Spirits, Brains And Minds
The Historical Evolution of Concepts on the Mind

Ramon M. Cosenza, MD, PhD

Nowadays, even lay people know that the brain is the organ that controls behavior and mental skills. Educated people also know that chemical and electric phenomena lay behind the functioning of the nervous system. However, all this knowledge is quite recent and during many centuries what people considered to be true about the functioning of the brain was completely different from what we know today.

Mankind has been linking mind to the brain the for a long time. Human skulls with holes deliberately made in them were found in sites more than 10.000 years old. Probably, those holes were made in order to grant a way out for the bad spirits that should be tormenting those brains [4].

The link between brain and mental functions was a natural one to achieve, because primitive people in all ages could easily observe that strong blows to the skull resulted in loss of consciousness and of memory, and even convulsions, which often led to significant alterations of perception and behavior.

The best and most important documental proof about this knowledge comes from the famous Surgical Papyrus, discovered by archeologist Edwin Smith [6], and which was written around 1.600 BC in Egypt. It contains the first known descriptions of cranial sutures, the external brain surface, brain liquor (CSF) and intracranial pulsation. Its author describes further 30 clincal cases of head and spine trauma, noting how the several brain injuries were associated to changes in the function of other parts of the body, especially in the lower limbs, such as hemiplegic contractures, paralysis, miction and ejaculation and priapism, due to trauma inflicted to the spinal medula.

Skull trepanning carried out in South Americal (Inca site)

A segment of Edwin Smith's Surgical Papyrus

Brain and Mind in Antiquity

In our culture, Alcmaeon of Croton (5th century B.C) was possibly the first one to put in the brain the site of sensations. According to him, the optic nerves, supposed to be hollow, carried the information to the brain, where each sensory modality had its own localization.

During the fifth century B.C., Democritus, Diogenes, Plato and Theophrastus also indicated the brain as the seat  of the body’s activities. Also among the Greeks, Herophilus (335-280 B.C.) dissected and wrote about the brain, being the first one to describe its cavities, the cerebral ventricles, which he associated with mental functions. This idea, as we shall see, would become very important in the “neurophysiology” of the forthcoming centuries.

Hippocrates (460-400 B.C.) who wrote a lot about brain’s diseases, stated that “Men ought to know that from the brain and from the brain only arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, grieves and tears”.

This is an amazing and forward looking statement, so modern as any neuroscientist could make today. It is surprising to know, therefore, that philosophers and physicians who came after Hippocrates, for many centuries thereafter, could make such a notable regression, by displacing the seat of mind to the heart, as we will see below.  






Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) diverged from his contemporaries and acknowledged the heart as the organ of thinking, of perception and feelings, whereas the brain was important to keep the body’s temperature, acting as a radiator. According to him, nutrients would go up through the blood vessels and part of them, a kind of garbage, would be cooled in the brain, being changed into a liquid, in a way that could be compared with what happens to water in nature, when rain is formed.

Aristotle was not the first to erroneously generalize a very old notion among all kinds of antique civilizations, that the seat of emotions was the heart. Even today we are still influenced by this, such as when we refer to a heart as the symbol of love, or when we say that we got a "broken heart", or we have a "heavy heart", or still when we say that we love something with our very hearts. "Knowing by heart", such as when we memorize something, has the same origin. All this probably comes from the fact that the sympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system is activated during strong emotions, causing a perceptible increase in heart rate and force of contractions. The temporal association of effect to its cause in its peripheral expression has led to the erroneous interpretation, which the natural philosophers tried to "explain" in scientific terms.

Anyhow, the famous Roman physician Galen (130-200) rejected Aristotles’ ideas, arguing that there were no sense in believing that the brain could cool the passions of heart. Galen dissected a lot (the animal of choice was the ox) and paid more attention to the meninges and cerebral ventricles than to the brain itself. In those days, working with unfixed material, it is only natural that the ventricles would call more attention than the brain, that would resemble an amorphous paste.


For Galen, the nutrients absorbed in the guts went to the liver, where the natural spirit was formed. This spirit was taken to the heart and, in the left ventricle, was changed into a vital spirit. The vital spirit, going through the carotid arteries, would reach the rete mirabile, a net of vessels localized in the base of the skull. There, it was blended with the inspired air, forming the animal spirit, that was stored in the cerebral ventricles, from where  it could reach the rest of the brain. The animal spirit, a product of the mixture of a liquid and the air, was considered as the essence of life and the source of intellectual skills. When necessary, it could travel along the hollow nerves, eliciting movements  or mediating sensations.

According to Galen, the substance refined in the rete mirabile  would produce a certain  amount of refuse, part of which was gaseous, the other part being liquid. The gaseous part escaped through the bone sutures and air sinuses of the skull, and its passage was not perceived by the senses. The liquid part leaked from the anterior ventricles to the openings of the cribiform plate of the ethmoid bones or, yet, from the third ventricle through the pituitary fossa. From there, it could reach the nasal cavity to be discharged as plhegm, or mucus.

Brain Ventricles and the Concept of Mind

Nemesius (circa 320), bishop of Emesa, a city in Syria, embraced Galen’s ideas and based in the cerebral ventricles the intellectual faculties. In his book “On the Nature of Man”, a treatise of physiology modeled on Greek medicine, it is said that the soul could not be localized, but the functions of the mind could. The cerebral ventricles were supposed to be responsible for mental operations, from sensation to memorization. The first pair of ventricles were the seat of the “common senses”. They would make the analysis of the information originated in the sense organs. The resultant images were carried to the middle ventricle, the seat of reason, thinking and wisdom. Then came into action the last ventricle, the seat of memory. Up to the Middle Age, the figures depicting the brain would show the ventricles with great detail.

The idea that spirits wandered  in the ventricles, favored by the Church, prevailed  up to the Renaissance.  In a book published in the thirteenth century, named “On the Properties of Things”, a compilation made by Bartholomew the Englishman, it is stated that “the anterior cavity is soft and moist in order to facilitate association of sensual perceptions and imagination. The middle cell must also be warm, since thinking is a process of separation of pure from impure, comparable to digestion, and heat is known to be the main factor in digestion. The posterior cell, however, is a place for cold storage in which a cool and dry atmosphere must allow for the stocking of goods. That is why the cerebellum is harder, i.e. less medullary and airy, than the rest of the brain”.

Leonardo da Vinci

Therefore, for many centuries, three ventricles were described, and the lateral ventricles were seen as only one. Leonardo Da Vinci (1472-1519) who was a customary dissector, depicts in his illustrations the two lateral ventricles and not a single one. Da Vinci was convinced that the senses should be localized in the middle ventricle (third ventricle), because to its neighboring come together many of the cranial nerves.


Brain ventricles, as drawn by Leonardo
da Vinci

The cerebral ventricles, as depicted in Hieronymus
Brunschwig’s book, published in 1525. Note that
vision, taste, smell and hearing were
connected to the anterior ventricle..
Only in the sixteenth century, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), author of the monumental treatise of anatomy “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”, rejected the theory of ventricular localization of mental skills, arguing that other mammals (like the ass) had the same anatomical organization but not the equivalent intellectual capacities. However, he continued to give credence  to the ventricles as a place for storage of animal spirits, from where they would depart, following the nerves,  to reach the muscles or the sense organs.

Andreas Vesalius

Cover of Humanis Corporis Fabrica

A Brain dissected by Vesalius

Descartes, Brain and Mind

During the seventeenth century, spirits still commanded behavior. At that time Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had chosen the pineal body, not properly as the seat of the soul, but as the place of its activity. The pineal was picked because it is a single organ, unlike the other brain structures, that come in pairs. Descartes’ neurophysiology was independent of neuroanatomy, which he deliberately ignored. It was based in the animal spirits, pores and ways by means of which they flew to exert their actions. According to him, the “most active and quickest particles of the blood” were taken by the arteries from the heart to the brain, where they were transformed in a very subtle air or wind, a very pure and active flame: the “animal spirits” [5]. The arteries were supposed to come together around the gland localized at the center of the brain: the pineal.

Descartes presumed that filaments in the nerves (supposed to be tubes) could move little valvules, opening pores that would allow the flowing or the animal spirits. A stimulus  in the skin, for example, would move those filaments, inducing a contraction as a reflex response. Starting in the brain, the animal spirits wold travel along  the nerves up to the muscles, inflating them to cause movements. That would be the mechanism for voluntary acts.

A reflex response according to Descartes’ physiology. The fire elicits movement of animal spirits in hollow nerves. The movement opens pores in the ventricle (F), letting flow spirits that will inflate the muscles of the leg,  that moves away from the heat.

A drawing from the book by Rene Descartes, De Homine, published in 1662. Visual information is taken to the brain by hollow optic nerves. From there, it reaches the Pineal body (H), which regulates the flowing of animal spirits into the nerves. The spirits will go to the muscles of the arm, to produce motion.

External stimuli should open pores in the brain and the spirits would be carried to the pineal gland, which had in its surface a complete sensorial and motor map. The will was under pineal’s control, which could manage the flow of the animal spirits into different nerves.

Sleep and wajing, according to Descartes (1662), would depend on the flow of animal spirits in the brain, which were regulated by the pineal gland (H).  In the upper drawing, there is a small flow of spirits and the brain is is an "flacid state" during sleep. The lower drawing represents the state of awakeness, when the greater inflow of spirits distents brain matter.

Diversity of sensations would be explained by the manner that the pores were open. A strong stimulus, for example, would cause pain. A uniform stimulation of many fibers in the skin would be felt as a smooth surface. The irregular stimulation would cause a feeling of a rough surface.

According to Descartes, the animal spirits could dilate the brain, just as the wind acts on the sails of a boat. This action would wake up the brain and allow reception of sensorial information. The absence or small intensity of  the animal spirits would induce sleep and dreams. The animal spirits were also the base for his theory of a cerebral localization of movements and sensations. Each person’s distinct temperament and natural skills should be due to differences in number, size, shape and movement of the animal spirits.
  Bioelectricity and the Neuronal Dogma

The belief in animal spirits travelling along the nerves, born among the Greeks, remained current up to the eighteen century, when the electric nature of nerve conduction was verified. For that, it was important the work of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) and, in the following century, the work of Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818-1896). Du Bois-Reymond made his studies on nervous transmission in the 1840 decade and in the 1870 decade he proposed that the effector organs were excited by the nerves via currents or by means of chemical  substances liberated by  the nerve endings.

Luigi Galvani

Emil Du Bois-Reymond

The nineteenth century brought the acknowledgment  that brain’s tissue was important for nervous functions. Theodor Schwann (1810-1882), who described the myelin sheath, was the first to propose that the body is made of individual cells. His cellular theory was accepted for the whole body, with the exception of the nervous system, that was supposed to be made of cells whose branches formed a continuous net.

Only after the discovery of the staining method of silver impregnation of nervous elements (Golgi method) an accurate analysis was possible, introducing the works of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934) who affirmed, in 1889, that the nervous cells were isolated units. Wilhelm von Waldeyer (1836-1921), in 1891, coined the term “neuron” to designate the anatomical and functional unit of the nervous tissue. Finally, spaces in the junctions between nervous cells or between nervous and muscular cells were described by Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952). Sherrington gave these structures  the name of  “synapses”.

Theodor Schwann

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Camilo Golgi

Charles Sherrington

Wilhelm Waldeyer

As can be seen, only in the last three centuries the advancement of knowledge set free our brains and minds of the haunting spirits created by our ignorance.  


  1. Blakemore, Colin  Mechanics of the Mind. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  2. Finger, Stanley  Origins of  Neuroscience, A History of Explorations into Brain Function. New York, Oxford University Press, 1994.
  3. Milestones in Neuroscience Research.
  4. Sabbatini, R.M.E.: The History of Psychosurgery. Brain & Mind, 2 (1997)
  5. Sabbatini. R.M.E.: The Discover of Bioelectricity. Brain & Mind, 6 (1998).
  6. Wilkins, R.H. - Neurosurgical Classic-XVII. Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. Journal of Neurosurgery, March 1964, pages 240-244
  7. Poynter, Frederick N.L.(Ed.)  The History and Philosophy of  Knowledge of The Brain and its Functions: An Anglo-American Symposium, London, July, 1957. Springfield, Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1958.

The Author


Dr. Ramon Moreira Cosenza, MD, PhD

Dr. Ramon Cosenza is a physician, with a doctorate in anatomy, who is a former professor of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. He teaches and consults in clinical neuropsychology in Belo Horizonte. Dr. Cosenza is the author of numerous scientific papers in his research and clinical areas and has authored a book on the Fundamentals of Neuroanatomy, published in 1998 by Guanabara-Koogan.
To contat the author:
Email: cosenzar@brfree.com.br  

Published on 31.December.2002
Copyright 2002 Universidade Estadual de Campinas
Brain & Mind Magazine
Center for Biomedical Informatics