Art and the Brain: Chapter 5. The Soul of the Empirical Brain: Thomas Willis and René Descartes


Neurology and Modern Philosophy
Experiment, Philosophy, and Cultural Mores
Innovation and Visualization
The Creative Brain Comparatively


In summary, as the long 18th century opens, we can identify a range of views in studies of the mind, the brain, and the nervous system. If Descartes’ theories now point to a philosophy of mind trajectory, Willis’ work reminds us that experimentalists and clinicians were beginning to emphasize structural areas to a greater degree. Within this, Wren’s images explicitly demonstrate that the knowledge of anatomical structure was more advanced than what was perceived in Vesalius’ time. Another distinguishing feature of the Willis’ work is the terminology. Willis coined the term neurology in his Cerebri anatome (1664), which in effect emphasized that this book covered brain function as well as anatomy. He also used the word “anatome” (or “anatomy”) in the title of the book to signify a difference with earlier work. Here the word anatomy “does not refer to anatomy as in structure, but to anatomy in the second meaning of the word: examination, analysis, investigation” (de Rijcke 2008: 20). Even the representations show how the ideas were altered from era to era (Fig. 5.6). How much of this reflects changing information parameters and technologies or style is a long, complicated discussion (Daston and Galison 2007;de Rijcke 2008) since we can distinguish both commonalities and real differences. Suffice it to say that that throughout the Fabrica we find many images include a narrative background and characteristic flourishes that date the ideas to the 15th century, particularly on the full body images (see Fig. 4.2). Yet, many of Fabrica’s images are devoid of unrelated narrative content as well (Fig 5.6, center).

Within this context, both Descartes and Willis, each in his own way, shows that the oldest methods we have for studying the brain are anatomical, even if Descartes was more focused on a methodology that grappled with ideas about knowledge (epistemology) and being (ontology). The work of both men also had a lasting impact on broader approaches to human psychology in terms of behavior and thought, despite the many points where their ideas diverge. If Descartes’ questions began to move the study of the mind outside the realm of experimental science, later when experimentalists and philosophers developed tactics for integration, the questions of how to handle subjective qualities experimentally remained, as later chapters show. Comparing Willis and Descartes shows that the idea of “one” prevailing paradigm obscures how complicated investigations are. It also fails to capture the range of alternative views within the full cultural context.

The two men do show that we see mind and brain studies began to move into formerly uncharted territory during the long 18th century, even if the pace of change was not congruent in all spaces. Commonalities included an effort to understand God’s design. Yet, unlike Descartes, who singled out the pineal gland to connect the mind and body theoretically, Willis emphasized that the brain can best be understood by envisioning different levels of function. While the animal spirits of earlier eras remained to some degree in both models, and both Willis and Descartes sought the seat of the “rational soul” — an idea woven into the 17th century fabric, each approached the problem from a different angle.

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