wilder Brain Collection display is pictured directly above, while Titchener’s brain in pictured in the image on the top right. All images are courtesy of Jennifer Bazar.

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History Live: H.M.’s Brain Under Study

History is currently streaming live over the internet via The Brain Observatory in San Diego, CA. The brain of H.M. (Henry Molaison), one of psychology’s most famous amnesic patients, has been frozen to -40C and is being sectioned over a 30 hour period lasting into tomorrow (December 4, 2009). You can watch the procedure live via their website. According to The Brain Observatory:

The procedure will mark the completion of Phase 1 of the project which will include ex vivo MR-imaging, blockface imaging, tissue slicing and cryogenic storage of all histological sections.

H.M. passed away just over 1 year ago.

AHP thanks Kathleen W. Smith at York University for bringing this story to our attention.

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New History of Neurology Blog

Stephen T. Casper of Clarkson U. (NY) has started a new blog on the history of neurology and neuroscience called Neuro Times.   Posts include critiques of recent journal articles on the history of neuroscience, reviews of recent books, announcement of relevant resources, an excursus on the history of Alzheimer’s disease, and and a profile of Nobel Prize-winning neurologist E. D. Adrian.

Thanks to Mind Hacks for the tip!

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Review of On Deep History and the Brain

The most recent issue of Isis contains a fascinating review by David Sepkoski of the book On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail (U. California Press, 2007). In essence, the book argues that historians should look past history to evolutionary pre-history (especially of the brain) in order to understand otherwise mysterious historical movements. To quote form the review:

Drawing on recent cognitive psychology, Smail argues that neurochemical states in the brain—the production of hormones in response to stimulus or stress, for instance—can explain historical phenomena otherwise obscure or unintelligible to traditional historical methodology. The centerpiece of this argument is an examination of “teletropic” and “autotropic” behaviors in humans—respectively, behaviors in which humans either regulate the stimulus-response patterns in others (as a form of dominance or control) or produce them in themselves (as a way of seeking pleasure or relief from stress). This is indeed a provocative—even revolutionary—argument, and perhaps Smail is giving us a glimpse of a fundamentally new way of joining history, biology, and psychology. Continue reading Review of On Deep History and the Brain

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Objectivity given relationships in Neuroscience

Simon CohnIn a recent issue of History of Human Relations, 21(4), Simon Cohn (pictured left) explored the ways in which subjective experiences have been captured objectively through the use of brain-imaging techniques.  In his examination, he discovered a potential problem.

Although hidden from final scientific accounts, at the centre of this [imaging] process is the need for the researchers to forge brief but intimate and personal relationships with the volunteers in their studies. With their increasing interest in studying more and more complex mental processes, and in particular as researchers focus on what they term ‘the social brain’, a potential paradox arises from the commitment to the straightforward location of brain function and recognition of the more distributed and intersubjective nature of the objects of their study. Consequently, in order to elicit specific mental activities, such as empathy, the scientists inevitably employ a range of socially based resources, which includes establishing a personal relationship with the volunteers. The scientists themselves see this as ensuring that they can trust that the volunteers will participate in the ways intended. But in contrast, the article argues that the central feature is actually the creation of a sense of intimacy, which serves to align the expectations and experiences of volunteer and researcher. Yet, while this relationship is necessary in order to ensure the required mental state is generated, during the experiment itself a great deal of work is then done to ensure it can be excluded from the final conceptualization of mental activity. (From the abstract.)

In other words, Cohn examines the issue of how “objective measures” can be derived from what is a necessarily an inter-subjective process.

See also: Anatomy of an Invention: The Case of MRI

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“In Our Time” on the History of the Brain, Part 2

fMRIThe latest episode of In Our Time discusses the development and evolution of neuroscience (here).  Although the focus is primarily on the present, historical aspects are included as well.

In the mid-19th century a doctor had a patient who had suffered a stroke. The patient was unable to speak save for one word. The word was ‘Tan’ which became his name. When Tan died, the doctor discovered damage to the left side of his brain and concluded that the ability to speak was housed there.

This is how neuroscience used to work — by examining the dead or investigating the damaged — but now things have changed. Imaging machines and other technologies enable us to see the active brain in everyday life, to observe the activation of its cells and the mass firing of its neuron batteries.

This discussion builds on an earlier program on the history of the brain (here and at AHP here).

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