Medicine Macabre – Genius & Insanity

Genius can often come at the cost of deep rooted psychological disorders, and one such man, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), prophet of both theological revelation and neurological study, is such an example. In a fraction of the time that most researchers spend to make similar analyses, Swedenborg had predicted the function and value of the brain well over 100 years in advance of modern discoveries. Ignored by his peers, dismissed for all but his religious endeavors, the genius of Swedenborg is almost forgotten.

flourish editOf all the organs, the cerebral cortex remains the least understood, the least maintained, and my opinion, the least used. What is this strange wrinkled, intestinal-looking chunk of meat atop our flimsy frames? It can be surprising that even in the time of Emanuel Swedenborg it was still considered a largely auxiliary item, and the true home of our intellect, consciousness, motor functions and memories were still unknown, or assumed to reside in such lowly containers as the heart or stomach.

The many faces of making-medicine-up-as-you-go-along

The many faces of making-medicine-up-as-you-go-along

Many physicians still maintained the view of the ancients such as Aristotle that it was nothing more than a cooling structure for the blood. In a stunningly myopic display of deduction, it was also considered as the source for one of the ‘humors’, phlegm, I can only imagine due to it’s proximity to the nose and its seasonal effluence.

The perception of the cortex as a second-rate organ was further supported by studies performed at the time. In horrific experimentation performed on dogs, J.G. Zinn found that the cortex itself is completely insensitive to stimuli:

“Having cut out a small circular piece of of the cranium of a dog with a trephine… I pierced the exposed dura mater, touched it with a blade of a scalpel… the animal gave no signs of pain… having incised the dura mater, I cut the cortex into pieces, pierced it, irritated it, but the animal showed no sign of pain.”

emanuekEnter Emanuel Swedenborg. Born January 1688 by deeply religious and wealthy parents, he was guaranteed a lifelong income that freed him to pursue whatever intellectual pursuits he desired. He was no layabout however. In almost everything he studied he displayed remarkable aptitude and erudition, making important contributions ranging from fields of warfare, flight, geology, metallurgy and anatomy. He developed conceptual schematics of flying machines, machine guns and even submarines. What’s astounding about Swedenborg was not his capacity towards independent empirical research, it was more his ability to absorb the writings and studies of the time and reach his own original opinions and interpretation. Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Give a genius like Swedenborg access to all the academic books in eighteenth century Europe and they’ll pioneer neuroscience.

It was in his prophetic understanding of the human cerebral cortex that he most excelled. Having himself done no more anatomical study than dissecting a duck, he had yet an encyclopedic knowledge of the writings of the time, from which he integrated studies to form his own conclusions. Swedenborg’s writings between the short period of 1738 to 1740 on the importance of the brain completely flew in the face of anything previously understood.

Nerves - not just what you get when you've got a crush on someone

Nerves – not just what you get when you’ve got a crush on someone

Proclaiming in his book Oeconomia Regni Animalis, Swedenborg asserted the central and governing role of the brain in every function of the body, from memory, to sensation, to motor functions. Rather than blindly repeating the assumptions of original authors, even while crediting them, he surmised that the cerubella, the fibre-like structures emanating from the brain and stretching into attached nerves throughout the body provide the core of all sensation, consciousness and movement.

“… the cortical substance… imparts life, that is sensation, perception, understanding and will…”

It wouldn’t be for a hundred years that this analysis would be vindicated. Each of the nerve pathways along which external stimuli passed ultimately culminated in the cerebral cortex. On the human eye:

“The organ of sight is the eye, while the organ of internal sight is the cortical gland.”

And the ear:

“Again, the modulations of air, striking upon the delicate internal ear allow themselves to be carried to the medulla and thence towards the supreme cortex”.

img_6597As well as attributing the various senses to localized and specific areas of the brain, he also found certain glands such as the pituitary to be central in the endocrine system, a perspective that wasn’t validated until the early twentieth century. These and many other of his conclusions were ultimately proved to be true.

These glorious few years of scientific predictions as to the true role of the brain were short lived, when in 1743 Swedenborg started experiencing what he called ‘his divine visions’. He claimed he could communicate with God and the angels themselves, and even in some cases the planets of Jupiter and Mars. So affected was he by his delusions he henceforth dedicated his entire life to religious matters, and wrote prodigious quantities regarding his new found theological inspirations.

I wish I could say that it was merely a proclivity of the tperiod for people to not only pay cautious attention to his raving claims, but actually take him seriously, and following his death in March 1772 at 84 the Swedenborgian Church was founded, dedicated to his reformatory doctrines. At great loss to the scientific community, never again did he return to his work on the human brain. Who knows what other other discoveries and postulations he might have provided had he continued?

And what did academia do with these predictions? Unfortunately, almost nothing. His religious writings were extremely influential yet his scientific work remained ignored until the early 1880’s, over a century from when they were put to paper. The reasons for this are likely because he had no formal academic standing, no training and no connections within the medical community. Additionally, his scientific writings were replete and laden with notions of the divine – it was his desire to locate and explain the human soul via anatomical study that inspired his neurological studies to begin with. Even then, God and Science were rarely bed-mates.

One of Swedenborg's many concepts - in this illustration, a flying machine

One of Swedenborg’s many concepts – in this illustration, a flying machine

The most pertinent reason for the dismissal of his work was due to its utterly revolutionary nature for the era in which it was written. This was a period when the medicinal sciences were in embryo and struggling to define and quantify the human body in terms of anatomy and physiology, let alone understand the impenetrable mysteries of the human brain. His work was just too soon, and so dramatically different.

If I might postulate a diagnosis to his nature, his genius may have been symptomatic of deeper neurological conditions; his vivid hallucinations and visions, a perpetual stammer, strokes of sudden insight and his death by stroke, even at a ripe age. It seems likely he may have suffered from acute and severe disorders emanating from the very cranial realm he had so brilliantly helped to illuminate.


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