Art and the Brain: Chapter 6. The Empirical Brain in Context


William Hogarth and the Willis Brain
René Descartes and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Distinctions and Generalizations


The examples in this chapter show how multi-dimensional our brain, body functions, and psychological features are contextually, including when we extend the characteristic factors out over time. Before turning to anatomical models that were also a part of the long 18th century, let me close by returning to Descartes’ efforts once more. His ideas remind us that conclusions are mutable in their own time and alter as later discussions turn them into something other than what originally intended. Many now say that Descartes’ “Cartesian thinking” was a mechanistic and dualist approach that separated the mind and the body. The idea is that his thinking signifies the start of a spiritual void that eventually overtakes the cultural mind. Yet, Descartes’ ideas had a spiritual foundation, as explained earlier. Moreover, when he tried to explain his ideas to Princess Elizabeth in 1646 his efforts to convey how the mind and body work together his words do not evoke a dualistic conception within the thinker so much as a thinking person, for he tells us:

“Our soul and our body are so linked that the thoughts which have accompanied some movements of our body since our life began still accompany them at present; so that if the same movements are excited afresh by some external cause, they arouse in the soul the same thoughts; and conversely, if we have the same thoughts they produce the same movements. Finally, the machine of our body is constructed in such a way that a single thought of joy or love or the like is sufficient to send the animal spirits through the nerves into all the muscles needed to cause the different movements of the blood which, as I said, accompany the passions. It is true that I found difficulty in working out the movements peculiar to each passion, because the passions never occur singly; nevertheless, since they occur in different combinations, I tried to discover the changes that occur in the body when they change company” (Descartes 1991: 286).

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