Dostoevsky – prescient neuroessentialist

Neuroessentialism, for those who have not followed my discussion of the topic in these pages and elsewhere, is the position that we are our brains. That is not to say that we are not also our genes, our bodies, our social networks, or even our computers, if one considers the extended mind hypothesis – we are all those things too. Rather the part of me that I care the most about is my brain (no offence Woody) – that three pound mass between my ears that contains my memories, my emotions, my intellect, my world view and more. Much much more.

Steven Pinker, writing in The Blank Slate, serves up a version of this perspective by referring to Francis Crick’s book The Astonishing Hypothesis in which Crick suggested that “all our thoughts and feelings, joys and aches, dreams and wishes consist in the physiological activity of our brain.” Pinker quite correctly points out that “Jaded neuroscientists, who take the idea for granted, snickered at the title.” I distinctly remember doing just that back in 1994 when Crick’s book first appeared, wondering to myself “What’s so astonishing about that?” Or, as I am wont to say when discussions touch on the topic arise in the conference room the Core, “If X (choose your phenomenon – love, hate,  rationality, irrationality – the list goes on and on) does not derive from the activity of the brain, what else might cause it?” That usually evokes deathly silence (and some not-so-friendly glares from those who find the concept unsettling).

In the next paragraph, though, Pinker does astonish me, pointing out what Fyodor Dostoevsky describes in The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1880 (!!).  In one notable scene, Dmitri Karamazov is gobsmacked by what he has just learned from Mikhail Rakitin,
a seminarian who visits him while he is in prison.

Imagine: inside, in the nerves, in the head—that is, these nerves are there in the brain . . . (damn them!) there are sort of little tails, the little tails of those nerves, and as soon as they begin quivering . . . that is, you see, I look at something with my eyes and then they begin quivering, those little tails . . . and when they quiver, then an image appears . . . it doesn’t appear at once, but an instant, a second, passes . . . and then something like a moment appears; that is, not a moment—devil take the moment!—but an image; that is, an object, or an action, damn it! That’s why I see and then think, because of those tails, not at all because I’ve got a soul, and that I am some sort of image and likeness. All that is nonsense! Rakitin explained it all to me yesterday, brother, and it simply bowled me over. It’s magnificent, Alyosha, this science! A new man’s arising—that I understand. . . . And yet I am sorry to lose God!

Dostoevsky’s contemporary Nietzsche gets most of the credit for presenting cogent arguments that “God is Dead”, and to be fastidious about the issue, the neuroessentialist position is both agnostic and irrelevant with regards to the existence or non-existence of a deity. The key observation, in my opinion, is that Dostoevsky recognizes the incompatibility of Dmitri’s neuroessentialist perspective with ensoulment. By describing his sense of loss with regard to God at the end of the conversation, Dostoevsky presents his thesis delicately, but his light touch does nothing to reduce the impact of his argument.

Dostoevsky was epileptic, and this may be why he was interested in how the brain worked (and also how it did not). But try as I might, I have not been able to find reference to how Dostoevsky might have gained this particular insight – his influences seem to have come from a broad range of thinkers, but none of them would seem to have the requisite knowledge about the brain to enable his budding neuroessentialism. Nor, as near as I can tell, would anyone else in 1880. To put this passage in context, Santiago Ramón y Cajal did not develop the neuron doctrine until the late 1880’s and Charles Sherrington’s Integrative Action of the Nervous System was not published until 1906, to cite the two most influential thinkers about the brain who could be considers Dostoevsky’s contemporaries.

If there is an earlier example of strong neuroessentialist thinking out there, I would be delighted if readers would alert me. If not, Fyodor gets the prize!!


4 thoughts on “Dostoevsky – prescient neuroessentialist

  1. Terrific question. A few comments. This past year, in teaching a brain-function overview to first-year med students, I used partial sensory seizures as primary evidence that the brain is responsible for perception, with the assumption that focal epileptic activity reflects abnormal activation of cell assemblies.

    A fascinating, and tractable question is what Dostoevsky thought of his epilepsy. I’d be surprised if he didn’t think of it deeply.

    In reconstructing a time-line, I think you should consider and investigate Hughlings Jackson. He is famous for describing the “march of epilepsy”. I don’t know if subscribed to a version of the neuron doctrine, but he seems to have understood the fundamental relationship between seizures and brain. Although younger than Dostoevsky, there lifetimes overlap. Jackson was famous by 1869 (when he lectured the Royal Society according to Wikipedia), 11 years before the publication of the Brothers K.

    • That is a great suggestion John. Not only would Hughlings Jackson fit the appropriate timeline, but he also has such a cool name….

  2. Pingback: Neuroscience in the public sphere | Neuroethics at the Core

  3. If you read or re-read the book you will find the direct reference. A few pages before this quote, if i’m not mistaken.

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