“The Sleeping Beauty of the Brain”: Memory, MIT, Montreal, and the Origins of Neuroscience

An article in the most recent issue of Isis will be of interest to AHP readers: ““The Sleeping Beauty of the Brain”: Memory, MIT, Montreal, and the Origins of Neuroscience,” by Yvan Prkachin. Abstract:

This essay traces the simultaneous development of two distinct efforts to unify the brain sciences in the twentieth century—one originating at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and the other at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Both efforts coalesced around investigations of memory but displayed profoundly different disciplinary styles. At the MNI, investigations of memory loss in surgical patients crystallized a form of brain research that eventually became the paradigm of interdisciplinarity for the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). At MIT, meanwhile, the biophysicist Francis Schmitt aimed to transcend the different brain and mind sciences by discovering a “memory molecule” akin to DNA—this became the basis for his Neurosciences Research Program (NRP). While both organizations failed to achieve the unification they desired, IBRO and the NRP did achieve a social unification of the brain sciences in the 1960s. IBRO established much of the social capital for the Society for Neuroscience, and the NRP promoted the possibilities of a new transdisciplinary “neuroscience.” Beyond reframing the history of modern neuroscience, the story of the MNI/IBRO, the NRP, and the problem of memory can help us to examine different and contrasting approaches to “interdisciplinarity” in twentieth-century science.

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.