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Category: Non-fiction

Matthias Eckoldt

Eine kurze Geschichte von Gehirn und Geist. Woher wir wissen, wie wir fühlen und denken
[A Brief History of the Brain and Mind. How we know how we feel and think]


The Brain must be like the Internet

The human brain is most complex structure we know. For more than 2500 years, researchers have tried to understand how it works, yet even today, it has only been superficially figured out. Matthias Eckoldt tells the story of the examination of the organ with which humans think, from the first, horrifying experiments with drilling into peoples’ skulls in the mid-Stone Age to the search for the human soul in the Middle Ages to the phrenology of the nineteenth century to modern brain research and the accompanying debates about free will and mirror neurons. What’s so special about this book is that he doesn’t just present a series of assumptions from differing historical epochs, but shows how the protagonists in question came to think as they did. He explains why theories of the mind were innovative and why they necessarily seemed plausible at the time. That helps connect reader with this short history of the brain and mind and gives the book its drive.

One observation runs through the text like a thread. It’s hardly new, but never has it been spelled out with such care. It seems that human beings tend to explain the brain and its functions with reference to the most advanced technology at their disposal. Even by modern standards, the Roman system of water supply using a complex system of wells, cisterns and aqueducts was a masterly achievement. So it’s no wonder that the Roman physician Galen that the human vital spirit was a liquid flowing from one brain ventricle to the next, causing sensations and bodily movements. In the Middle Ages, the distillation of high-percent alcohol seemed to be an apt explanation of the purification of the vital spirit from physical contamination. Only when a certain degree of purity was reached did, was a valve opened between sensory data and human reason. Descartes, too, was inspired in a number of ways by the engineering of his day. Wine presses, the waterfalls in aristocratic gardens and the imposing musical organs in the major cathedrals served as metaphors for how the human nervous system, brain and mind functioned. In later times, as Eckoldt shows, material and tool storage facilities, condensers, telegraph stations and of course computers provided the models for the brain.

Such analogies not only help us imagine an organ that has only been partially researched. They also, as the author speculates, influence our self-perception as human beings. People who view the brain as a machine see themselves as cogs in a similar, larger one.

Eckoldt isn’t particularly impressed by the results of modern-day brain research. On the ultimate question of how the brain produces the human mind, spirit or soul, today’s brain research emerges as empty-handed as in previous epochs. The computer may be losing its appeal as a model for the brain, but the next metaphor is already there – the Internet as a metaphor for an age in which everyone envisions him- or herself as part of a network. But we shouldn’t be under any illusions. At some point, the author predicts, the idea of the brain being like the Internet will also be obsolete. No one is exempt from the scornful head-shaking of future generations.

This is a compelling and very readable book and a dense history of brain research, presented from an appealingly humble perspective.

Translated by Jefferson Chase

Book cover A Brief History of the Brain and Mind. How we know how we feel and think

By Manuela Lenzen

Manuela Lenzen is a freelance science journalist. The main subject areas of her writing are evolution, cognition, and artificial intelligence.