Why were Elizabethans so obsessed with the human brain?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most basic reason for the Elizabethans' obsession with the human brain may well have come from their changing perceptions of the world and man's place in it.

Remember that the Elizabethan era was also known as the English Renaissance, a rebirth or reawakening of an interest in the arts.  The Elizabethans wanted to find new ways to express themselves relying on their own artistic abilities to create patterns (like iambic pentameter, rhyme schemes, etc.) rather than copying patterns present in nature.

With architecture, patterns on clothing, stained glass windows, even poetic verse, the Elizabethans were becoming more interested in what man could achieve and create (patterns), rather than what occurred naturally in the world—a revolutionary change in artistic creation.  They were dedicated to producing the...

"artificial...which was a positive extension of the word art...[designating] that which is made by human skill and ingenuity..." (Adventures in English Literature, copyright 1985, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc)

The Elizabethans' desire to contrive beauty in all kinds of art, to create it with man's intellect, would mirror their view of the world.  The Elizabethans saw man's body in a hierarchical way.  The man's head was at the top of his body where the brain was located, and the brain ruled the body.  (The feet would have been the least important.) "The brain rules the top of man’s body, and is the seat of the rational..."  (They also believed the heart was the seat of emotions.) [See website noted.]

Based on what I've read, I believe the subject of the brain captivated the minds of the Elizabethans as they tried to generate all forms of art, rationally. The most elegant way for the Elizabethans to do so was in using their brain rather than looking to nature for inspiration.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Leonardo DaVinci was obsessed with the brain (as well as the rest of the human body) clear back at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century.  The reason, of course, was because we knew so little about those things; he cut up cadavers whenever he got a chance in order to see what our "insides" looked like in an attempt to figure out how it all worked.  During the English Renaissance people knew much more (though obviously not much by modern standards) about how the body was constructed and connected.  The brain was much more complex.  The post above addresses many of the issues very well; I would only add that the Renaissance was also a time of burgeoning exploration and scientific study--they had an insatiable thirst for knowledge in all areas..  People wanted to know more and were beginning to have the proper instruments with which to measure and test and evaluate the brain.   

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The other two postings above make valid points, but I would like to add that the Elizabethan fascination with the brain was part of a much wider interest in scientific knowledge as part of the Renaissance. The brain became a topic of scientific interest as people tried to work out what it did and how it worked and how it contributed to our identity as humans. If you research into Elizabethan ideas of physiognomy it is fascinating to discover how they thought the body worked and the brain's role in this.

yushua | Student

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epollock | Student

The Renaissance was a rebirth of not just one thing in particular but of all things in general. new advancements brought people closer to a more enlightened period and a better way of life, compared to what they had before. These advancements caused them to be interested in not just the brain, but the physical form as well.