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Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Carl Zimmer
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 30 2003
Chronicles the groundbreaking revelations and experiments that first recognized the brain and how it works. The author describes Thomas Willis as the founder of modern neurology in the 17th century and describes him as a fascinating and even sympathetic figure in history. For consumers.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

The subtitle doesn't do justice to this illuminating book, which transcends the "history of X and how X changed the world" genre with a deep and contextualized exploration of two millennia's worth of human theories about consciousness and the soul. Zimmer, a columnist for Natural History and author of the highly praised Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, is interested in how philosophers and scientists moved from a view of the human soul as immaterial and residing in the heart to the common explanation of thought as having a material grounding in the brain and nervous system. His wide-ranging narrative reaches from the days of Aristotle to a 21st-century lab in the basement of a Princeton University building. The central figure in Zimmer's tale is the oft-overlooked 17th-century scientist Thomas Willis, a member of the British Royal Society and colleague of Boyle and Hooke. Willis, a figure of fascinating contradictions, was a conservative, religious royalist raised on a farm outside Oxford, who wound up working on the frontiers of science, as physician to the highest strata of London society and as an experimenter who helped found a new science of the brain. In the end, however, this book is less about Willis in particular than about the evolving metaphysics of the soul in general, and the reader is left with a better picture of the roots of the modern understanding of the self as well as a familiarity with one of the unsung heroes of the scientific revolution.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Every Renaissance history tells how seventeenth-century pioneer William Harvey finally solved the riddle of the heart. Yet even among anatomists, few know how one of Harvey's students--Thomas Willis--first systematically dissected an even more mysterious human organ: the brain. A gifted science writer, Zimmer recounts Willis' singular achievement in a narrative that illuminates not only the scientific revolution in medicine but also the cross-grained personality of one of the chief revolutionaries. Readers may marvel that Willis learned enough science to lead a revolution during an Oxford education disrupted by civil war and religious zealotry. But Zimmer recognizes how a few Oxfordians (including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke) instilled in Willis a deep skepticism toward inherited dogmas and a lively receptivity toward new ideas. Eventually, Willis turned one of those new ideas (a mere glimmer in the rationalist philosophy of Rene Descartes) into a fledgling new science: neurology. In language accessible to general readers (supplemented with illustrator Wren's wonderful drawings from Willis' original work), Zimmer details the groundbreaking research through which Willis mapped the brain and diagnosed its disorders. And beyond Willis' science, Zimmer adumbrates its radical metaphysical implications, which undercut moral and religious doctrines tied to the immaterial soul (doctrines in which, ironically, Willis himself fervently believed). A remarkable fusion of scientific history and cultural analysis. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Thomas Willis was not the first person to take the brain out of its skull. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing history. Jan. 19 2004
As a neuroscientist (someone who studies the brain but has a Ph.D., not an M.D.), I found this book disappointing. Zimmer's previous "Parasite Rex" about parasites (no? really??) and their role in evolution was excellent. But this book wasn't. The major player in the story Zimmer tells is Englishman Thomas Willis, the famous 17th century scientist. Trouble is, neither Willis nor the story of the "discovery of the brain" really appears in this 296 page book until page 175. (296 pages of text, that is). The first 174 pages is relatively interesting prologue describing the development of general medical thought up to Willis' time. But it has little to do with the "discovery of the brain".
When Zimmer finally does get around to Willis and the history of his discoveries, he's pretty good. But he still goes on way too many historical and medical tangents not really relevant to the topic of the book. Time and again, a topic that could have been delt with in a few sentences is given a page or so.
In the final chapter Zimmer argues that funtional magnetic resonance imaging is "the soul's microscope". This is a good analogy in a book on Willis. Unfortunately, throughout this final chapter, Zimmer uses "magnetic resonance imagery" (MRI) when he means funtional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI). There is a huge difference between the two - MRI shows tissue density while fMRI (of the brain) shows which brains areas are more or less active at a given time. In addition, there are several technical errors in Zimmer's description of how fMR imaging works.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Finding and treating the "soul" June 17 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Debates about the "soul" have raged for millennia. Because we tend to think these debates are confined to the realms of philosophy and theology, we ignore the contribution medicine has made to our perception of the "self". Carl Zimmer's examination of the debate and its significant participants enlarges our outlook. His depiction of the life of Thomas Willis in tumultuous 17th Century Britain reveals the pioneering research that lead to a new view of the body's functions. The "soul", so long a mysterious concept, began to be exposed in the brain and its relation to the rest of the body. The study of illnesses, particularly those associated with behaviour, disclosed how false traditional views truly were.
The ancients, Zimmer explains, had varying ideas about the body's workings. He summarises the many views, noting how certain ancient thinkers, particularly Galen, came to be adopted by Christianity. Once admitted within the Church's fold, their teachings became part of the established dogma. Orthodoxy substituted for observation, inhibiting learning. The number of lives lost is incalcuable, but dissent through evidence was perilous. Even the Greeks, Zimmer reminds us, considered dismembering cadavers distasteful. Real medicine was thus kept in check for centuries.
While Protestantism overthrew many dogmas, medicine remained a restrained science. The issue of the "soul", where it resided and how it functioned, remained an enigma. The stomach, liver and heart were all candidates for the home of the "soul". The brain was viewed as a "useless mass of grey porridge". Zimmer's illuminating study depicts the revolution Willis wrought in explaining the brain's central role.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterful Blend March 18 2004
Soul Made Flesh is a masterful blend of science, history and philosophy. Carl Zimmer weaves a fascinating narrative around an overlooked historical moment - the discovery of the brain - by looping back and forth through the centuries from ancient Greece to the new millennium while keeping his gaze fixed on 17th century England. As someone schooled in the classics, whose college curriculum consisted wholly of the Great Books, I found Zimmer's new book particularly satisfying to read. Soul Made Flesh is far more than a gallop through history. It goes well beyond identifying who was influenced by who, what I call the "connecting the dots through time" approach often conveyed in reverential tones by writers who have read only secondary sources of Aristotle, Descartes or Locke. Zimmer's book breathes life into the classics by allowing the reader to "overhear" Willis and his Oxford Circle peers examining, questioning and arguing about these texts even as they toil to expand anatomical knowledge beyond all previous bounds.
As I neared the end of Soul Made Flesh, I happened to read a Boston Globe Magazine interview with Andrea Barrett, author of The Voyage of the Narwhal and, like Zimmer, a gifted science essayist. I was struck by a passage in which Barrett talks about "the unspoken disappointment of science" - research stolen or lost, specimens left in sunken ships, a life's worth of work made irrelevant by changing times. "I think about [loss] a lot. It's a very, very real part of science, but it's not the part that gets passed down," says Barrett. "We know the stories of famous scientists, but we don't hear the stories of people working hard and passionately half a tier down." Barrett could have been talking about Zimmer's book as much as her own.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastically interesting book (with bad title)
After reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I came across Soul Made Flesh at the library. Yucky title, but an absolutely riveting book. Read more
Published on Aug. 9 2009 by Loris Lesynski
5.0 out of 5 stars Great History & Science
Zimmer makes history lively and science understandable. It's incredible how much of our current understanding of ourselves was first proposed by Dr. Willis and his colleagues. Read more
Published on March 11 2004 by Katherine Hamilton
5.0 out of 5 stars profound story, great writing
I couldn't put the book down; once begun it captured my reading time. The book covers the era when Oxford scientists truly realized that the brain was where we are at. Read more
Published on Feb. 20 2004 by Tyler Volk
5.0 out of 5 stars a must-read
Carl Zimmer is one of the finest science writers of our generation. This is an amazing peek into the origins of modern science. Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2004 by Howard Bloom
5.0 out of 5 stars Science with Soul
Soul Made Flesh is a marvelously nuanced and accessible work about a little-known moment in the history of science--the birth of modern neurology. Read more
Published on Feb. 17 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars Misnomer in title
I am sorry that you recommended this book to me. it is way off the mark of The Discovery of the brain. Read more
Published on Feb. 16 2004 by Martin Steele
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun read but I wanted more details.
This is a fun quick read, and the last chapter really makes you realize just how far we've come in the last few hundred years. Read more
Published on Feb. 9 2004 by amazon buyer
5.0 out of 5 stars Vivid, Informative, Engaging
Ravaged by religious wars and capricious monarchs (sound familiar?), 17th century England was a kingdom in chaos. Read more
Published on Jan. 18 2004 by Stephen Silberman
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