The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Friday, 10 October 2008

33. iii) This intricate ganglionic mechanism

"No one now doubts that consciousness has an anatomical substratum, but the great problem of the relation between the two is as far from solution as in the days when little or nothing was known of the physiology of the nervous system. Consciousness has been driven step by step upwards until now it takes refuge in a few thousand nerve-cells in a portion of the grey matter of the brain. The ancients believed that the body participated in the feelings of the mind, and that, in a real sense, the heart might be torn by contending emotions. As science advanced, consciousness took refuge in the brain, first in the medulla and lastly in the cortex. But even supposing we are ultimately able to understand all the phenomena - chemical, physical, physiological - of this intricate ganglionic mechanism we shall be no nearer a solution of the problem of the connexion between the objective and subjective aspects of the phenomena. [...]"

At the regrettable expense of neglecting further colourful references to vivisection (including an intriguing method of removing monkey grey matter using pressurized jets of water), we close our all too brief examination of Prof. McKendrick's contribution to PHYSIOLOGY with the above.

For all the doubtless marvellous advances made by neuroscience in the years that have followed, I have the idea that the problem of consciousness would be couched in similar terms today, and remains unanswered. Similar terms, but I would not expect the same language. There is a certain poetry in the professor's writing, coloured by a certain hint of melancholy and the macabre, and this final section somehow reminds me of Hamlet's soliloquies. George Bernard Shaw, so the Wikipedia informs us, read the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety - excepting the scientific articles. Mr Shaw missed out.


Thomas Nagel said...

We have come to accept that consciousness cannot be scientifically reduced: it is the quale of the human brain, the essence of subjectivity.

John Barleycorn said...

I must defer to a statement made with such clarity and an elegance of expression that challenges the poetry of the gentleman scientists that I find in the pages of the Ninth Edition.

This morning, however, I hear on the BBC news of bluegrass legend Eddie Adcock's recent brain surgery at a Nashville hospital. In recent years the entertainer had been forced to retire from performance as he had developed an uncontrollable tremor in his picking hand. While the surgeons prodded and electrified this and that part of his ganglionic materials, Mr Adcock played his five string with lesser or greater effect. He has now been fitted with something like a pacemaker, wired directly to his node of banjerfyingness, which once activted has his fingers hopping once again on the banjo strings.

If the seat of banjer picking has been identified, perhaps it is too early to entirely dismiss the notion that the same might one day be acieved for such a relatively trivial thing as consciousness?