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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Science and Nature

The Human Body - Man's Double Head and Spine or Three Brains

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -


The heart and its blood are the source of animal life in its lowest sense; that is, an animal may exist without even being conscious of existence, provided the heart is in action. We so exist in sleep, and in trances, and in states of insensibility; and our heart beats, and our lungs breathe, and our liver acts, and our stomach digests, whilst we are not even conscious of having a being. Perhaps there are many classes of animals which always live in this unconscious state – seeming to be alive, but without positive sensation.

It is the nervous system that produces sensation and a consciousness of it; and that begins to be developed, first in the back, or spine, and afterwards in the head. Those nerves, over which our will has no power, branch out from the spinal marrow, and give life and movement to the animal creature, and cause it to act as a piece of machinery without our co-operation. Did our breathing, our digestion, and our circulation of blood, depend on a continued series of acts of the will, it would be impossible for us to live; we should have nothing else to do but think of our life and its continuance; and the moment we thought of anything else, we should be checked at once with the fear of dying. Fortunately, all the vital movements are conducted for us, not by us; and we can afford to think, and even to sleep and forget ourselves entirely, without any interruption to our animal machinery. Indeed it is all the better for our forgetfulness, and receives daily refreshment from –

Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep.

This being the case, we need not be surprised to hear that any animal can live without a brain – not excepting man himself. Children have been born without a brain, and have sucked, and cried, and performed all the functions of animal life in infancy, with nothing more than a spinal marrow, the brain being entirely wanting. They seldom live long; but they have lived for weeks and months; and what is more, a man may have his brain removed and yet live, and in cases of protrusion of the brain from wounds in the skull, it sometimes happens that the protruding portion of the brain is cut away, and the patient evinces no sign of pain, for there is no feeling in the brain at all. It is like the saliva in the mouth – it is the medium by which sensation is communicated, but it is not sensitive itself. It is the sensorium, the very residence of sense and feeling; and yet it has no more feeling than a nail, or a custard, the latter of which it somewhat resembles both in thickness and softness.

This marrow in the brain is the top or bulb end of the marrow in the spine; and the more intelligent the race of animal, the greater the bulb. Some of the lower animals have none at all. In some a little higher it is scarcely perceptible; in fishes and reptiles is it very small. You could scarcely get your finger into the brain-case of a shark. In quadrupeds it is much larger, and in man it attains its greatest proportional development, he having a larger brain, compared to the size of his body, than any other animal.

But there are two brains, and each of these is double; and these two double brains are attached to the spinal marrow by four stalks, and thus the spine and brain look like a river branching out into four rivers, each ending in a brain. Two of these stalks come forward towards the forehead, and unite with the two hemispheres of the forebrain, or cerebrum, which is the largest of the two double brains, and the best divided into hemispheres. The other two stalks are shorter, and go backward, and unite with the back brain, or cerebellum, which lies low down at the back of the head; and it is where all these four stalks join at the top of the spine that the principal nerves of the will come forth and ramify into the body to regulate its movements. This large, or fifth stalk, which unites all the four, is called the prolonged marrow, medulla oblongata. It is a prolongation of the spinal marrow into the head, and it like a handle with which you might hold the two double brains on it by their four stalks.

When you cut into the little brain you find the white marrow ramifying itself into branches. This is called the tree of life by anatomists. The marrow of this little brain is harder than that of the great brain. The great brain is divided into two distinct hemispheres down the middle of the head, like the parting of a lady’s hair; so that the hand can easily go between them; and moreover, it is full of convolutions or risings, with deep openings between them, so as to increase the surface greatly, like the folds of drapery. The higher the intelligence of the animal, the greater the surface of the brain thus folded; for it is covered with blood vessels off over, like network, and thus a greater quantity of blood is circulated around it than if it had merely been a plain or smooth surface. The pulsations of this blood circulation keep it in constant motion.

What nerves are, and how they communicate with the will, is a mystery too deep to comprehend; but it is not unlike the electric telegraph. Nerves, however, are soft substances, not wires. The ancients thought them tubes, containing animal spirit, and some even still incline to that belief. Dr. Wilkinson speaks respectfully of it in comparison with the wire theory – he even advocates it. Nerves are probably made of the white matter of the brain; but they do not begin to be sensitive until they take the form of threads, and come out of the parent fountain at the base of the two brains and the top of the spine; hence the brain itself has no feeling whatever, though it sends the feelers out of its substance. The feeling is the result of the ramification of the brain matter into small threads; but without the small threads the feeling does not exist in the collective brain. That is the seat of emotion, a higher order of feeling; it is desire and thought, something superior to mere sense; but it makes for itself a network of sense-feelers, which it sends out to all parts of the body to collect information for it, in all the five degrees of communication with the external world. How this emotion, this soul, or spirit, can ensconce itself in this white custard of the brain is a mystery too great for us to comprehend; but it is not there alone, for it extends itself throughout the whole system by means of these nerve-threads, so infinitely numerous minute, that if they were to be taken out separate from the rest of the body they would present the appearance of a perfect nerve man, having the perfect shape of a flesh and blood man; but with this peculiarity, that whilst all the rest of his nerve body was exquisitely sensitive to the external impressions, the interior part of his head would not be sensitive to them; and whilst his head was the seat of spiritual emotions, his body would not be the seat of them; and yet, the one would so act in accordance with the other, that the pain or pleasure of the body would create grief or joy in the head, which would feel in a manner peculiar to itself all that the body felt, but would feel nothing at all in the manner the body felt it; for the one is positive and the other negative; and the head of the nervous system is just the reveres of the nervous system itself.

The same, to some extent, must also be affirmed of the two brains. There is a wise reason for two brains; they are not a mere accident. Every vertebrated animal has them; but the little back brain, or cerebellum, is first developed, and in the lowest class of vertebrated animals is almost the only brain perceptible. It is nearer allied to the animal in its function. Phrenologists say it is the seat of sexual love; some take a larger view of its functions, and make it the seat of instinctive impulse. Some affirm, from experiments made on birds and quadrupeds, that its function is to regulate motion, as birds deprived of it cannot fly, whilst they fly freely when deprived of the front brain. An animal deprived of its small brain, and laid on its back, cannot turn itself; but deprived of its large brain it can, and can walk and eat, though apparently idiotic. These experiments, however, the phrenologists rebut by saying that the small brain is so near the long marrow, from which all the nerves of the head ramify, that it is impossible to remove it without injuring them, and thus disabling the animal; but all parties agree in this, that the small back brain is more closely allied with the instinctive movement and habit than the large brain, and thus it happens that it is more continuously awake whilst the large brain sleeps, and rests, and leaves the body to be directed by its lieutenant. The small brain is the mate, that takes charge of the body when the captain is asleep; and even this has its second mate, which is the spinal cord that comes from both brains with all the nerves of the body, upwards of forty pair coming from it, which, with their ganglions or miniature brains form the crew of the vessel, and can really manage to work it, though not to very definite purpose, when both captain and mate are asleep. The top of the spinal marrow is within the skull; it is called the prolonged marrow, and serves the purpose of a third brain, uniting the other two. Its long tail is the spinal cord that reaches to the bottom of the back, and sends forth nerves, like the top, all the way down – animal nerves that act independent of the will.

It is remarkable that the most vital portions of the body, the brain, the nerves, and the blood, are the softest and most fluid; “the less living,” says Dr. Wilkinson, “as the tendons, ligaments, and bone, are the harder and the hardest; also that in the earliest stages of formation all things are fluid, and at the very beginning a fluid; and that hardness grows up by degrees, and plasticity ceases, old age consisting physically in stiffness, unyieldingness, and ossification;” “and moreover the triumphs of this age are peculiarly due to the introduction of the mind to the empire of the fluids. The steam-engine, and its nervous spirit, steam – the railway and its locomotives fluid, the train – the wire and its electric spirit show the practical benefits of the subordination of the solid to the fluid. And in human progress it is the fluid and the modifiable that give motion and impulse to the otherwise fixed.” The old fixtures are the bones of society, that have no power of self-motion; the moving principle belongs to the sphere of untrammelled freedom, which thinks, invents, urges, and at last accomplishes. Without this, all old things would last forever, like fashions in the East, which is all dry bone, with little soft flesh, and less brain.

The fore brain is softer than the little back brain. It is the most intellectual. It is the treasurer of ideas – it is the seat of memory – the recorder of events – it is the seat of individuality and its energies – the throne of man’s soul. Nature works for man in the back brain and spine, but in the fore brain man works for himself, cogitates and solves problems of thought. Therefore it occupies the foreground. It comes forward and seats itself on the very front of the head. The cerebellum conceals itself like instinct at the back of the head – the spinal marrow retreats to the back and descends to the lower part of the body; but the thinking brain towers up to the summit and front of the body in the midst of the principal organs of sensation. And what does it represent in the universal of historical man? It represents the present, which is the forehead of society, the thinking part of mankind. The past has done its work, but it has given an impulse which is still felt. And there are men who represents this past, and would perpetuate it if they could – conservatives in everything, like the men of the East; so that, like our honest Quakers, they would not even change the cut of a garment if they had their will; far less would they introduce reforms into Church or State, for they deprecate all changes whatsoever, and would be living now like ancient patriarchs if it had not been for the series of preceding innovators.

Such men belong to the past in spirit; they represent the back of the head. They are the men of routine and clockwork – the men of habit and custom – men of order and discipline. By their means the world goes on quietly, society is protected, institutions are permanently establish, armies levied, priesthoods organised, and defiance is proclaimed to every man who is given to change; useful men are these, with useful functions; for what would the world become if there were nothing settled and all were teeming with new proposals – all innovators; each man with a system of society in his head? It would be universal madness. This is the cure for it – the conservative element – the little back brain that represents the past.

But again, what would society be with nothing else but this – with no new ideas or no power to realising them – no reforms, no changes, no progress? We see what it would be in the Jewish nation. They are the very representative of this little back brain. They give the original impulse to European civilisation. Christendom came out of them; but they did not come along with it; they remained behind. And now they are so far behind that they are even incapable of becoming a modern nation; for civilisation could scarcely tolerate such a scene as that of sacrificing cattle in a temple, and making worship consist of bloodshed and roasting of dead carcases. It is the past. It remains in memory – it is translated into another meaning, and the impulse it once gave still continues; but it has changed its nature and come forward into the forehead of society. Some are more, some are less of the past; some are more, some are less disposed to innovation; but wherever there is mental energy there is the desire to improve and to change; and whatever does not admit of change for the better, is liable to corruption. It is good for the universal man as well as for the individual man to have an energetic forehead.

We have been anxious to discover the difference between the right and left side of the brain; but we have not been able to collect any facts very conclusive respecting them. There must, however, be a difference. The brain is not divided into two hemispheres for nothing. There must be as much differences between these two sides as between the right and left side of the body. But there is a singular fact which must not be overlooked in reasoning of it; namely, that many of the nerves from the right side of the head cross to the left side of the body, and vice versa; so that a person paralysed on one side of the body is generally paralysed on the opposite side of the head. The right side of the head then corresponds to the left side of the body. Phrenologist teach us that a man can think with one side of the brain when the other has lost the power of thinking, just as he can see with one eye. It is not to be supposed that he can think so well; and without either he cannot think at all, though he may live, and perhaps even speak instinctively as from habit; but the peculiar characteristics of each hemisphere they have not yet discovered. We know the use of two eyes, for with one eye only we should have a less perfect idea of distance. We see round an object with two eyes, and it is better relieved from the background. The two sides of the brain are probably alike useful, but it is scarcely possible to obtain a set of experiments to demonstrate the subject.

Disease, however, sometimes experiments for us, and the whole secret may very probably be revealed in madness….

Related link: Phrenology