Visualizing the brain vs thought

Vesalius, the great anatomist of the sixteenth century, insisted in De humani corporis fabrica, that the physician had to do investigations in the physical realm of the human body. He criticized Scolastics to say say things about for example the brain, about which they knew nothing. Scholastic natural philosophers, dealing with the brain in the context of De Anima, however, also wanted to stay in the physical realm. But how different was their notion of how to investigate the materiality.

Caput physicum: top left. Basel F VI 19

Caput physicum: top left. Basel F VI 19

The scholastic images visualize the external and internal senses, cooperating to obtain and process sensorial information. The sensory powers are in the organs of the ear, eye, tongue, skin, and nose, transporting spirits filled with information to the first of the inner senses, the common sense. The inner senses are situated in the ventricles, and are organic. The title caput physicum in several manuscript diagrams remind us that the draughtsman insisted on staying within the physical realm. He thus neglected the inorganic intellect.

Vesalius' de corporis humani fabrica. fig. 4. creative commons

Vesalius’ de corporis humani fabrica. fig. 4. cc.

Vesalius also insisted in staying within the physical realm, and had the brain tissue and a topography of the different organic parts visualized. Although he announced the brain as the seat of the sensitive faculty and the sensory organs (introduction to Book 7), he refused to say anything about which might be in the ventricles (Book 7, chapter 6: about the ventricles), and what their function is — dismissing cognitive functions as out of his jurisdiction. He does however speak about spirits into the cavities, coming from the heart — a scholastic (antique even) notion responsible for communicating between the heart and the faculties, and movement.

Both draughtsmen visualized the physical part of brain, but they do not have the same approach, nor the same topic, or the same artistic style.


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