- Brain, Vision, Memory: Tales in the History of Neuroscience
How the brain does what it does is still one of the great enigmas of science, one with a long history and a rich cast of characters. Charles Gross, a senior member of the Department of Psychology at Princeton University, presents part of this history in five essays, versions of which have been previously published in journals such as The Neuroscientist, Cerebral Cortex, and Trends in Neurosciences. Gross’s narrative voice is clear and authoritative, and shows the best sort of storytelling when a working scientist takes the long view of his subject.
The past thirty years have been a remarkably fertile period for an alliance of anatomists, physiologists, and biologically oriented psychologists (now styled as “cognitive neuroscientists,” since the otherwise honorable term “psychology” is deemed irredeemably “soft”). Two of the essays can be read in conjunction with Semir Zeki’s recent A Vision of the Brain (1993) to illustrate how crucial the study of vision has been in this progress. The account of how the temporal and parietal lobes were recognized as essential to vision-processing in higher animals reflects Gross’s own particular expertise, and describes the brick-on-brick pattern of practical science enlivened with occasional flashes of good luck. (During a session of single-cell recording from an awake monkey’s temporal cortex, the cell [End Page 538] 538is exasperatingly silent until the experimenter, probably in desperation, waves a hand in front of the eyes; so came to light the “hand” cell in the coding for object recognition in the temporal lobe.)
Two essays, one on Leonardo da Vinci and one on the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose ideas of the brain were remarkably prescient, make the point that, in biology, theoretical ideas unsupported by a critical mass of supporting data tend to be stillborn.
The gem of the collection to historians of ideas who love the byways and culs-de-sac, particularly those that show the social input into science, is the story of Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley and their controversy over an obscure piece of neuroanatomy, the so-called hippocampus minor. Owen, as Britain’s leading paleontologist and first director of the British Museum of Natural History, proposed this structure as unique to the human brain, thus justifying the placement of the human in its own special taxonomic category. Huxley demonstrated the structure quite readily in monkey and ape brains, and used it as a means of discrediting Owen and promoting Darwin’s theory of common descent. Gross found a glancing reference to this story in a recent biography of Darwin (Adrian Desmond and James R. Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist ), appreciated its particularly piquant character, and rescued it from oblivion. Owen, condemned by unforgiving Darwinists, is just now emerging from a century of obscurity (Nicolaas A. Rupke, Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist ). And he has his revenge: the British Museum of Natural History displays his imposing bronze statue alone at the top of the stairs commanding the entrance hall, while the sitting statues of Darwin and Huxley are relegated to the lunchroom in the rear, where little children climb into Darwin’s lap as they would into their grandfather’s.