(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1940, the English physiologist Sir Charles Sharrington likened the awakening human brain to an “enchanted loom,” and he poetically proclaimed that the rising pattern of innumerable points of electrochemical light signaling our daily coming to consciousness was “as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance.” Over the centuries a considerable number of investigators have similarly fallen under the spell of the brain, eager to penetrate the mysteries of mind and matter and perhaps to join the rhythm of the dance, or simply to understand its processes in order to intervene when patterns become pathology.

Perhaps of no other period in history than the period surrounding the appearance of The Enchanted Loom could it be truer to say that the human mind is waking up to the brain. the growing blaze of activity within the scientific community is increasingly being reflected in other segments of society. In 1989 the United States Congress enacted legislation designating the 1990’s “the Decade of the Brain,” and the Italian government has established an official “Decade of the Brain” committee. This book, which is number four in Oxford University Press’s History of Neuroscience series, evolved as part of this awakening interest in the brain, and it represents especially the effort to convey to educated general readers some of the history and significance of research in the brain sciences.

The book emerged more directly from a series of public exhibitions, first in Florence, Italy, in 1989, and then in Paris, France, and St. Louis, Missouri, in 1990. Readers are indeed fortunate to have available in book form such a superb collection of illustrations of the history of neuroscience, together with their valuable accompanying captions and associated essays. The illustrations, but and large, follow the essays, and though in each case the text and the images bear a close topical relationship to each other, they are explicitly connected by textual references only in chapters 1, 9 (in the second essay), and 11. Both the essays and the captions contain bibliographical references to works listed in the lengthy bibliographies at the end of each part. Not all of the pictorial material from the exhibitions has been included in the book (though apparently all of the captions have been), but the 390 or so images presented here, which include both black-and-white and color drawings, paintings, and photographs of the research as well as the researchers, constitute a diverse and unique resource for glimpsing the changing vision of the nervous system during several periods of history.

In his preface, editor Pietro Corsi comments on the scope and intent of the volume, emphasizing the difficult but important challenge of “communicating to the general reader an idea of the connections between scientific development and the wider dimensions of cultural and social life in the Western world over the course of the last five centuries.” The sixteen contributors, eight from Italy and eight from the United States, include several historians, philosophers, and other scholars, as well as numerous scientists. A number of them do indeed deal with various cultural implications of neuroscience, especially in the first two-thirds of the book, and though the chronological range extends from the ancient world to about 1990, the emphasis is on the period since the middle of the seventeenth century, and particularly on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The volume as a whole, and especially the illustrations, can be understood and enjoyed by most general readers, though, most fully by those familiar with basic brain science.

The three main parts of the book—“The Art of Memory”; “The Discovery of the Brain: From Descartes to Gall”; and “Birth and Frontiers of Neuroscience”—are arranged in chronological order, and each has a distinctive character. Lina Bolzoni’s opening chapter, “The Play of Images: The Art of Memory from Its Origins to the Seventeenth Century,” which has been translated from the Italian by John Shepley, forms the entire first part. Bolzoni discusses the evolution and significance of strategies for remembering things—“mnemotechnics”—in European history from ancient Greece to the seventeenth century, commenting as well on the marginality of such techniques in the modern age of information. She describes the centrality and sacredness of memory in oral cultures and shows how writing and printing, while contributing to memory’s gradual desacralization, have been used in its service. She traces the development of the art from its invention by Simonides of Ceos and its transmission to the Middle Ages through Cicero and Quintilian, to its various sixteenth and seventeenth century forms in the works of Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno, Petrus Ramus, and Robert Fludd. The text...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)