18 March 2013

Revue acéphale

[ ... a variation on a pet theme of mine, written up a good little while ago, to be put up somewhere else. this never happened, 
so here it goes.]

“Our thoughts ... were so far mainly focused on the subject of neurology, and more specifically the human nervous system, and there primarily the central nervous system. [...] We selected from prompt action the most complicated object under the sun – literally.”
These second-thoughts – for, there might have been less complicated objects, it seems, to think with - in late November 1946 were making their way into the hands of mathematician Norbert Wiener, the chubby MIT prodigy with a faible for anti-aircraft-defense (as well as, evidently, the central nervous system). To no avail, we must assume. Complicated or not, Wiener famously would draw these various objects together, notably in a 1948 treatise (equally famous), titled: Cybernetics. Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. And so would (occasionally at least) the sender, as it were, of above soul-searching message: the physicist John von Neumann. He too was a man of many talents: his unfinished, posthumous The Computer and the Brain (1958) would only cap off a far-flung oeuvre.

Maverick thinkers both of them, both Wiener’s and von Neumann’s names, to be sure, have come to stand for many things: dawn of the information age, the invention of cyborg sciences, game theory, artificial intelligence, ‘non-modern’ ontologies and more – in brief: a great many narratives of departure, incision and transformation. The storyline that interests me here is similarly dramatic; it has to do (if not quite) with that most complicated object under the sun that was referred to in von Neumann's letter above: the brain. Or to be precise, it has to do with its history. This history too, in one way or another, is a story prominently featuring these two cyberneticists above, whose scandalous equation of men and machines, of brains and computers, has been eagerly embraced by a great many scholars in order to – whatever the case may be - celebrate, castigate, frame, or (at its best) historicize our own, contemporary condition: a condition that has everything, or at least a lot, to do with the brain – and its science.

This at any rate is a notion that would appear quite inescapable for anyone drawn, in some capacity or another, to the multiplying discourses surrounding this (according to some) science of the 21st century. It would seem quite inescapable as well should you be a believer when it comes to pursuing things in their ‘neuro’-prefixed variety (say, neuro-aesthetics or neuro-economics). And certainly the histories of neuroscience that we tell, or that are being told, tend to suggest this much: whether your choice is academic or not-so-academic (‘popular’) history, whether you turn to wikipedia or the BBC 4: it’s primarily the central nervous system that will be featured. 
Thus, while the genesis of the so-called ‘modern’ (ie. twentieth-century) neurosciences remains a largely uncharted territory, when it comes to accounting for how we may have arrived here, in a world that so seemingly is, or will soon be, replete with neuroscience’s profoundly biological vision of the human, not unlikely that the answer will be: we’ve been there before. The little episode recounted above, to be sure, picks up on only one, if rather influential, such cerebro-centric storyline: cybernetics - or the “study of control and communication in animals, machines, and Society” (in Wiener’s words). Historians know of many. You name it: the heretic doctrines of a Descartes or de La Mettrie; the science of phrenology in the early 19th century; the rise of the “double brain” in the Victorian era, or the spread of biopsychiatry in Wilhelmine Germany; the origins of the EEG and of neuro-transmitters in the interwar period; the stories of lobotomy, of psychopharmaceuticals or of the confluence of computational machinery and minds in the 1940s and 50s. What is more, as would all good and proper history of science, such (pre)histories of neuroscience largely spell history-of-culture today. And this too would be a notion which, for all practical purposes, implicates the brain; and more specifically it implicates the idea that we’ve already lived through so many cultures of the brain or “neuro-cultures” in the past: namely, all those that have preceded, shaped, and preconfigured the current one. Perhaps, then (or this would be the not entirely untypical gesture in this connection), let’s not get too excited. Because all knowledge is local, historical specific, and relative. Or perhaps then (if you are so inclined), let's do get excited: all this was just groping in the dark; we'd better worry about this new science of the 21st century (also a perfectly possible reading of the historical record). I wouldn’t know; and at any rate, my point will be a different one. My point will be that the thinkers/critics of neuroscience might do well in thinking twice before entangling neuroscience too emphatically and exclusively with heady concepts such as (especially) brains and minds, culture and human nature.

Taking my cue from von Neumann above – the one apropos the main focus of “our thoughts” - this little piece, then, aims to sketch a slightly different way of looking at things. Not because I believe that there isn’t much to learn from histories of the brain (indeed, much remains to be done); but, because I believe that, being histories with that particular and peculiar focus, they tend to be complicit with the neuro-scientific discourses they profess to critically engage. Not that all such histories do come with this critical impetus; not that all such histories would share one single, simplistic agenda. What stories of neuroscience tend to share however – and that would be true not only for its histories, but most analyses and appropriations of neurosciences - is that they usually, typically, and at times very programmatically so, indeed are stories of the brain; which, implicitly or explicitly, tend to be stories of human nature in turn. And here resides the problem, I should think; at least in so far the goal is to think through the present neuro-vogue: because it is so charged, the brain, as von Neumann feared, might not be the most productive object to thing to think with. Take his own case: the ways that cybernetics - never exactly a modest enterprise - has come to routinely frame accounts of mid-twentieth century neuroscience, is a vivid example of how our stories tend to reproduce, rather than question, the dramatic categories prescribed by the neuroscientific discourses themselves: revolutionary departure (or discontinuity), mind/body problem, (post) human nature, grandiose topics such as language, life and memory - it’s all prominently there; titles tend to speak for themselves: Transformations of the Human, The Mind’s New Science, How we came Posthuman, or Sketches of Another Future, to cite just a few. The common reading, accordingly, of above message is, that, however unhappy von Neumann might have been with the focus of “our thoughts”, these cyberneticists still had their hands in the making of a new science of the brain and mind; the implication typically being that, of course, it is human nature that must have been stake.

And no doubt that the brain did get “complex” at the time, and imagined and made accessible by wholly new terms and means. Quite certainly that was the message that, for one, cyberneticists were expertly communicating (and by all means successfully): until very recently the “living brain” had been beyond the reaches of science - for lack of appropriate technologies and concepts - as another prominent such specimen, the British neuropsychiatrist Grey Walter, styled it in 1953; and even so, he added, one did not “accept the brain as a proper study for the physiologist” (who merely “carried to the extreme” the study of nerve, muscle, and other peripheral things: the brain, at best, had been a case for morbid anatomy). These were heady days, to be sure, and there is something to be said, of course, about such ways of retelling things. We must already be tuned to the significance of brains, however, to find them entirely persuasive. And looking more closely, above second thoughts can easily point us to another, quite uncerebral reading of such constructions: it will lead us off now into the direction of somewhat less complicated objects – said muscles, nerves and other such peripheral, rather bodily and mindless things. Quite undramatic objects, in short. And we might dwell as well a little longer with Norbert Wiener above to see the point I wish to make plausible here - that it might be worthwhile trying to deflate the accounts of the neuroscientific past that are in circulation; not least, in order to consider in a more sanguine fashion (and in less dramatic terms) the present.

Less appreciated, in any case, than the message apropos the central nervous system which Wiener had received (von Neumann, it should be said, really was interested in coming to terms with calculation machinery), is that Wiener in fact had already made up his own mind in the connection of complicatedness. Indeed it were such second thoughts that made him decamp to Mexico at the time where he and his occasional collaborator, the neurophysiologist Arturo Rosenblueth, were to study (“rigorously”) a number of other and simpler objects, particularly heart “flutter” and the spike potentials of single nerve fibers. Curiously enough, even these seemingly more benign objects turned out to exhibit quite complicated, because “non-linear”, behavior. (Very much to Wiener’s excitement, in fact). More relevant here is that they nevertheless, and utterly, failed to impress Wiener’s contemporaries; or, more properly, certain contemporaries and, for that matter, posterity. Tellingly, for example, the cybernetician-cum-anthropologist Gregory Bateson politely declined having them at the Macy Conferences, that (in the view of one its frequenters, the physiologist Ralph Waldo Gerard) “most provocative” cybernetic think tank, asking Wiener to please supply something more provocative instead. Wiener ardently obliged. And he himself, soon to be drawn into the vortex of public fame, never made much of these forays into the non-linearities of the heart, to be sure (as one well-meaning journalist advised him at the time, one better had used ‘channel[s] ... [that] would make the implications of CYBERNETICS amenable to presentation in dramatic and concrete terms with meaning for the average man.”). Well, so what, you may think; poor Norbert Wiener, perhaps he should have kept his hands off cardiology.

Perhaps. And perhaps we need not worry much weren’t it case that Wiener and Rosenblueth had been toying here with objects that were, as far as the sciences of the nervous system were concerned, rather typical; not to say, paradigmatic and mainstream: hearts, and even more so, muscle and nerve – in brief, peripheral nervous systems and not central ones. There was some truth, in other words, in Grey Walter’s cerebro-proselytizing above, that no one, certainly not the physiologists, had bothered much about the “living brain”. And not even about dead brains, we might add, but about its peripheries: the muscles and nerves, the spines and hearts; or, to put things more emphatically, it were neuromuscular bodies that bothered folks. It was this latter subject - smoothly moving, efficiently performing, skillfully labouring bodies - not the living brain, that had been made salient in those years - by, and in, the factories and offices, the sporting grounds, battlefields, and modern machines of mass and high-speed transportation and communication; and hence, the laboratories: “The fitness and the physique and the beauty ... of men and women in their prime”, as muscle-physiologist turned Britain’s foremost biomedical spin-doctor, Walter Morley Fletcher, then defined the object of modern physiology, and of those “living in submarines below the sea, mining far into the earth, or flying to great heights in the air.”

Indeed the obsession of the interwar period especially with the performance of bodies implicated in all these modern situations is all too easily forgotten – thanks, not least, to the (by now) usual focus of “our thoughts” in the matter, and thanks not least to a new generation of brain-ideologues such as Wiener or Grey Walter. Seen through the lens of a later, more brain-aware age, at best it was/is construed as an aberration, a kind of primitive proto-neuroscience not quite ready yet for its true, and truly complicated object. “After World War I, popular demand ... ha[d] reinforced the popular notion limiting physiology of its application relative to the functioning human body,” above Ralph Waldo Gerard would lament in his (very uncybernetic) Mirror to Physiology: A Self-Survey of Physiological Science (1958). And sure enough that this other, bodily and un-cerebral focus was systematic, as Gerard in fact was acknowledging here, and the enterprise correspondingly huge (as might, in fact, not surprise you, if you are versed in the clichés of interwar history). Bodies counted. And what I’d like to sketch below now is an argument as to why one might care - not because it might improve our understanding of Wiener’s thinking or of cybernetics’s pre-history (if anything, the suggestion would be to by-pass, marginalize them in our accounts altogether); not because I want to suggest that neuroscience was really prefigured there and then; not even in order to pit ‘the body’ against ‘the brain’ (though there might be some justification in doing that, given the brain-centredness of today’s discourses apropos “human nature”). The goal would be, as mentioned, to deflate.

Alas, “the body” itself is a category much abused and, not infrequently, romanticized in this connection; as when, for example, theorists of “affect”, “emotion”, or of bodily “flows” tend to flirt with forms of biologism that we might find worrisome in its typically uncritical and selective embrace of (neuro)science. As shall become clearer now as we turn, however briefly, to the peripheral nervous system, ca. 1930, it’s not “bodies” in this sense I wish to remind ourselves of. What I wish to remind ourselves of is the, by and large, banality of its science or, indeed, of the sciences of the nervous, generally. The case at hand – focused as it was on the peripheral nervous system – simply conveys that point quite vividly: Poking a frog’s muscle or the eggs of sea-urchins with an electrode; frightening decerebrated cats; measuring the processes of fatigue of Olympic runners, steel workers or office girls; determining the reaction times and hand-eye coordination of pilots or motorists. There were few things infusing the interwar sciences of the nervous body that would seem to have implicated the brain and/or mind; and fewer still, that would have affected “human nature”. Or if they did, it wasn’t because of “science”, but because “bodies” (and “science”, too) were transforming, anyway. Pick your (brute) cause: taylorism, capitalism, fascism, communism.

There are many ways to make this point; here, let’s have a slightly closer (if much too brief) look at the subject of “skills”, something, it turns out, very bodily indeed (but especially then). While this might not strike you as particularly neuroscientific, its potential relevance in matters of managing dexterous bodies in the (proverbial) “machine-age” is self-evident enough; and it sure does illustrate very nicely the broadly uncerebral “neuroculture” of the interwar period. For, that was an affair that was being played out not least on “the fields of sport and of war, the factory and the farm, the desert, the jungle and the mountains,” as one so-called nerve-and-muscle physiologist had it, writing in 1936 (mind you, the concept “neuroscientist” didn’t even exist at the time). And in this connection, skills, even the certain “subtler” and “high-grade” skills such as those displayed by the stage dancer, motorist, aviator or speed-skater, were a matter too obviously important so as to be “left alone” - or so ventured the physicist-turned-industrial-psychologist Tom H. Pear, operating out of Manchester. For his part author of the seminal Skill in Work and Play - devoted to “the problems in the acquisition of muscular or bodily skill” - Pear belonged to those numerous investigators of bodily performance who, sure enough, did not plan to leave them alone. Though they were not easily communicable - the muscular sense, or kinesthetics, “possesse[d] no usable language”, as Pear noted - fortunately, such muscular pursuits no longer eluded the “higher form[s] of thought analysis”: “making”, that was, “the paths of rapid bodily movements visible or of adequately symbolizing them in verbal formulae”.

Such higher forms of analysis now were easily performed indeed, thanks to modern high-speed cinematography, artfully crafted notation systems, and all manner of psycho-physical and physiological methods. Quite apart from Pear’s crusade for the recognition of the muscular sense, prominent clues in the matter were provided by the nature of the tonic and postural reflexes, for example – a surprisingly complicated thing even though it was, primarily, a problematic reaching no further than the spinal cord (hence, too, the popularity in those years, next to factory workers, soldiers and other such “mass material”, of the “decerebrate animal” as a subject of study); clues were also provided by the discharges - strangely patterned and issuing from the body’s peripheries - from the proprioceptive receptors that were hidden away, it turned out, aplenty in the muscles, tendons and ligaments; or again, they were provided by investigations into the then popular subjects such as biomechanics, psychomotorics, or oxygen consumption - the latter a sure sign of “the economy (“skill’’)” with which people consumed their bodily energies (and on which they might want to improve). Both “industrialists” (who, Pear above allowed, might prefer to “skip the illustrations taken from games”) and “open-air athletes” (who, in turn, may “avoid ... those paragraphs containing the word industry”) thus better took notice – here was exposed the elusive, mindless and bodily substrate of what was “an endless variety and complexity of movements”.

Unlike the Wieners and Grey Walters, then, Pear and his allies were not in the habit, in other words, of wasting a lot of thought on the central nervous system. What is more, it was them, and their forays into the mysteries of the muscular sense, or those of the sense-organs, or those of the biophysics of nerve, that defined and shaped what the nervous system in the early twentieth century was all about. And if all this simply smacks of behaviorism to you, or of dodgy Psychotechnik, think twice. At stake weren’t crude reflex-mechanisms and not the raw muscular machines that populated nineteenth century factories and imaginations, as the Psychologie der Arbeitshand [Psychology of the Laboring Hand] helpfully explained - another such telling title (this one penned by the German applied psychologist Fritz Giese who, we might add, traded not simply in psychology here but in a rather more eclectic, and insofar typical, mix of psychophysics, nerve-muscle physiology, and biomechanics). Theirs was a rather more inclusive, complicated and, if you will, de-centred notion of the nervous system and its behaviors: “Nothing”, as Pear’s sometime colleague, Archibald Vivian Hill, wrapped it up on the occasion of the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, “perhaps can better illustrate nervous action than a short discussion of muscular skill:” “What does a skilful muscular movement feel like to the performer himself; how does he control it as it proceeds; how does he learn it; how does he remember it; how does he reproduce it? [...] How is this done?”

Dashing, sun-tanned and athletic himself (as admirers liked to point out), Hill in his illustrations, here as elsewhere, was fond of gesturing not, as we might be inclined to assume, towards the mysteries of the brain, but the “interplay” of “all moving parts of the body, muscles, tendons and joints” and, to be sure, the “system of nerves” guiding and controlling it (“as accurate and as well-coordinated as may be”). No doubt that his complicated machinery, “fearfully and wonderfully made”, had some sort of “steersman”, as Hill conceded; and nevertheless, coordination, control, or skill (its “economy”) for the likes of Hill were an assemblage of very bodily things: a matter of their actual manifestations, a question of energetic resources, a problem foregrounding the intricate interplay of muscles and nerves: “displayed to perfection [it was] ... in the gracefulness of the expert dancer or figure skater.” And Hill and his numerous assistants (Ralph Gerard above having been one of them), too, spared no effort to elucidate that gracefulness: “vigorous male subjects”, they exerted themselves preferably outdoors or, if need be, on bicycle ergometers; methodologically innovative, they liked to hang up athlete-dummies in wind tunnels or to travel abroad researching Olympic athletes; not liking their all-too-modern London surroundings very much, as often as possible they escaped to the idyllic seashores of Southern England in order to study the phenomena of nervous action, exhaustion and fatigue in spider crabs and other such unlikely partners of the laboring body. Indeed to Hill was due the (then) groundbreaking notion that the very processes underlying “nervous action” themselves were essentially a variation of muscular activity, which in turn was best conceived as a scaled-down version of athletic, efficient motion: violent “exercise”, fatigue, exhaustion, restoration, their economy and coordination: these were universal, neuromuscular phenomena; and, as Hill said, “the problem [was], in a sense, a single one in all these cases.”

Considering that at the time Hill was one of the world’s foremost experts on the physiology of muscle and nerve, indeed pioneering a physiology of athletic movement, such views - cementing the near-identity of muscle, nerve and human bodies - might not strike you as very surprising; they might strike you even less surprising in light of the fact that his patrons (just like Pear’s) – the British, so-called Industrial Fatigue Research Board – had chosen as their express mission the psycho-physiological elucidation of man’s “industrial surroundings”. In practice this meant, next to some industrial psychology and statistics, researches into the physiology of muscular work, the physiology of ventilation and heating, the physiology of vision; or in more concrete terms: studying the effects on bodily performance of heat, noise, atmospheric conditions, lighting, dust, and machinery (ie, its design as well as the “bodily and mental adaption” to it). In brief: so many lines of forces converging on the body, its reactions, its performances, its skills. The brain, while not wholly absent, was nothing like central, not in their discourses and certainly not in practical terms; and the situation would not have differed much elsewhere, whether we had looked into Russia, Germany, France or the USA.

Much more, of course, would need to be said about this, the brain’s absence. But something of this other, uncerebral and bodily neuroculture might have transpired no less; and in this connection, one could certainly do worse than end here on Hill – by any criterion a towering figure in matters of neuromuscular objects (at the time). Hill is also one of those figure who nevertheless cannot be said to have deeply impressed the chroniclers of neuroscience. If so, we may suspect among the reasons the somewhat brain-and-mindless nature of Hill’s entire oeuvre; he, let alone his many rather less distinguished comrades and allies, do not quite seem to fit, that is, the stories we tell, or want to tell about, well, the brain and the advent of its science. Their common object and focus of thought, if there was one, was the peripheral, not the central, nervous system. And gone with that mystified center, I would argue, are many of the subjects we like to invest with significance in this connection, blurring them with implicitly philosophical or anthropological accounts of human nature: mind, memory, language, personhood, free will, the nature of art or literature, and so forth. At any rate, once we discard the assumption that “neuroscience” is, should be, or ultimately will be about the brain/mind, it would seem rather less inevitable that narratives of neuroscience need to fall into the dramatic genre, invariably. The bodily story I have sketched here - periphery-centred as it is - simply was to make plastic, how, more often not, we’re prone to reach too quickly perhaps towards the overly dramatic categories in analyzing the significance of neuroscience, past or present. It might not be warranted; certainly there is a lot of room for less pathos-laden, more nuanced, and indeed, less brain-centered narratives of neuroscience’s genealogies. And it’s little more than this - the relative, actual banality of (most of) neuroscience’s objects - what I was aiming at here; it wasn’t to rehabilitate the Hills or Pears or Gieses, to be sure, or be disrespectful to Wiener and his cybernetic friends. And neither was it to point up, to repeat, some undue neglect of the body in the contemporary neuroworld. The point was to remind ourselves, by way of heeding von Neumann’s advice, as it were, that the brain isn’t all there was (or is); and by implication, that what the stakes involved might be a little lower than what our brain-centred narratives tend to suggest.


  1. Very interesting posting, Stephen. It may interest your readers to learn that Emil du Bois-Reymond discussed the relationship between peripheral neuroscience and exercise way back in the day:

    “Sports like gymnastics, fencing, swimming, riding, dancing, and skating are primarily exercises of the central nervous system, of the brain and spinal marrow. It is true that these activities involve a certain degree of muscular power. But we can conceive of a man having the muscles of a Farnese Hercules, who would nevertheless be unable to stand or walk, to say nothing of executing more complicated movements…. Exercise trains the nerves as much as it does the muscles.”

    Source: Emil du Bois-Reymond, “Über die Übung. Zur Feier des Stiftungsfestes der militärärztlichen Bildungsanstalten am 2. August 1881 gehaltene Rede,” Reden (Leipzig: Veit, 1912), 2: 99-140, on 111-113. This passage is reprinted from du Bois-Reymond’s previous essays, "Über das Barrenturnen und über die sogenannte rationelle Gymnastik. Erwiderung auf zwei dem konigl. Ministerium der Geistlichen, Unterrichts-u. Medicinal-Angelegenheiten abgegebene ärztliche Gutachten" (Berlin: Reimer, 1862), 21-23, and "Herr Rothstein und der Barren. Eine Entgegnung" (Berlin: Reimer, 1863), 31.

  2. *Max - apologies, Gabriel.

  3. thank you, Gabriel. and you're certainly right, that kind of thing would have been in the air for a while, as people familiar with, say, Rabinbach's work will know. it doesn't surprise me either, from what i remember reading in Sven Dierig's "Maschinenstadt". if i emphasized the interwar years, in parts that's why - there's a strong historiographical tendency i think to associate all things "energetic"/"thermodynamic"/"muscular" with the 19th century (rather than the 20th). at any rate, looking forward to your biography!