Cornhill Magazine, 5 (1862), 409–25.
The Brain and its Use
Neurology, Serendipity, Methodology, Psychology, Providence, Wonder, Mental Illness, Physiology, Genius, Soul, Pathology, Narcotics, Heterodoxy, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Vitalism, Force, Health, Reading, Design
Although the men who used to believe that, 'with microscopes and chemical analysis to aid them', the 'little bit of matter' that constitutes the brain would reveal 'the whole secret of life' were 'deluded by a false hope', their 'pursuit of the hidden secrets of the soul' has in fact 'richly cheated us into an acquaintance with the vital laws of consciousness'. This serendipitous discovery of 'fruitful fields of unsuspected worth' is often the 'method' of science: the 'philosopher's stone trapped men into chemistry; the hope of astrologic lore into the knowledge of the stars'. (409) Modern knowledge of the brain makes it 'undeniable that material actions depend on mind', that the nervous system is 'ruled and moved directly by our mind'. Indeed, this is 'the law of all matter—to be ruled and moved by mind', and although 'Of the mind that rules and uses the rest of nature we are not conscious [...] it is not therefore non-existent'. (410) After describing the structure of the brain, Hinton asserts that it is 'a double organ' and 'we have as truly two brains as we have two eyes or two hands'. This doubleness of the brain 'has given rise to some curious speculations', such as Arthur L Wigan's contention that 'the mind is double also'. While 'we may not accept this idea', the 'influence of our double brain' can be felt in mental states such as 'day-dreaming' and 'those strange experiences called "double consciousness"'. (415) Also considers the 'unconscious action in the brain' which Thomas Laycock has shown to be a 'constant and [...] important part of our experience' (417). Indeed, actions of the brain 'not involving any of the higher faculties, as thought or will' are a 'chief source of the power of habit, and the fatal bondage under which the victim of habitual vice is laid', and this is how 'that irresistible influence of the desire for drink, which is now recognized as nothing less than a distinct form of insanity by the best pathologists, becomes established' (419). Certain 'exaggerated' involuntary actions that 'indicate merely the reflecting of a stimulus from the hemispheres of the brain' have recently 'furnished ground for much wonderment and some imposture, and have been set forth, under the name of "electro-biology", and so on, as the basis of new sciences'. Hinton insists, however, that when 'hats or tables are endowed with abnormal energy by the laying on of hands; or when a patient, first reduced to a passive and absorbed condition, acts out the part suggested to him;—we simply have exhibited to us, isolated, and as it were dissected out, certain elements which are essential to our nature'. (420) In 'our present state of ignorance' the mind can be most 'reasonably postulated' as 'some power which operates on the nervous system from above' (421). Concludes that the brain was clearly not 'designed' for 'a world that demands incessant work and worry', and that through this physiological fact, 'our Maker vouch[es] that this world is such an one' about which we 'need not fret ourselves, and our interests in which we might hold lightly' (425).
© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005-07
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