The Hotchkiss Brain Institute
Healthy Brains for Better Lives
History of Neuroscience
by: HBI Member, Frank Stahnisch
Spanish neuroanatomist Cajal, being the first neuroscientist to win the "Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine" in 1906 in conjunction with the Italian pathologist Camillo Golgi (1843-1926), has emphasized the direct relationship between the human "organ of knowledge" and our understanding of the natural world in his "Charlas de Café" (1941, Span., posthum). An active brain researcher, regarded by many as "the father of modern neuroscience", Cajal was well aware of the constructive nature of human knowledge and its dependence on the brain's function and structure. From this assumption, it does not come as a surprise that the long history of the brain and nerves presents to us as a string of continuous mysteries, and revellations, rational reconstructions and cultural re-enchantments:
Since the times of the ancient Egyptians (ca. 2800 to ca. 700 BC), the brain has fascinated physicians, learned scholars, artists and the public at large. Specific interpretations of the organ's nature (e.g. a "faculty to cool the warmth of the body", an "instance of communication with God", a "thought-producing gland", or an "information processing computer", etc.) were incredibly diverse and included mystical and rational assumptions alike. In fact, well before the recent term "neuroscience" was even coined by the American biophysicist Francis O. Schmitt (1903-1995) - in 1962 -, the history of the human mind, brain and nerves itself is a history of great contributions, conceptual struggles and groundbreaking changes in the social, cultural and economical contexts that have accompanied the field's development to the present day. The appropriation of the historical perspective on the sciences of the brain and nerves provides a profound understanding of past accomplishments, situated rationalities and the logics of former research traditions, thus informing us today about our own presuppositions as well as the foundations of the scientific world's view with its limitations and great frontiers.