Monday, March 11, 2013

What Is This Thing Called Neuroscience?

"It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
-President Bill Clinton, August 17, 1998

Dr. Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks wrote a terrific post on The history of the birth of neuroculture as a follow-up to his Observer piece on Folk Neuroscience. That article explained how neuro talk has invaded many aspects of everyday discourse. In the new post he briefly covers the history of modern neuroscience, a necessary prelude to contemporary neuroculture:
Neuroscience itself is actually quite new. Although the brain, behaviour and the nervous system have been studied for millennia the concept of a dedicated ‘neuroscience’ that attempts to understand the link between the brain, mind and behaviour only emerged in the 1960s and the term itself was only coined in 1962. Since then several powerful social currents propelled this nascent science into the collective imagination.

To me, those dates seem quite recent in relation to brain research that has been conducted for centuries. Was there no neuroscience research prior to the 60s? My general perception is that ‘neuroscience’ research has been around a lot longer than that, even if it wasn't called by that precise name. It might have been called psychobiology (Yerkes, 1921), neurobiology (Brodmann, 1909),1 neurophysiology (1938) or neurochemistry (Lewis, 1948), but the types of questions asked and the experiments performed appear to be in line with much of what passes as a dedicated neuroscience in modern times. Here's Dr. Nolan D.C. Lewis speaking at the 96th Annual Session of the American Medical Association, Atlantic City, NJ, June 13, 1947 (Lewis, 1948):
The actual nature of the thought processes is annoyingly elusive. What is the nature of thought? It is probably a manifestation of energy, but one can ask many questions about this. ... Do small areas of intact brain produce thoughts? Does the brain produce the mind independently or is it an instrument used by some other somatic processes or agents in the body? Does the brain itself think or is it a transmission center utilized by some other force? Is the mind the product of cerebral matter or is it dependent on something else which governs it? Can matter think? Either matter can produce mind or it cannot. Is mind a unique form of matter different from any other known forms of matter? While these questions and problems are probably not solvable by means of present technics, they are challenging, approachable and must eventually become elucidated if we are to get to the core of mental disorders.2

What's in a name?

I became curious enough to investigate whether the term ‘neuroscience’ was actually coined in 1962. @AliceProverbio confirmed that "Francis Schmitt used the term Neuroscience for the first time in 1962 to name his Neuroscience reserch group [at] MIT".  I found the paper in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences that clearly recognizes the role of Schmitt, but it also opined that the word might have been invented earlier (Adelman, 2010):
...the word might have been coined by Ralph Gerard in the early 1950s...

Does it really matter when the word itself was first used? No, not for Vaughan's history of the birth neuroculture. I'm not going to get to the bottom of who should get credit, either. But I do find it interesting to see how the word is used in various historical contexts.

Not to be outdone by MIT, Harrison (2000) reviews the contributions and recollections of Five Scientists at Johns Hopkins in the Modern Evolution of Neuroscience, including those of pioneering neurophysiologist Professor Vernon Mountcastle:
‘In the 1940’s, and on, this place [Johns Hopkins University] was red hot for the development of Neuroscience’.

Noted historian of neuroscience Professor Stanley Finger, in his review on Women and the History of the Neurosciences, named several famous women neuroscientists of the 19th century (Finger, 2002):3
Women have been underrepresented in the early years of the neurosciences, much as they have been in other scientific endeavors. Nevertheless, the names of many important women contributors stand out if one begins in the latter part of the 19th century...

Two women, who worked in part with their husbands but also achieved greatness on their own as the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th century began, are Augusta Marie (Dejerine-) Klumpke (1859-1927), who was married to Joseph Jules Dejerine (1849-1917), and Cécile Mugnier Vogt (1875-1962), who was married to Oskar Vogt (1870-1950).

Three other famous women neuroscientists from the later period are Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847-1930), Maria MichailovnaManasseina (also known as Marie de Manacéine, (1843-1903), and Margaret Floy Washburn (1871-1939).

But in describing the vision of Professor Francis O. Schmitt in founding the Neurosciences Research Program at MIT, Adelman (2010) gets the last word on ‘neuroscience’:
Ideally, Schmitt and his colleagues thought, the various physical, biological, and neural sciences could be brought together to attack a single goal, and what a goal — the ultimate one of all science and philosophy — how does the mind/brain work! Every field with some involvement in mind-brain studies would be included, from the molecular and subcellular areas of cell biology to the higher reaches of psychology and psychiatry. Such areas as cognitive psychology might not be able to contribute much to neurobiology; parallel fibers and psychophysical parallelism have little in common. But this field could pose major questions about higher brain function and the mechanisms of thinking, with molecular genetics perhaps providing answers about mechanisms operating at subcellular levels of the nervous system.

Ha, ha! So much for the modern convergence of brain and behavioral sciences...


1 Dr. Korbinian Brodmann worked as an Assistant in the Neurobiological Laboratory of the University of Berlin.

2 It goes without saying that modern techniques have opened up new avenues of study. And that ethical standards for the proper conduct of human and animal research (e.g., The Purring Center in Cats) have improved considerably since then.

3 To be brutally obvious here, it bears repeating that the name of the journal in which this appears is the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.


Adelman, G. (2010). The Neurosciences Research Program at MIT and the Beginning of the Modern Field of Neuroscience. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 19 (1), 15-23 DOI: 10.1080/09647040902720651

Brodman K. (1909). Vergleichende Lokalisationslehre der Großhirnrinde : in ihren Prinzipien dargestellt auf Grund des Zellenbaues. Leipzig: Barth. (Translation: Laurence J. Garey, 2006).

Finger S. (2002). Women and the history of the neurosciences. J Hist Neurosci. 11:80-6.

Harrison TS. (2000). Five scientists at Johns Hopkins in the modern evolution of neuroscience. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 9:165-79.

LEWIS, N. (1948). SUGGESTIVE RESEARCH LEADS IN CONTEMPORARY NEUROCHEMISTRY. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 136 (13) DOI: 10.1001/jama.1948.02890300016005

Yerkes RM. (1921). THE RELATIONS OF PSYCHOLOGY TO MEDICINE. Science 53(1362):106-11.

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At March 12, 2013 1:29 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

Interesting post. A related question is when the medical discipline of "neurology" was first recognized...?

I think there was a period when people used "neurology" to refer to what we call "neuroscience"...

At March 12, 2013 1:54 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks. The Journal of Comparative Neurology began publication in 1891. I think of it as a premiere neuroanatomy journal. It's not clinical at all. The very first issue had an editorial on The problems of comparative neurology:

"The problems of neurology resolve themselves into the purely structural investigation, which appeals to microscope and microtonic, and physiological questions involving a knowledge of the behavior of the living cell under the most diverse conditions, as well as of the laws of composition of function clue to their interaction. Yet a higher class of problems, which properly transcend the sphere of neurology, as of all purely observational science, respecting the relation of body and mind. can never be wholly ignored."

At March 12, 2013 6:40 AM, Anonymous isabelle desjeux said...

What a fabulous post. Starting with that quote! I'd say it blew my mind. Literally. But that wouldn't be neuroscience anymore - neurogarbage more like. You keep on amazing me.

At March 12, 2013 10:46 AM, Anonymous Bora Zivkovic said...

Also interesting to see analysis of the literature and emergence of Neuroscience as its own discipline separate from Physiology etc.:

At March 12, 2013 4:01 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

isabelle - Thank you very much for the kind words.

Bora - And that's just 1997-2007! I knew this post would either be idiosyncratic and incomplete or sprawling and never-ending. The PLOS ONE paper you linked, for instance, cited this 48 page paper by Cowan, Harter & Kandel (2000) in the Annual Review of Neuroscience (which I had not seen before):

The Emergence of Modern Neuroscience: Some Implications for Neurology and Psychiatry

At March 14, 2013 6:45 AM, Blogger Börje Peratt said...

Just found your blogg. And is fascinated. My project On the Origin of Consciousness" has resulted in two books the third yet to come. I have tried to translate the core themes in a blog

and also would like to translate my books from Swedish. Regarding psi I refer to it as "Independent senses" and that gives us an independent consciousness probably impossible to detect by the means and methods of todays neuroscience.

All the best Börje


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