Neurology and the Soul

Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology

by Frederick C. Bartlett
Cambridge University Press, (out of print)

The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain

by Israel Rosenfield, Introduction by Oliver Sacks
Basic Books, 240 pp., $9.95 (paper)

La Conscience: Une Biologie du Moi Knopf in 1991

by Israel Rosenfield
Editions Eshel (Paris, 1990); to be published in expanded form by

A Critique of Artificial Intelligence’

by Israel Rosenfield. in The Enchanted Loom, edited by Pietro Corsi
Oxford University Press, 400 pp., $60.00

Man on his Nature

by Sir Charles Sherrington
Cambridge University Press, (out of print)

The Integrative Action of the Nervous System

by Sir Charles Sherrington
Cambridge University Press, (out of print)

Migraine

by Oliver Sacks
University of California Press, 290 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Awakenings

revised edition, by Oliver Sacks
HarperCollins, 448 pp., $9.95 (paper)

A Leg to Stand On

by Oliver Sacks
HarperCollins, 224 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

by Oliver Sacks
HarperCollins, 256 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Seeing Voices

by Oliver Sacks
HarperCollins, 224 pp., $8.95 (paper)

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 …

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Letters

James Sacksified January 17, 1991

Neurology and the Soul December 6, 1990