A&O READING – Neurology and the Soul excerpt (Oliver Sacks, NYRB 1990)

Neurology and the Soul

Oliver Sacks



There has always, seemingly, been a split between science and life, between the apparent poverty of scientific formulation and the manifest richness of phenomenal experience. This is the chasm which Goethe refers to in Faust, when he speaks of the grayness of theory as contrasted with the green and golden colors of life:

Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.

This chasm—which is smallest in physics, where we have spectacularly powerful theories of countless physical processes—is overwhelming in biology, in the study, above all, of mental processes and inner life, for these are, unlike physical existence, distinguished by extreme complexity, unpredictability, and novelty; by inner principles of autonomy, identity, and “will” (Spinoza and Leibniz speak here of conatus); and by a continuous becoming, evolution, and development.

The magnitude of this discrepancy, as well as our almost irresistible desire to see ourselves as being somehow above nature, above the body, has generated doctrines of dualism from Plato on—doctrines clearest of all, perhaps, in Descartes, in his separation of two “essences” (res extensa and res cogitans) and in his conception of a quasi-mystical meeting point, an “organ of liaison,” between the two (for him, the pineal).

Even in the work of C. S. Sherrington, the founder of modern neurophysiology, we find an explicitly Cartesian viewpoint: thus Sherrington regarded his decerebrate dogs as “Cartesian trigger-puppets” deprived of mind; he felt that physiology—at least the sort of reflex physiology he set himself to study—needed to be free of any “interference” by will or mind; and he wondered whether these, in some sense, did not transcend physiology and might not form a separate principle in human nature. Thus looking back on a lifetime’s work, he writes:

That our being should consist of two fundamental elements offers I suppose no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on one only.

Wilder Penfield, the neurosurgeon who studied with Sherrington as a young man, found a lifelong interest in the exploration of “experiential seizures”—seizures in which patients would find themselves convulsed, for seconds or minutes, with a hallucinatory replay of events, scenes, perhaps music, from their past lives, scenes partly dreamlike, phantasmagoric, poetic, but with an intense and overwhelming feeling of reality. (Penfield mentions people having convulsive memories of “the action of robbers in a comic strip,” of seeing people “enter the room with snow on their clothes,” and of “watching circus wagons unload” when they were children.) Such hallucinatory replays, such experiential seizures, which might occur in some patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, could also be evoked, Penfield found, by stimulation of the exposed temporal lobe cortex during an operation. The whole of life in Penfield’s view, at least passive, “sensory life”—the whole of a patient’s experience, every sensation and feeling he ever had—was preserved exactly and totally, and recorded in the brain. Penfield uses the word “record” again and again, and sees memory, the brain’s recording, as something akin to a mechanical record, or the “memory” of a computer.

“Experiential seizures,” Penfield thinks, merely serve to stimulate a random segment of this memory. This is a passive (or mechanical) view of memory and the brain—and this very passivity forces Penfield into dualism too. Thus, looking back over a lifetime of work in his last book, The Mystery of the Mind (which he dedicates to Sherrington), he concludes that though memory and imagery, sensation and experience, are indeed “engraved” in the brain, the active faculties—will, judgment—are not in the brain, are not represented physiologically in the same way, but are “transcendent” functions irreducible to physiology.

For Penfield there is the stream of memory and consciousness, “the biological stream,” and something supra-biological, “the mind (not the brain),” that watches and directs this. Thus the idea of a frontier develops:

The patient…programs his brain…. Decision comes from his mind. Neuronal action begins in the highest brain mechanisms. Here is the meeting of mind and brain. The psycho-physical frontier is here.

Such a frontier has to be envisaged, because Penfield sees all brain action as “automatic,” “reflex,” or “computational”; and yet, clearly, man himself is not an automaton.

Thus Penfield sums up his views:

After years of striving to explain the basis of mind on the the basis of brain-action alone, I have come to the conclusion that it is simpler…if one adopts the hypothesis that our being does consist of two fundamental elements.

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