How Evolution and Electricity Improved Brain Science

How Evolution and Electricity Improved Brain Science

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, scientists made groundbreaking discoveries in neuroscience, utilizing electricity, evolution, and their own senses to gain knowledge and understanding of the brain. Their tireless efforts have led to a remarkable transformation of neuroscience from a mere philosophical discussion between physiologists to a respected and established scientific branch. This article delves deeper into the pivotal discoveries in physics and biology that have significantly impacted neuroscience, and how these discoveries continue to influence our lives today.

The ideas in this article were inspired by the book, "The Idea of the Brain" by Matthew Kopp, which provides a comprehensive and captivating portrayal of the immense amount of research conducted in the field of neuroscience. This video would not have been possible without the guidance and inspiration of this book.

Electricity played a significant role in brain research in the 17th century, where experiments using electricity were common, especially in the study of nerve and brain function. Luigi Galvani, one of the pioneers in this movement, conducted a multitude of experiments that showed a connection between nerve functioning and electrical currents. He observed that muscles would react to an electrical current generated by two different types of metal touching a muscle at the same time. 

Galvani claimed that what he called "animal electricity" could be found in most parts of animals, but more specifically in muscles, and was the same force found in eels and the torpedo fish that had been studied for decades. He conducted multiple experiments that suggested that muscles could even react to a simple nerve.

Alessandro Volta, on the other hand, opposed Galvani's claims and argued that the muscle contraction observed by Galvani was simply due to external stimulation. He made this claim for both types of experiments that Galvani had conducted. However, as we know now, Galvani's observations were correct, though he was not aware of the exact reason at the time. To prove this, Volta made up something extraordinary: a battery. 

Using this new invention, he demonstrated how external electricity would generate responses in his senses. Unfortunately, he did not pursue further knowledge in this field, but his contributions had already influenced the 19th century neuroscientific research, where scientists used and abused electricity, even though clear evidence of its connection to nerve functioning was lacking.

It was then that the German scientist Emil Dubois Ramon demonstrated that electricity was indeed related to nerve functioning, despite opposition from others. Meanwhile, Hermann von Helmholtz, another German scientist, conducted research to uncover the speed of nervous symbols through multiple methodologies. Von Helmholtz calculated the speed to be around 30 meters per second, which perplexed researchers at the time as they did not yet realize that electricity was only part of the story when it comes to nerve communication.

During the 19th century, another significant scientific development that deeply influenced how people thought about the brain and its functionality was Darwin's theory of natural selection. Darwin's theory introduced a notion that humans were not different from animals in terms of brain functioning, suggesting that the difference in capabilities was a case of degree, not kind. This meant that humans simply possess a higher level of capacity, although the processes that lead to this could also be seen in animals.

This was such a disruptive idea that it generated a deep discussion regarding thought creation in the brain. Darwin and his followers, called materialists, argued that consciousness was a byproduct of the brain's working, which all animals were capable of possessing. In contrast, Darwin's critics argued that humans were special in this regard and that consciousness was not a product of the brain but something more akin to spirituality and outside of human comprehension.

To give you an idea of the extent of materialist thinking, Thomas Huxley, Darwin's biggest supporter, once suggested that animals and humans, by extension, were conscious automata. Drawing on the analogy born in the 17th century, this idea basically suggested that we would one day create a machine capable of having its own thoughts and consciousness. Through this, we would have a definite answer to this problem. It seems this prediction might now be closer to being proven true than Huxley himself could have imagined.

This argument gave rise to an existential crisis that only deepened after Darwin's death, with many scientists of the time beginning to wonder if we would ever be able to have an answer to this question. Despite all of the advancements in research and theories, it seemed that neuroscientific development had hit a wall, with further technology and evidence needed to surpass it.

In conclusion, neuroscience has come a long way since its inception as a philosophical discussion between physiologists. The pursuit of neuroscientific knowledge has led scientists to make use of electricity, the skull shape evolution, and even their own eyes. Their efforts mean that in less than 200 years, neuroscience has become a respected scientific branch. While there are still disagreements and existential crises, the field of neuroscience continues to evolve and impact our understanding of the brain and its functionality.

Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

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