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Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction

by Mitchell Glickstein
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
424 pp., illus. 52 col., 119 b/w. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 0262026805.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute


Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction conveys the sense that Mitchell Glickstein, the author, must be a wonderful teacher. His use of questions to introduce the book and specific subjects within the chapters prods the reader to engage with the subject matter even before he presents the details. Glickstein explains that his goal is to offer a biological history that will describe where neuroscience is today. To do this he presents key scientific events that explain how we know what we know, ending with the admonition that there is still much to learn. Thus, this is not a textbook summarizing our current knowledge so much as a look at the train of experimental and clinical observations that brought us to this point. Chapters also cover the traditional topics of the field, such as the structure of nerve cells, electrical transmission in the nervous system, chemical transmission and the mechanism of drug action, sensation, vision, hearing, movement, learning and memory, language and the brain, neurological disease, personality and emotion, the treatment of mental illness, and consciousness.

Generalists, and even specialists, looking for a good overview of neuroscience will find that Glickstein’s contribution is solid. In some ways, due to its comprehensive approach, Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction reads like an introductory textbook, but one with information about the historical foundations of current research added. Because Glickstein covers the field’s parameters, and the information is easier to absorb than when reading a tome such as Kandel’s Principles of Neural Science
(Kandel et al. 2013), readers seeking to learn more about the subject will definitely find it useful. Many well-chosen illustrations, diagrams, and title pages of significant historical works enhance its educational value, as do the photographs of key figures that help in introducing readers to the key players in the story. In addition, I greatly appreciated his inclination to translate the Latin names for areas of the brain, and I think others will as well. This feature makes sense of the strange names and, at times, adds additional history.

The downside of the book is that it is primarily focused on ideas from the eighteenth century on, with the nineteenth and twentieth century receiving the most page space. As an historian, rather than a scientist, I felt the history was too compressed. I missed the broader contextual integration, the social history, and the attention to collaborative work across disciplines that is generally defines historical coverage. Over the years I’ve developed a strong bias toward contrasting different periods of history, which perhaps makes it difficult for me to give this book its due because I conceptualize history in terms of histories (or paradigms) and see a value in contrasting the details across eras so as to more fully examine human values and the way human questions are re-mixed at different points in time. In other words, I like the messiness of technological innovations and methodological changes whereas Glickstein seems to prefer a story that appears to convey a more progressive delineation. Thus, Glickstein’s approach will work best for readers wanting to learn more about the roots of contemporary neuroscience than those looking for the kinds of integrative historical details and contrasts found in broader histories.

For example, Glickstein notes that the drawings Vesalius presented in the Fabrica illustrated how he would have done a typical dissection. Given how effectively these illustrations communicated his worldview and procedures, I would have like more detail about the circumstances surrounding them. Published in 1543, as Glickstein tells us, Vesalius’ revolutionary anatomical drawings “represented a new generation of scholars who were not content to repeat the thousand-year old anatomical descriptions but, instead, relied on their own observations” (p. 8). The Roman physician Galen (130–200 AD), who was not named in the book, was the authority and foundation of medical thought from the 2nd century into the Renaissance and the source of many of the errors Vesalius corrected (much as Ptolemy was the authority on planetary movements before Copernicus developed his heliocentric theory). Part of the reason that Vesalius was able to rectify some of Galen’s missteps was due to the easing of the laws of Imperial Rome, which forbade human autopsies. This legal restriction had significantly limited Galen’s experimental work. In other words, many errors in transposition came about because he was unable to perform human dissections and incorrectly inferred much from his studies of cattle, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, the Barbary ape, and other animals. He could have also mentioned the collaborative character of this work. Briefly, while we do not know for sure who did the drawings for all of Vesalius’ revolutionary books, we do know that Jan Steven van Calcar (c. 1499–1546), a German-born Italian painter, illustrated some of his books and often attended dissections with him.

Similarly, Glickstein includes a picture of the wonderful Willis Brain, published in Thomas Willis’ Cerebri Anatome (1664), but he does not say that Christopher Wren (1632–1723), one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history, was a part of the research team behind the book. Cerebri Anatome is the book in which Willis coined the term “neurology,” and its publication is generally characterized as the starting of “the long eighteenth” from a neuroscientific perspective. During this period (traditionally called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason) researchers embraced empirical methodologies that led to countless discoveries and major shifts as they re-visited earlier assumptions of the revolution fostered by the work of Vesalius and others. In this case, Willis and Wren were a part of an Oxford-based venture intent on deciphering the secrets of the natural world through observation and experiment. Their colleagues—William Harvey, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, John Locke and others—shared ideas and innovations methods (e.g., ways to preserve brain tissue, the microscope, etc.) that aided these natural philosophers in pursuing a quality of brain research that was unavailable previously, much as the fMRI does today. Though many of this group’s insights are outdated, their impact of their scientific endeavor overall is perhaps best encapsulated by saying that these were the figures instrumental in founding the Royal Society. My point is that this group’s frame of reference was distinctly different from that of Galen, as it differed from Vesalius, and also differs from contemporary perspectives.

As I was writing this review, I found myself deleting the notations about the earlier paradigms and then re-inserting them several times. Asking myself why I felt so inclined to mention them since they were not the author’s concern, I decided that, in my view, how we look at the history (or histories) of neuroscience has a great deal to say about who we are. Glickstein begins his book by saying that “we are our brains,” which is a comment I run across often and have often pondered because of the longstanding debates about how the individual and community fit together. What puzzles me is that neuroscientific theories are derived from studies of individual brains and histories are the stories of communities of people, who do not have generic brains. Although each of us is a part of the larger community, it seems obvious that generic brain results do not sufficiently address life in a comprehensive way. While it wouldn’t be fair to criticize Glickstein for not writing the book the way I would have written it, I do think it is important to recognize that this contribution is not a multidimensional history. For example, when the book introduced the impact of David Ferrier’s experimental work with monkeys in the nineteenth century and explained that this work furthered studies of brain localization, my mind immediately added the missing contextual details: this research landed Ferrier in court and mobilized the animal rights groups in London at that time. Those debates on what amounts to cruelty to animals are mirrored today, with some crying out against animal cruelty and others lambasting the forces trying to stymie medical advancement. While we are our brains, all of our brains do not work similarly as we engage with the human landscape, and this situation is particularly apparent when we contrast different eras and cultures.

Each individual reader will, no doubt, have his or her own sense of whether or not a broader vantage point is important when studying neuroscience. That said, all in all, Glickstein’s Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction is a readable history on the structure and function of the nervous system. The book’s strength is in outlining many specific observations and experiments that have taught us about the brain and spinal cord. Because the author asks many questions and includes more perspective than a traditional textbook, I think students and generalists will find it a useful text for learning more about contemporary neuroscience. I also think this volume will appeal to those eager to learn more about the neurosciences, particularly if one is not in a position to take an introductory science course to gain the basic knowledge. Those seeking a more variegated history may want to start with Stanley Finger’s historical treatment in Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function, which remains the gold standard, in part because it has more contextual information and is a more expansive survey. Finger’s book is a couple of decades old, so Glickstein’s book will serve as a nice supplement to it. Given the current emphasis on global perspectives, I should, no doubt, note that Glickstein’s book is largely a Western history. Those looking for a more on non-Western cultures may also want to supplement Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction with chapters from the History of Neurology: Handbook of Clinical Neurology
(Finger and Tyler 2010). Still, overall, and despite the limitations mentioned above, I do recommend Neuroscience: A Historical Introduction. It is a carefully written book that has information to offer anyone interested in learning more about the neurosciences.


Finger, Stanley. 1994. Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations Into Brain Function. New York: Oxford University Press.

Finger, Stanley, and Kenneth François Boller M. D. Tyler (eds). 2010. History of Neurology: Handbook of Clinical Neurology. 1 ed: Elsevier.

Kandel, Eric R., et al. (eds). 2013. Principles of Neural Science, Fifth Edition: McGraw-Hill Education.

Willis, Thomas. 1664/1964. The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves (Cerebri Anatome). Montreal: McGill University Press.



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