Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World

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9780743230384: Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World

Soul Made Flesh is the remarkable untold story of a dramatic turning point in history -- the exciting discovery of how the human brain works. In an unprecedented examination of how the secrets of the brain were revealed in seventeenth-century England, award-winning author Carl Zimmer tells an extraordinary tale that unfurls against a deadly backdrop of civil war, plague, and the Great Fire of London. At the beginning of that turbulent century, no one knew how the brain worked or even what it looked like intact. By the century's close, the science of the brain had taken root, helping to overturn many of the most common misconceptions and dominant philosophies about man, God, and the universe. Presiding over the rise of this new scientific paradigm was the founder of modern neurology, Thomas Willis, a fascinating, sympathetic, even heroic figure who stands at the center of an extraordinary group of scientists and philosophers known as the Oxford circle. Chronicled here in vivid detail are their groundbreaking revelations and often gory experiments that first enshrined the brain as the chemical engine of reason, emotion, and madness -- indeed as the very seat of the human soul.

Called "as fine a science essayist as we have" by The New York Times, Zimmer tells the story of this scientific revolution through the lives of a colorful array of alchemists, mystics, utopians, spies, revolutionaries, and kings. He recreates the religious, ethical, and scientific struggles involved in the pioneering autopsies of the brain carried out by Thomas Willis; the discovery of the circulation of blood by William Harvey and his flight from London with his besieged king, Charles I; René Descartes's persecution by Catholics and Protestants alike for his views of the brain and soul; and the experiments and personal dramas of gifted men who forever changed the way science is practiced as they simultaneously upended our view of our human selves and our place in the world.

In this distant mirror to our own time of continuing scientific revolution and worldwide social upheaval, Zimmer brings to life the painstaking, innovative discoveries of Willis and his contemporaries -- the taproots of the amazing work of today's neuroscientists, who continue to explore the brain, revealing the hidden workings of emotions, memories, and consciousness. Graced with beautiful illustrations by Christopher Wren, Soul Made Flesh conveys a contagious appreciation for the wonder of the brain, its structure, its many marvelous functions, and the implications for human identity, mind, and morality. It is the definitive history of the dawn of a world-changing science and attitude -- the age of the brain and modern consciousness.

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Review:

In Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer reveals the strange and complicated history of the discovery of the human brain. Amid the turmoil of 17th century England, with religious leaders and monarchs battling for control of the country, an elite group of thinkers used every scientific means at their disposal to figure out that the unassuming putty in our heads was crucial to human health and wisdom. Primary among these Oxford scholars was Thomas Willis, whom the Royal Society affectionately called "our chymist." Soul Made Flesh is as much a biography of Willis and the men who shaped him as it is a medical history. Zimmer admirably sets the stage for what would become a metaphysical revolution and spark arguments that continue to this day about what the mind is and where, if anywhere, the human soul resides:

Thomas Willis... isolated the soul from stars and demons and made the chemical workings of the brain the key to sanity and happiness. Just as important, he helped make the brain a familiar thing.
Zimmer applies the same dedicated research and quietly sparkling style to this book as he did to Parasite Rex and At the Water's Edge, distilling reams of historical and scientific information into a concise yet comprehensive narrative. The book's chapters are accompanied by drawings by Willis' contemporary Christopher Wren, whose architectural sensibilities made the brain's structure beautiful to behold. --Therese Littleton

From the Inside Flap:

"Thomas Willis was the first man to come to grips with the human brain, to see how different parts of it had different functions, and how the human soul could be embodied in it. In Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer gives a remarkable, beautiful account of England's 'genius century,' and of the intertwined lives of Willis and his contemporaries, Harvey, Boyle, and Hooke. Zimmer brings Willis and his intellectual journey to life--his prose, as always, is clear, vivid, and arresting-- and reminds us how startling and revolutionary his discoveries were."
--Oliver Sacks "Today the idea that every aspect of human experience consists of activity in the brain is second nature to some people and an 'astonishing hypothesis' -- or even sacrilege -- to others. But few are aware of the ancestry of this idea. The Soul Made Flesh tells the fascinating story of how people first became aware of one the most radical thoughts the human mind has ever had to think. The writing is vivid and literate, the story compelling, and the modern implications drawn out with skill and verve."
--Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and bestselling author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate

"An uncommonly literate look at a little-explored side of scientific history, and a thumping good read at that."
--Timothy Ferris, author of The Whole Shebang and Coming of Age in the Milky Way

"Few writers can bring back the odor and the sense of time that is present during historic discoveries. Few can capture the extent of human ignorance that is present and is about to be illuminated. Carl Zimmer writes with a rare skill, a captivating skill that brings one back to that place. We all take the present so easily and naturally and yet each stone along the road to our present modern life was hard to find and to put in place. This is a must read."
--Michael S. Gazzaniga, PhD, author of Nature's Mind and David T. McLaughlin Distinguished Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience, Dean of the Faculty, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College. A member of the President's Council on Bioethics, Dr. Gazzaniga conducts research on how the brain enables the mind.

"Carl Zimmer clarifies and illuminates the story of a fascinating thinker who too often gets lost among the crowd of colorful geniuses who made up the early Royal Society. By focusing on a single player in the vast spectacle that was the Scientific Revolution, and telling his story so well, Zimmer gives us insights into the age when Alchemy, and even older systems of thought, gave way to modern science. But this is not only a history book, for readers with an interest in consciousness and the brain will find much here that applies to research going on today."
--Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon

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