Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Soul Made Flesh

sophie b.'s picture

Sophie Balis-Harris
Web Book Commentary: Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer
    As neuroscience continues to grow as a field, and scientists learn more and more about the nervous system, the idea that brain is responsible for much (if not all) of who we are, and how we behave has commonplace in our society. However, the brain's role in thoughts, actions, and senses was not always a near universally accepted theory. In fact, this story of the brain as a highly complex center of human activity is a new, and fairly radical idea. For thousands of years, intelligence, creativity and personality were believed to exist separately from the observable world, and the source of these traits was believed to be the soul. Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh, provides a historical progression of the human conception of the brain and its function, including discoveries that led to the modern field of neuroscience.
    In Soul Made Flesh Zimmer identifies Thomas Willis, a professor of natural philosophy at Oxford in the mid 17th century, as integral in the founding of modern neuroscience. Willis was raised near Oxford, and had been supportive of the royalist movement during his youth. Zimmer spends much of the novel describing Willis' life within the frame of a nation in the midst of great social, religious and political turmoil,  which led to his ultimate contributions to the field of neurobiology.
    Zimmer's preface to Soul Made Flesh introduces some of Willis' initial experiments in 1662, when Willis dissected a human brain with the assistance of Richard Lower. Lower was another well known British doctor, who would later go on to perform the first successful blood transfusion. Zimmer notes that, at the time, the brain was not widely considered the basis for human intelligence or cognitive abilities. Instead, the soul was considered to be the impetus of human ability, and the brain was merely a vessel for those abilities. Zimmer qoutes a 17th century English philosopher who stated that "...the brain shows no more capacity for thought than a cake of suet or bowl of curds." To provide context for these discoveries, along with their historical and scientific significance Zimmer then goes on to describe different ideas about the brain's cognitive capability throughout history, beginning with Ancient Greek theories on neuroanatomy, including Plato's theories on the relationship between the anatomy and the soul- which placed great importance on the brain as a representative of the divine. In Timaeus, Plato wrote that the human body was an immortal soul encased in a mortal body, which was formed by the four elements. Plato believed that the brain was where the "divine seed was planted...where it could sense the world through the eyes and ears and reason about it". Plato's theories were in contrast to his student, Aristotle's conception of the brain. Aristotle did not believe that the brain was capable of encapsulating the complexities of the human soul, and rather focused his attention on the heart, which he believed was more likely the physical form of the soul.
     Zimmer also includes Descartes ideas about the brain in order to provide a background for Willis' discoveries. Descartes attempted to understand the nature of knowledge, a task which he viewed as his calling. Zimmer describes an incident in which Descartes had visions that he viewed as signs of God, telling him "search the book of life for certainty". After this incident Descartes created his "doctrine of clear and distinct ideas"- meaning that in order to uncover the truth, Descartes had resolved to begin by accepting that nothing was true. Eventually, Descartes came upon his infamous realization that thoughts cannot be separated from the people who think them- or "I think therefore I am". These philosophers speculation on the brain provided a cultural framework for the perception of the brain up to Willis' era- which Zimmer argues heralded the beginning of "the neurocentric age". The neurocentric age means that the brain is central not only the body but also central to the way we view ourselves, as opposed to the soul being the primary frame in which humans view themselves and their bodies.
    This book seems pertinent to the course material, as we spent much of the class attempting to construct our own view of the brain's place in the world, and our own lives. On the first day of class we were presented with both Descartes' and Emily Dickinson's ideas about the brain. We spent much of the first few weeks analyzing those two theories, and deciding which conception of the brain we felt most comfortable with, individually. As the class moved on, however those perceptions of the brain's role in our own lives, continued to provide an important framework for understanding the brain as its own entity. This book is a narrative of the evolution of the role of "the brain" in society, and what that has meant for humans at large. We have arrived at a place- the neurocentric age, in which we as a society, essentially acknowledge that the brain is the root of who we are as people. While we have spent a lot time attempting to construct our own views about whether we believe that the brain is in fact, "wider than the sky", it is also interesting to read about how humanity has collectively moved towards a greater understanding of the brain and its capabilities throughout history.