Wilder Penfield, F.R.S.C.*
Science, the Arts, and the Spirit **
TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA /SERIES IV/ VOLUME VII I 1969
MONTREAL NEUROLOGICAL INSTITUTE REPRINT NO. 998
This is a varied company of scholars and scientists, individualists - The Royal Society of Canada/La Société royale du Canada. Each of us, no doubt, is devoted to the common cause - the pursuit of truth - but each makes his own peculiar approach. The motto on the Society’s crest, eodem diversis nitimur studiis, assumes this to be true, if I read the Latin right. Toward one goal we strive, however varied the studies.
Real artists, those dedicated to art and not to a narrowness of self-expression, seek the truth as well as we. They should feel at home in our fellowship. And it is good to know that more real artists than usual are attending our annual meeting this year. When we elected to hold it in the National Capital on the occasion of the opening of the National Arts Centre, it was, I hope, with that in mind. But there may well have been other reasons, for the time has come when the Royal Society should play its role of national leadership more effectively. Suddenly, this nation has entered an era of strident protest like other nations in the democratic world. This is a period of revolt by militant minorities, a time when the conservative, God-fearing folk, who will, I believe, always form the majority, must be on the alert to defend society’s strong establishments.
Vigilance and a steady hand on the controls are the price of safe passage to a saner, safer era. Understanding, followed by wise conclusion, must be the nation’s guide, and this unique Society, which includes both the arts and the sciences, could give a greater service to the Canadian govern-
* Montreal Neurological Institute.
** An address delivered to the symposium on “The Arts and Sciences in an Age of Technology” held in Ottawa in conjunction with the opening of the National Arts Centre, 2 and 3 June 1969.
ment - in ways of practical organization and consultation, as the Royal Society does in London and as the academies do in France, the USA, and the USSR. Let the Canadian government now raise its support to an entirely new level. We could be organized for national service as well as for stimulating discussion. The strength in this Society is waiting to be harnessed. Now, I shall turn to the topic of this symposium, “Science and the Arts.”
There is in the world today a crying need for distant perspective. It is my purpose, therefore, to view science and the arts from a distance, discussing the frontier-boundary that separates them. There is another frontier I propose to examine as well. It comes between the mind and the brain of man. And these two frontiers are not unrelated.
Professor Dolman of Vancouver, who planned this symposium, hoped, as he expressed it, that the speakers would “personify and expound the doctrines of the many-sidedness of truth and reality, and of the versatility of human talents.” He may be sure that scientist, scholar, and artist alike will grant at once the many-sidedness of truth. “Great is the truth and mighty above all things.”
Science may be defined as knowledge of physical phenomena. The arts embrace all other forms of human knowledge. Thus, for the purposes of this discussion, the social sciences are not considered a part of science at all. They belong with the humanities, another word for the arts. By the spirit, I mean the mind of man. I am not referring to ghosts or superstitions or so-called extrasensory perceptions. To define man’s mind is not so easy. Indeed, this is the great unsolved problem to which I shall return presently.
Medicine, of course, deals with the whole man. It is partly concerned with the physical phenomena of the body, partly with mental phenomena, and so the medical profession must forever straddle, as best it can, the great dichotomies - that between the arts and the sciences and that between the body and the mind.
Language and the arts are old, but science, as we know it today, is relatively young. It is true that, in the fourth century before Christ, Hippocrates founded medical science, defying the unprovable hypotheses of the philosophers, and Aristotle, shortly afterward, formulated natural science. But, in both cases, this was observational, not experimental science.
The whole course of history might have been changed, as Sir William Osler once remarked, had the Greeks discovered the experimental method. It is amusing to reflect on this remark. The brain of the Greek was every bit as good an instrument as that of the Canadian, the Russian, or the Nigerian of today. Since the time of Galileo (only a little over three centuries) our scientists have transformed man’s whole way of life, using the experimental method. In an equal length of time, the Greeks might well
have mechanized society before the coming of the Roman Empire. Motor traffic would then have rumbled out over Roman roads, and radio might have brought the news that Julius Caesar was crossing the Rubicon!
Would experimental science have saved Roman civilization from decadence? That is a question to ask and answer today. I think not. But there was at hand a new philosophy that might have done it. It was being taught in its purest form in the early days of the Roman Empire by bands of hardy Christians: “Love ... thy God ... and ... thy neighbour as thyself.” Unfortunately, this basic Christian precept did not reach the Roman populace. It did, however, go out over the Roman roads to our barbarian ancestors. It did live on in the minds of men. It echoed down to us, with changing ecclesiastical overtones, through the dark centuries that followed the fall of Rome.
Other things came down to us and were picked up during the renaissance of Greek and Roman learning which began in Europe during the fourteenth century after Christ. The arts revived - law, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, poetry, and athletics. But, it was not until the seventeenth century that man seemed to stumble on the talent the Greeks had missed.
In the year 1616, William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, died. At last, after a lapse of two thousand years, the arts in Europe had come abreast of the arts of ancient Greece! In that same year, the Church challenged the new science. The Copernican system, it was announced in the Papal Court, was “dangerous to the faith.” Galileo was summoned and forbidden henceforth to teach such heresy.
This, however, accomplished nothing, except to show that men in the Church had overstepped the boundary of the spiritual. Truth was on the side of science. Man had already been “dethroned.” He was no longer at the centre of a fancied universe created for his benefit. The earth was only a satellite. Men are used to the idea now, but it came as a shock to the people of Christendom.
Two hundred years later, man suffered another shock - Darwinian evolution. Man, “the wonder and the glory of the Universe,” had descended from nothing more lordly than a monkey! Only gradually during the next hundred years did people come to accept the fact. And, then, the final shock to society came in the twentieth century. Scientists dared to create the atom bomb. Men saw with horror that it was possible to destroy mankind and that his civilization would go with him. During the four centuries since the experimental method had been introduced, philosophers and priests who had ventured across the frontier into this field of physical science had been subjected to a new criticism, sometimes to correction.
As a result of all this, people of today, the old just as much as the
young, are aware of a vast sense of confusion, and apprehension, and insecurity, and doubt. There is a tacit expectation that, since science has done so much, science will tell us what to think - about God and social morality and the beliefs that have brought men through their trials in the past. Men who are otherwise preoccupied with the business of living are wondering vaguely: “What is it that science has done to society?”
To gain the distant perspective we need, let us start at the beginning of time on this cooling planet: earth, water, and gas came gradually to occupy the relative positions they hold today. Something like two and a half billion years ago, life is said to have appeared - first in simple cells and then in plants, eventually in animals of ever greater complexity. This was the biological evolution of Darwin. Forms of life that could survive continued as they were. Many became extinct. New forms kept appearing because of some accidental genetic variation. The fittest forms of new life survived and branching lines of independent evolution developed.
Finally, some ten or twenty millions of years ago, the line that was to end in homo sapiens appeared. His origin, according to the fossil evidence, was probably due to variations in the line of the larger apes. These hominid newcomers on the earth, as LeGros Clark calls them, lost the pointed teeth of the ape. They stood erect on two feet and had hands more suited to the manipulation of tools than to the climbing of trees. Most important of all, the skulls of these ancestors of ours evidently housed a growing brain.
Brain enlargement, it is suggested, made possible their
survival in the highly competitive hunting conditions of Europe. Two types appeared. One of them, called Neanderthal Man
because of a skeleton found in a cave in Neanderthal Valley in West Germany, had
the largest brain of all. But for
some reason, now unknown, Neanderthal Man seems to have become extinct following
the last Ice Age, that is, about 50,000 years ago. The other branch of the family, with a
slightly smaller brain, was Man, modern Man. To sum up in the words of LeGros Clark:
“Skeletal remains of 30 thousand years ago [in France] are indistinguishable
from modern Europeans.” This
end-result was produced, he concluded, by man’s “adaptation to erect bipedalism,
rapidly followed by an accelerated expansion of the brain.” [1 ]
Now, if man has been what he is today for 30,000 years, what on earth has he been busy about all this time? One major achievement of tribal man was the development of spoken languages. This was of necessity a communal undertaking and it must have been slow. But man did it. He produced a different “tongue” in each of the different parts of the world.
The anatomical change responsible for this amazing step forward was
1 W. E. LeGros Clark, Antecedents of Man (Edinburgh: University Press, 1959).
the fact that additional areas of cerebral cortex, not committed to sensory or motor function, had appeared in the human brain. In this uncommitted cortex and in the new neuronal structures of the brain lay hidden man’s potential talents. In the newly added areas of the brain, the keys had come to hand with which he could open his future kingdom and make possible social and intellectual evolution.
Thus, mothers began to teach the slowly developing mother tongue to man’s children. They matured at a characteristically slow pace in caves and in the huts and the tents that man devised and fabricated with his clever fingers and strong arms. Teaching took the place of the instinctive race-memories that served other species on the earth. The morality and the discipline that parents had to demand in order to preserve those in the family circle developed quite naturally into the morality and the codes of law and the religious teaching of tribe and nation.
Writing is a relatively recent advance. It appeared only 5000 to 6000 years ago, about the time that the culture of wheat made city life possible in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The first writing on clay tablets had to do with trade. It developed rapidly from pictograph to alphabet. Discovery of how to navigate by oar and sail brought trade and communication to the Mediterranean and also farther away along the shores of India and China. This resulted in the building of seaports and provided a means for the spread of culture. Ancient Greece was composed of a hundred competing city states lining the Mediterranean shores.
Thus, to summarize, language had to be developed first and, with it, tribal intercourse. Then came writing, in the wake of urbanization. Culture was spread by commerce and conquest. Only then, three and a half to four thousand years ago, did man begin to make a usable written record in which his story can be read. History takes over from the buried sequences of fossil remains. From this time onward, the religious thinking of the Jews and the philosophy and art of Greece were saved for us. Although nine-tenths of the Greek papyrus manuscripts may well have been lost, what remained of these written records formed the basis of the reestablishment of the arts in Europe.
But look back again, for a moment, to the beginning of the long, long story of biological evolution. Form altered, developing along a rising scale from cell to plant to animal to man. But, somewhere on the way up, mind appeared. It is an accompaniment of life and form, something not easy to describe. Call it a self-awareness, consciousness, mind, spirit. Each thinking man must be aware of the existence of such a thing - in himself perhaps and in regard to his neighbour and the animals he knows best.
Man has survived through 30,000 years or so of existence, not because he was stronger than a lion or swifter than an antelope, but because of
his mind. During the past four centuries, since he discovered the experimental method, he has done more than survive. He has made himself the master of his fate. He has won back the right to be considered the centre of the universe, a universe that can be comprehended, not imagined.
This is the achievement of the mind in the field of science. Science, to repeat the definition, is knowledge of physical phenomena. Whatever the mind is, it is not like the physical phenomena with which science deals. To understand the mind itself and the world of thought and reason is a problem to be studied beyond the field of science, beyond the frontier, on the other side of the great dichotomy. Scientists will learn in time to understand the brain, but they have not begun to understand the mind. They have thrown no light on man’s instinctive urge to worship a God.
It is interesting that young Charles Darwin referred, in his journal aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, to “the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man. No one,” he mused, “can stand in these solitudes ... and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”
I have studied the brain in conscious men and women, using all the scientific approaches that a modern neurological institute can provide. I have talked with them in the operating room, using local anaesthesia. With the brain exposed, I have measured its electrical activity and stimulated functional mechanisms when it could serve the patient’s purpose. And all the while, these patients have used their own minds to help me understand. What have we learned about the nature of the mind and its relation to the body of man? Let me answer that question, as well as I can in few words, avoiding technical terms.
Consider a little girl - I shall call her Mary. Each of you has watched a child in sleep, no doubt - a wonder far more revealing than Darwin’s “primeval forests.” Call to her. You see her stir, open her eyes, look about. Then she looks at you, and smiles. You have wakened the brain, switching on her wide-awake mechanism. It is an electrical mechanism made up of living interconnecting neurone cells located deep beneath the cerebral hemispheres, most of it in the old brain. Fatigue switched it off when she went to sleep. The mechanism was completely inactive during deep sleep and partly active during her dreams.
Now, Mary has returned to consciousness. Her mind has come back. But the mind did not go anywhere. It was not, I suppose, floating in the room; nor was it perched on the roof. As far as anyone can tell, it has no shape, no weight. It occupies no space. But now Mary’s mind is active again. It is making contact with the environment of Mary’s body and doing it through Mary’s brain. The mind has continuity now with Mary’s past through the various memory mechanisms in Mary’s brain. The mind has established contact with you through Mary’s smile. The impact of the smile is real but cannot be expressed in the language of a physicist.
Here, we have before us the mystery: Mary’s mind is Mary-the-person. When Mary’s brain is awake and active, her mind takes charge and she directs the electrical action of certain mechanisms within the brain.
When the little girl awoke, she focused her attention on the environment. On recognizing that, she focused on you. When she focuses attention, she is using a remarkable brain mechanism and deciding what is to enter consciousness, what will be remembered by the brain, what will be ignored and leave no trace. Thus she begins at once to learn. To learn is to program, to program the other computer systems of the brain. I call them computer systems because they will act automatically later on. Ivan Pavlov, when he studied the learning of dogs, called this process conditioning. Mary selects what she will learn by focusing her attention.
And here are some curious and unexpected facts - although the brain keeps no record of the things the mind ignores, it does form a record of the stream of consciousness and makes other permanent recordings. Mary recognized you and so she smiled. When she leaves her bed and goes about the house, she will turn her attention to a hundred things, from words and concepts to skills. Many different mechanisms will preserve what she is learning. Some of these mechanisms can be controlled by her afterwards and be reactivated by the mind at will. Others cannot be so summoned, but they work automatically at appropriate times. Let us consider a simple example that is as familiar to you as it is to me.
A stream of consciousness flows steadily through a man’s waking hours. The philosopher William James compared this stream to a river. Like a river, its content is never twice the same. But the comparison is misleading. Man can and does control the stream to a considerable extent. He alters the content by paying attention to this or to that, but he cannot hold it still. The stream of consciousness must flow. A melody must advance to be a melody. Consciousness is like that. Corresponding with this flow, there is neuronal action in a special mechanism of the brain. I called it Mary’s “wide-awake mechanism.” It operates continuously until sleep returns, or an anaesthetic is given, or a blow “knocks out” the mechanism by concussion at the base of the brain.
Before I go on, let me add a word of explanation. It would be out of place in this discussion to attempt to describe in technical detail the brain mechanisms that form the physical basis of consciousness and thought. In 1966, Dr J. G. Howells invited me to do just that for his monograph, Modern Perspectives in World Psychiatry. I accepted his challenge for two reasons: first, because, when I retired as a surgeon and scientist in 1960, the records of my experience had not been studied adequately from that point of view and I longed to make a fresh critical analysis. That material, carefully preserved and amplified by my associates in the Montreal Neurological Institute, is, in some ways, unique. Second, it was my
growing desire to help the common man, including myself, to understand what science can, and cannot, explain about the mind, which men have so long referred to as the human spirit. The review, which my chapter in Howell’s book made necessary, was followed by a succession of scientific addresses and writings 2 to which the interested reader may refer.
Scientific study is steadily advancing our understanding of how neuronal conduction makes sensory information available within the brain, and how motor mechanisms send out patterned impulses that cause muscles to execute voluntary as well as reflex movement. We are beginning to understand something about the acquired mechanisms of speech and perception, the development of physical skills, memory, and other acquired talents. But the mind is not explained. It seems to be a phenomenon of another order. Somehow it is capable of reason, discretion, initiative, creative thought, considered judgment. Somehow, too, the mind can exert control over attention. Those things that are ignored leave no trace in the brain. The things that come within the searchlight of attention, and thus enter the stream of consciousness, leave engrams behind.
A dictionary definition of an engram is “the lasting trace left in an organism by psychic experience.” There are in the human brain different sorts of engrams, for example, the conditioned reflexes that account for the learned skills and also for the acquisition of speech and automatic perception. There is, too, another sort of engram which forms a continuous record of the stream of consciousness. A surgeon’s electrode applied to the interpretive cortex of the temporal lobe of a conscious patient, delivering a gentle electrical current, may activate this record. But the record is not in the cortex. The nerve cells in the cortex, under the electrode, are caused to send neuronal impulses to an area of grey matter at a distance, probably in the higher brain stem. This secondary area of grey matter then activates the record as though it were a tape recorder. The stream of consciousness flows again as in some previous
2. “The Neurophysiological Basis of Thought,” a chapter in Modern Perspectives in World Psychiatry, edited by I. G. Howells (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968). “Consciousness, Memory and Man’s Conditioned Reflexes,” the William H. Burton Lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 8 March 1967, published in On the Biology of Learning (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969). “Engrams in the Human Brain: Mechanisms of Memory,” Proceedings of tile Royal Society of Medicine, 61 (1968), 831-40. “Brain Mechanisms Related to Consciousness - Epilepsy Points the Way,” ix Congress of GABA-GABOB and Its Derivatives, Okayama, 8 November 1968; to be published in the Japanese Journal of Brain Physiology in 1969. “Epilepsy, Neurophysiology and Some Brain Mechanisms Related to Consciousness,” read in part by Dr H. H. Jasper at the Symposium on Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies, Colorado Springs, 19 November 1968, and published in Basic Mechanisms of the Epilepsies, edited by H. H. Jasper et al. (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1969). “Memory and Perception,” 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease, New York, 6 December 1968.
period of time, perhaps a period years earlier. Music is heard, people move and speak, and yet the patient is aware of his contemporary experience in the operating room as well, through his senses.
The situation in which he finds himself is not unlike that of one who sits at the theatre watching a play and whose attention alternates between the drama of past action and the whispered conversation of his neighbour. He is aware of both. He is free to attend to either one or, indeed, he may attend to neither and consider the abstract problem of how these things can be.
When a young South African patient cried out to me, as I stimulated his temporal cortex, that he was laughing with his cousins, he marvelled that he could hear them although he knew they were far away on a farm in South Africa. He was turning his attention to the wonder of this strange circumstance, then back to the evoked past experience or to the present strange experience in the operating room. The ability of the mind of that patient to direct the brain’s machinery of attention alternatively to the mechanism of sensory input, or the mechanism of the engram’s re-enactment, or to abstract wonder, without losing an awareness of all three, argues that the mind is something distinct - an accompaniment of a different order.
In all of our studies of the brain, no mechanism has been discovered that can force the mind to think or the individual to believe anything. The mind continues free. This is a statement I have long considered. I have made every effort to disprove it without success. The mind, I must conclude, is something more than a mechanism. It is, in a certain sense, above and beyond the brain. Although it seems to depend upon brain action for its very existence, it is still free.
The correspondence between mind and brain and the exchange that goes on between the two are problem-projects that will long be studied. Interchange is immediate. Information is delivered to the mind, although how the final delivery is made is still a mystery. The mind controls the brain, at least at times and in part, although how a command is translated into neurone potentials remains a mystery.
Clinical medicine throws some light on these matters. During certain types of epileptic fit, there is sudden selective interference with the mechanism that corresponds with mind (the wide-awake mechanism) although the nearby central-motor-control mechanism continues to function automatically. The result is that during these attacks (petit mal attacks or attacks of automatism) the patient behaves as an automaton. He may carry out some act in accordance with the program previously presented by his mind to that mechanism. Thus he continues walking through traffic, or playing the piano, or even driving a car for a short time. But it is all automatic. The mind can give no further direction. Consciousness is lost and the brain makes no memory record. The same is true during sleep, of course. But in sleep a man lies quiet because his central-motor-control mechanism has been switched off along with the mind’s mechanism. In sleep-walking, one may suppose that the central-motor-control mechanism wakes up but not the mind-correspondence mechanism.
What is one to say to the assertion that brain machinery has accounted for the mind, the spirit of man, and the idea of God? As far as I am aware, this statement has been made by laymen, not by scientists who have studied the brain. It is a philosophical hypothesis. One may call it a declaration of faith, and as such, it was incorporated into the doctrine of Karl Marx. It is a basic tenet in the creed of materialism, but I find no evidence to support it in studies of the human brain.
The early Greek philosophers based their explanations of the universe on just such unprovable hypotheses. The princes of the mediaeval church based their astronomy on the unprovable hypothesis that man was the centre of the universe. Today we have passed into the modern era in which the experimental method has given man knowledge and power in the field of physical phenomena. For anyone to venture across the frontier that separates physical science from the humanities, supported by nothing more than hypothesis, is to commit the ancient indiscretion of the philosopher and the ecclesiastic in reverse.
The nature of brain action is understandable. The mind is an accompaniment of the action in certain brain mechanisms. Some day men who see more clearly than we may conclude that the mental and the physical are differing manifestations of one basic element. Who knows? But, now, no scientist can explain the spirit nor can he fashion it directly through any physical mechanism. Scientist, social philosopher, and religious teacher must work on, each in his proper field, with a broad perspective.
Man’s being may well be composed of two fundamental elements. This offers, as Sir Charles Sherrington expressed it, “no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on one only.” Whichever way it is, philosopher and prophet must deal with the spirit. The honest scientist should not pretend to speak with authority beyond the frontier of brain physiology.
When we consider the arts and sciences in distant perspective, we must recognize the great dichotomy, the frontier that separates for us physical phenomena from mental phenomena. It separates the human body from the mind. It demarcates the field of science and the field of arts.
The common man, and that includes us all, can only adopt what he considers a reasonable faith by which to live and die. Biological evolution has come to an end for man. He can control it. The spirit of men has established a vast body of thought. Men must now learn to control social and intellectual and moral evolution.