Tag Archives: brain

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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Brain “Maps” from 1912

Two years ago, the blog BibliOdyssey posted a set of fanciful phrenological “maps” of the brain. These are not the standard Spurzheim, Combe, or Fowler diagrams that one sees in textbooks accompanying the section on phrenology. These are much more intricate and creative, sharing as much in common with the mystical Renaissance speculations of Robert Fludd (image) as with the 19th-century phrenologists.

According to a more recent post about the images in the blog Neuroanthropology, they are “the Brain Maps of Alesha Sivartha …, a fantastical collection of illustrations created by Sivartha as part of his 1912 “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man.” You can explore the book some through Google, but the better spot to go is Sivartha’s great-great-grandson’s website which covers the book in some detail.”

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Working with Brain Scans, Part 2

Morana AlacIn the latest issue of Social Studies of Science, 38(4), Morana Alac adds a new dimension to the history of visualization provided by the recent special issue of JHN (at AHP here).  She explains:

A significant part of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) practice in neuroscience is spent in front of computer screens. To investigate the brain, neuroscientists work with digital images. This paper recovers practical dealings with brain scans in fMRI laboratories to focus on the achievement of seeing in the digital realm. While looking at brain images, neuroscientists gesture and manipulate digital displays to manage and make sense of their experimental data. Their gestural engagements are seen as dynamical phenomenal objects enacted at the junction between the digital world of technology and the world of embodied action.

This latest essay builds on previous work published in, among other places, the Journal of Cognition and Culture and Social Epistemology.

Additional readings on the role of gesture in meaning-making are provided below the fold. Continue reading Working with Brain Scans, Part 2

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Visualizing the History of Neuroscience

Amy IoneThe latest issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(3), is wholly devoted to the use of visual images and visualization in the long history of brain studies. Guest editor Amy Ione, in an introduction also made freely available at her blog, explains the contribution she intends it to make:

In the history of the neurosciences, physical images and cognitive visualization offer two frames of reference for thinking about the historical development of the field. The images of neurological illustration, for example, constitute a sourcebook on early medical theories. We can also identify a body of images that articulate how cultural beliefs influenced conclusions about behavior and learning as they relate to anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and our nervous system. More recently, the enthusiasm generated by brain imaging technologies has highlighted the role of visual images in our efforts to capture the form and function of the brain. In light of the many precursors that show our urge to know the brain has long had a visual component, it seems that the time is ripe to reexamine the historical role of visual images and visualization techniques in enhancing our understanding of the brain and human behavior. The eight articles that comprise this compendium offer a small step in this direction.

For all those who teach the history of psychology, this special issue offers a treasure trove of imagery. My only regret is that — even in the electronic edition — the graphics are all presented in black and white. For such an important collection as this, it is truly a shame that the publisher failed to provide a colour edition even if only for the web. (The image of the journal’s cover, appended to the front of every article, is the only colour in the entire issue!)

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