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Part of the book series: History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences ((HPTL,volume 6))


From Platonic and Galenic roots, the first well developed ventricular theory of brain function is due to Bishop Nemesius, fourth century C.E. Although more interested in the Christian concept of soul, St. Augustine, too addressed the question of the location of the soul, a problem that has endured in various guises to the present day. Other notable contributions to ventricular psychology are the ninth century C.E. Arabic writer, Qusta ibn Lūqā, and an early European medical text written by the twelfth century C.E. author, Nicolai the Physician. By the time of Albertus Magnus, so-called medieval cell doctrine was a well-developed model of brain function. By the sixteenth century, Vesalius no longer understands the ventricles to be imaginary cavities designed to provide a physical basis for faculty psychology but as fluid-filled spaces in the brain whose function is yet to be determined.

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  1. 1.

    Galen (trans. Brock AJ1916).

  2. 2.

    Galen, De usu partium corporis humani, 1, 491

  3. 3.

    Galen, De usu partium corporis humani, 1, 491

  4. 4.

    Galen on respiration translators. Furley and Wilkie 1984, p. 121.

  5. 5.

    Galen is, in fact, somewhat undecided about how the pneuma psychikon makes its effects felt. In De locis affectis, book 1, chapter 7 (Siegel 1968, pp. 31–32), for example, he eschews the hydrodynamic model, and makes a comparison with the sudden strike of a ray of sunlight. This analogy resonates down the millennia and may be found in Islamic and Medieval texts and makes an appearance as late as the seventeenth century in Willis’s Cerebri anatome (Willis 1681, p. 127).

  6. 6.

    Indeed, a slightly earlier but less well-known version of tripartite ventricular psychology was published by Posidonius of Byzantium in the middle of the fourth century.

  7. 7.

    Nemesius, 8; in Sharples and van der Eijk, 2008, p. 122.

  8. 8.

    Darwin 1801, vol. 1, p. 28: ‘… our ideas are animal motions of the organs of sense.’ See, also, Smith 2005.

  9. 9.

    Nemesius, 2; in Sharples and van der Eijk 2008, p. 55.

  10. 10.

    See Bardy 1953.

  11. 11.

    An account of the debt Augustine owes to Vindicianus’ lost medical treatises is given by Agäesse and Sogignac in St Augustine’s Oeuvres, vol. 48, pp. 710–714.

  12. 12.

    Augustine, De genesi ad litteram,7, 13, 20; in Agäesse and Solignac, 1972.

  13. 13.

    Bacon 1620, p. 46, §199.

  14. 14.

    Augustine, ibid., 7, 13, 20; in Agäesse and Solignac, 1972.

  15. 15.

    Augustine, ibid., 7, 19, 25; in Agäesse and Solignac, 1972.

  16. 16.

    Augustine, ibid., 7,18, 24; in Agäesse and Solignac, 1972.

  17. 17.

    Letter to Jerome (transl, O’Daley 1987), chapter 4: ‘[the soul] is spread throughout the entire body which it animates, not through any local extension, but as a kind of vital tension.’ This idea is common in Stoic philosophy.

  18. 18.

    Augustine, De quantitate animae, XIV, 24.

  19. 19.

    Ibid., 32, §68.

  20. 20.

    The Latin translation of Qusta ibn Lūqā’s treatise was one of the set books in Natural Philosophy in Paris in 1234. A more comprehensive account of ibn Lūqā’s theory may be found in Lokhorst and Kaitaro, 2001.

  21. 21.

    Anatomia Magistri Nicolai Physici.

  22. 22.

    Manzoni 1998

  23. 23.

    Clarke and Dewhurst 1972

  24. 24.

    Bacon: Opus Majus: part V, chapter 2 (Bacon and Bridges 1897): ‘in the anterior part of the first cell is the sensus communis. This takes cognisance of, and distinguishes, the impression brought by each special sense. But it is unable to retain these impressions, being loose and slippery. In the back part of the same cell there is therefore the organ of imagination, which, being neither too moist or too dry, can retain and store up the material received by the sensus communis. Avicenna [he writes] cites, as an example, a seal, the image of which water readily receives but does not retain owing to its superabundant moisture; wax, however, retains the image very well owing to its tempered moistness with dryness. Wherefore, he says, it is one thing to receive, another to retain, as is clear from these examples.…

  25. 25.

    Albertus Magnus: Questions. IV, 9. (in Resnick and Kiitchell 2008, p. 163)

  26. 26.

    Is shape a material concept? It cannot be atomised! The idea that the sensory nerves carry images of the world outside to the brain is, in fact, very ancient and can be found in, for example, Hunayn’s Art of Medicine (c.850 AD) where he combines it with another Galenic idea: that sensory nerves are ‘soft’ whilst motor nerves are ‘hard’. Whereas the sensory nerves are flexible and thus can accommodate the imprints of sensory stimuli, the ‘hardness’ of the motor nerve allows a percussive force to be delivered via the contained animal spirit to the muscles (for further information see Smith et al. 2012).

  27. 27.

    See Marr 1976.

  28. 28.

    In 1484 the Florentine poet Luigi Pulci was denied Christian burial for declaring that the soul was ‘no more than a pine nut in hot white bread’ (Brown 2010, p. 11).

  29. 29.

    Variants of Reisch’s figure appear in many sixteenth century texts and were even used in some phrenological works as late as the early nineteenth century (Clarke and Dewhurst, p. 39).

  30. 30.

    It may be, of course, that this is no more than a typographical convenience. It is, nevertheless, to found in all the later sixteenth-century diagrams.

  31. 31.

    For information about Robert Fludd and the seventeenth century Rosicrucians see Yates 1972.

  32. 32.

    See Clayton 1992.

  33. 33.

    O’Malley and Saunders 1983, p. 338. Leonardo goes on to instance the attempts of Alchemists to turn lead into gold and the endeavours of Necromancers to communicate with the dead as leading only to the poor-house.

  34. 34.

    Letter, 1639.

  35. 35.

    In the first (1638) edition Plempius strongly disputed Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. By the time of the second (1649) and third (1654) editions he had, however, revised his opinion and become a strong supporter of the Harveyan theory. By this time he had fallen out with Descartes and included an appendix in which three theologians asserted that Descartes’ philosophy was incompatible with the Faith and that his system of medicine was dangerous to health.

  36. 36.

    Britol-Heperides 1990.

  37. 37.

    Lokhorst and Kaitaro (2001) who have made a careful study of Descartes’ sources conclude that his pineal theory is largely original with him.

  38. 38.

    Coleridge, Philosophical Lectures, 1818–1819: ‘Descartes was the man who made Nature utterly lifeless... and considered it as a subject for purely mechanical laws’. See Coburn 1949, pp. 376–378.

  39. 39.

    In a letter to his much admired Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia he writes that it is a waste of life to spend too much time over the problem (Descartes, June, 1643: in Anscombe and Geach 1954, p. 282).

  40. 40.

    See Smith 1998.

  41. 41.

    Augustine, De civitate Dei, 10, 26.

  42. 42.

    Kenny 1970, p. 83.

  43. 43.

    Quoted Crombie, 1959, vol. 2, p. 86.

  44. 44.

    Descartes 1633/1662, trs Hall, p. 202.

  45. 45.

    See Chaps. 16, 17 and 18, this volume.


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Smith, C.U.M. (2014). Beginnings: Ventricular Psychology. In: Smith, C., Whitaker, H. (eds) Brain, Mind and Consciousness in the History of Neuroscience. History, Philosophy and Theory of the Life Sciences, vol 6. Springer, Dordrecht.

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