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.

In Episode 3: The Origin of Common Sense, the focus is on Ancient Rome with Galen’s ‘animal spirits’ gently inflating the ventricles and making thought possible, and on how early Christian scholarship placed the soul in the brain’s ventricles. But with the Dark Ages, it was Islamic scholars who continued to explore the brain: Al Razi studied apoplexy or stroke, while Ibn Sina proposed that thoughts travelled through the brain in a predictable sequence and identified the ‘common sense’ in the front ventricle.

In Episode 4: Spirits in the Material World, the focus is on Thomas Willis, the 17th century physician after whom the ‘Circle of Willis’ – the circuit of arteries supplying blood to the brain – is named. Willis’ Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves was a groundbreaking attempt to correlate brain anatomy with mental function. A friend of Christopher Wren, the humbly-born Willis was one of the founder members of the Royal Society. Yet his ideas were not universally accepted. The Cambridge philosopher, Henry More, considered the brain no more than ‘a bowl of curds”, with no possibility that it could house reason.

In Episode 5: The Spark of Being, the focus is on electricity and communication, within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. When John Walsh showed, in 1776, that an eel could generate electricity, it became possible that human consciousness also relied on sparks fizzing within the brain. Coming at a time when Benjamin Franklin – an acknowledged expert on electricity – was signing the Declaration of Independence which asserted that all men are created equal, it generated a new perspective on the workings of the brain; the old hierarchical model was discarded in favour of the doctrine of equipotentiality.

In Episode 6: The Beast Within, focuses on localisation. Following a macabre accident when an iron rod shot through his head, Phineas Gage, a mild-mannered railway worker in Vermont, became capricious and profane. Meanwhile in France Paul Broca established that damage to another part of the brain caused aphasia. While phrenology had it that the brains of ‘degenerates’ differed from those of poets or scientists, British neurologist John Hughlings Jackson incorporated evolutionary ideas into his theory of brain function: higher centres with more recent evolutionary origins kept lower, more primitive ones in check.

Addressing subjects such as the the Ancient Greeks’s understanding of the brain, early understandings of the role of the ventricles, electricity’s influence on the conceptualization of human consciousness, and views on brain localization, this fascinating series is a must listen.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.