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Mind, Brain and Adaptation in the Nineteenth Century: Cerebral Localization and Its Biological Context from Gall to Ferrier


Robert M. Young


[ Contents | Preface | Introduction | Chapter: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Bibliography ]



Understanding can be advanced only through our modification of present concepts. These in turn are subject to change only through resourceful experimental and theoretical pursuits. There is a continuing need for careful examination of our fundamental assumptions. The assumptions which we accept with least reflection are those common to our intellectual community; they may not even be recognized as assumptions.

Robert B. Livingston, 1962

Today we study the day before yesterday, in order that yesterday may not paralyze today and today may not paralyze tomorrow.

F. W. Maitland

This book has been concerned with two separable issues, and one of the main conclusions implicit in my argument is that the issues should not be separated. On the one hand, I have emphasized the need for a set of functions which are biologically significant. On the other, I have stressed the need for a set of analytic terms which can be experimentally investigated throughout the nervous system. The history of empirical cerebral localization from Gall to Ferrier involved the advance of the latter thesis at the expense of the former, even though the theoretical basis for the latter provides the strongest argument for the former. That is, the theory of evolution which justified the extension of the sensory-motor paradigm throughout the nervous system also demanded that the concepts of function should directly reflect the important variables in the adaptation of organisms to their environments. Gall argued that the faculties used by his predecessors were irrelevant to the lives of organisms, but he failed to analyse his own functions into more basic units. Ferrier adopted a set of useful units and provided an experimental basis for their application to all parts of the brain, but he failed to transcend the categories of function which his intellectual mentors had perpetuated. The obvious need for the future was a combination of analysis with a biologically significant set of functions. This desideratum has yet to appear. Advances since Ferrier have been more technological than conceptual. The paradigm established by Bain, Spencer, Jackson, and Ferrier still dominates the assumptions of research in physiological psychology.

The most difficult historical issue with which I have been concerned is the role of phrenology in both the history of the concept of cerebral



localization and in the development of psychology as a biological science. As I was making notes for this conclusion a passage came to my attention which perfectly expresses the difficulty. In a discussion of 'The Influence of Evolutionary Theory upon American Psychological Thought',[l] Boring considers the roots of functional thinking, and concludes,

We must not, however, exaggerate the importance of evolutionary theory. It was not Darwin who discovered that the body's organs are useful to it, nor was Darwin the originator of the thought that the mind is an organ. Functional psychology has back of it, besides evolutionary theory, all of faculty psychology and also all of the specific analysis of mind into functions, faculties, capacities and propensities by the phrenologists early in the nineteenth century.[2]

Dallenbach has supported this view by attempting to show that the term 'function' as applied to psychological phenomena entered English psychology by way of phrenology.[3] The importance of phrenology in the development of adaptive and functional thinking in psychology has been one of the major themes of the present work, and supporting evidence has been cited in the text and notes. I do not consider the thesis proven, but I do feel that the adduction of evidence for its probability has been one of the most interesting and significant results of my research. Additional evidence will be required to separate direct influences from interesting parallels, but at present I am in agreement with the assessment of one of the major figures in the development of evolutionary psychology, G. H. Lewes, who said,

Gall rescued the problem of mental functions from Metaphysics, and made it one of Biology.[4]

In his vision of Psychology as a branch of Biology, subject therefore to all biological laws, and to be pursued on biological methods, he may be said to have given the science its basis.[5]

I have attempted to enlarge our appreciation of the direct debts of the founders of modern psychology to Gall. Bain drew his conception of the importance of uniting the study of physiology with psychology from his early education and interest in phrenology. Spencer developed his concept of adaptation. its neurological context, and his concept of cerebral localization from his early phrenological conceptions. However, the theories of Bain and Spencer were held in a wider context-that of the analytical units and categories which the association psychology

1 In: Boring 1963, pp. 159-84.

2 Ibid., p. 167.

3 Dallenbach, 1915.

4 Lewes, 1871, p. 425.

5 Ibid., p. 423.



had inherited from medieval and philosophical psychology, and which associationism perpetuated. Modern psychology has not transcended these, and Gall's most important insight has not yet been applied to the relations among mind, brain, and life: the functional role of mind in life as a guide to the formulation of categories of biological analysis according to which psychological investigation should interpret experience and behaviour.

The approach in psychology which benefited most from evolutionary associationism was the functional psychology of William James and John Dewey. As the following passages show, Dewey grasped some of the implications of biological psychology. In 1925, he said,

Reflection is an indirect response to the environment, and the element of indirection can itself become great and very complicated. But it has its origin in biological adaptive behaviour and the ultimate function of its cognitive aspect is a prospective control of the conditions of the environment. The function of intelligence is therefore not that of copying the objects of the environment, but rather of taking account of the way in which more effective and more profitable relations with these objects may be established in the future.[1]

On the basis of the theory of organic evolution it is maintained that the analysis of intelligence and of its operations should be compatible with the order of known biological facts, concerning the intermediate position occupied by the central nervous system in making possible responses to the environment adequate to the needs of the living organism.[2]

It should be noted that Dewey is here indicating the approach of a biological psychologist but has no concepts of function which are commensurate with his aims. Fifteen years later, Sherrington expressed the problem which this situation poses for modern brain research.

Facts rebut the over-simplified conceptions such as ascribe to separate small pieces of the roof-brain, wedged together like a jigsaw puzzle, separate items of highly integrated behaviour. A special place for comprehension of names, a special place for arithmetical calculation, a special place for musical appreciation, and so on. Such savour of old 'phrenology'. To suppose the roof-brain consists of point to point 'centres' identified each with a particular item of intelligent concrete behaviour is a scheme 'over-simplified, and to be abandoned'. Rather, we may think, the contributions which the roof-brain in collaboration with the rest of the brain and spinal cord, makes toward integrated behaviour will, when they are ultimately analysed, resolve into components for which at present we have no names. To state the organization of the mind in terms of roof-brain activities is a desideratum not in sight.[l]

1 Dewey, new ed., 1963, p. 30.

2 Ibid., p. 27.

3 Sherrington, new ed., 1955, pp. 190-1 (The internal quotation is by Lashley.)



Modern brain and behaviour research is, if anything, further away than Gall was in asking and answering the question, What are the functions of the brain? One suspects that all the sophisticated experimental technology and methodology which has developed since Gall will be to no avail until organisms are observed much more closely with this question in mind. In conclusion, I submit that in the first instance this study will owe more to naturalistic observations than to experiments. It was Gall who made the point that we must first know the functions before we can ask intelligent questions about the organization and physiology of the brain. A century and a half later one finds a modern reviewer of the concept of cerebral localization turning to Gall in support of the thesis that 'in exploring the functions of the brain, I am convinced that we must limit ourselves to the study of biologically significant behaviour patterns, no matter how complex their underlying physiology may be'.[1] I hope that the argument of this book will contribute to the continuing appreciation of this fundamental point.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that modern studies of the functions of the brain-and therefore of man's place in nature-are less free from the constraints of philosophic assumptions than their positivistic advocates have tended to assume.[2] In investigating nineteenth-century theories of mind and brain I hope that it has been possible to gain sufficient perspective to show that Descartes and Locke cast longer shadows than twentieth-century scientists often suppose. The conceptions of modern brain and behaviour research, learning theory, and even psychoanalysis are largely based on the theories which have been examined in this book. These, in turn, are based on an attempt to explain mind and brain in terms of categories derived by analogy from the mechanical, corpuscular paradigm of seventeenth-century science. Hartley and the associationists and sensory-motor psychophysiologists of the nineteenth-century provide the link between the earlier period and the present. I hope that I have shown the price which psychology paid by failing to transcend Cartesian dualism, the sensationalist and epistemological biases of associationism, and the categories of function of philosophical psychology. I suspect that the reinterpretation of human biology in more meaningful terms will require changes in the ontology of modern science.[3] Whether or not I am right in this, I believe that historical, philosophical and conceptual studies in the interpretation of man's place in nature have a more important part to play than has hitherto been assumed.

1 Zangwill, 1963, p. 338.

2 See below p. 273.

3 Ibid. Cf. Young, 1967a, 1967b.




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