16 SEPTEMBER 1922, Page 8



AHASTY glance at the printed report of Sir Charles Sherrington's address to the British Association on " Some Aspects of Animal Mechanism " might lead the reader to suppose that here was an example of the old- fashioned materialistic type of argument.

What was it that was so exasperating to us laymen in being assured that " thought was a secretion of the brain " and life the mere running of a mechanism ? Was it the manner or the matter which annoyed ? Anyhow, the non-technical reader associates that kind of assertion with a style both desiccated and dogmatic, a method of bald assertion. Perhaps our reluctance to accept such a doctrine —a reluctance which we attributed to various causes—was in fact generally due to our feeling that the theory insisted upon with so much glee was really, in the absence of definition, a meaningless one.

Take the statement that thought is a secretion of the brain, for instance. In a sense it is one to which we can all agree. Clearly the relation of thought to the brain is something like that of the bile to the liver ; certain sub- stances are poured into the liver and by the liver's action are transmuted into bile ; we say that it secretes bile. The brain is obviously concerned in thought. It is, if we like to put it so, the organ by which the non-material thought or " volitional act " is elaborated (as the raw material for the bile is elaborated). " Pure thought " or other raw material is made into something that can get into touch with the material arms and legs, and so with the still more material crowbar or bicycle pedal.

Perhaps what was really obnoxious about the material- istic school was that it was not truly scientific (at least not as we the public beheld it), but was really interested less in the intricacies of the working of the mind than in setting up a kind of table of precedence and in rubbing in the fact that it intended mind and thought—the non-material ele- ment—to take a back seat. Secretion ! "—if we come to think of it a more offensive word could hardly have been suggested—there lay the sting, and so (vaguely staunch) we laity hotly denied whole chunks of allied conception and frequently went so far in our denials that we found ourselves on extremely boggy ground and obliged at last—argument failing us—to take a high line with our materialist. We had to bring' forward an irrelevant array of instances of triumphs of mind over body, ranging from Latimer and Ridley to the man who lately wore his eyes out writing the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin—cases where the body was the slave of mind and mind had actually " tested to destruction " the body over which it ruled. We desired above all things to think nobly of the soul. Should we have been so indignant about the whole affair if the pro- position had been put to us a little differently, and espe- cially without the table of precedence ? First of all, if we had been told that it was possible to question that apparently fundamental distinction between mind and matter, and that, though perhaps Bishop Berkeley was a little disconsidered, the modern metaphysician (who waa,, after all, a man of science) was quite ready to show cause why matter was no such great matter after all. In the first place, of course, no one has ever touched, tasted, or smelt or seen a piece of matter. The only thing of which we are aware is our sense perception, which is a hybrid thing, the child of what is there and of our own individuality. Matter is only inferred. Further, it is not difficult to throw doubt upon our notion of time, and therewith upon the hardness and fastness of our notions of causation. If these wide speculations were considered as hitting below the belt by our materialist opponent (we should call it a sounding of the foundations) we could, if we had realized it, have turned to the psychologist for aid, and, having to our own satisfaction played the anarchist in the region of the physicist, the new psychology enables us to do rather the same thing to the physiologist. The War has shown us many cases of men's bodies as the slaves of their minds, though in a manner far removed from the martyr or the ascetic. Take the tremors, hallucinations, dumbness, blindness, and deafness of the shell-shock case. The mind could bear no more, and the eyes ceased to see, the tongue to speak, the ear to hear. These cases were readily distinguishable by the most hurried medical officer from the man who was merely " swinging the lead." A growing mass of evidence from schools and factories, indeed from every sphere of human activity, shows fatigue as consisting of weariness of the mind far more than of the muscles. A man may be very tired indeed without any perceptible change in his muscle or even nerve fibres, or, again, he may be tired by a small amount of work, work which his body is capable of performing with the greatest ease, but the mind being unwilling, he exhibits every symptom of fatigue :— " Your merry heart goes all the way :

Your sad tires in a mile-a."

Then we think of our convalescence from our last attack of influenza, and if we are candid will admit to ourselves that either this is the owl and egg dilemma, or that we and our materialist have somehow gone the wrong way about the whole question.

What has Sir Charles Sherrington to add to the layman's wondering speculations ? In the first place, he wisely keeps for the greater part of his address to an extremely interesting account of the working of various actual mechanisms without approaching the controversial side of his subject : what he has to say about this is scattered here and there in outlines and hints. There are such remarks as this :- "Mind does not seem to attach to life, however complex, where there is no nervous system, nor even where that system, though present, is quite scantily developed. Mind becomes more recognizable the more developed the nerve system. Hence the difficulty of the twilight emergence of mind from no mind, which is repeated even in the individual life history."

Among the higher vertebrates " mentality " appears to be localized to the relatively newer parts of the forebrain, which are superimposed on the non-mental, nervous parts :— "The so-to-say mental "rtion of the system is placed so that its commerce with the b.. • and the external world occurs only through the archaic non-mental rest of the system. . . . To pass from a nerve impulse to a psychical event, a sense-impres- sion, percept, or emotion is, as it were, to step from one world to another and incommensurable one."

Yet the mental parts of the brain exhibit no striking physical peculiarities :- "There are the same old structural elements, set end to end, suggesting the one function of the transmission and collision of nerve impulses. The structural inter-connexions are richer, but that is a merely quantitative change."

Yet not only do mind and nerve-tissue react upon one another, but they also resemble each other ; both the nerves and the mind form habits easily ; reactions mental as well as nervous tend to leave traces behind them :— " Is it mere metaphor when we speak of mental attitudes as well as bodily ? Is it mere analogy to liken the warped attitude of the mind in a psycho-neurotic sufferer to the warped attitude of the body constrained by an internal pain ? Yet all this similarity does but render more succinct the old enigma as to the nexus between nerve impulse and mental event."

We are really learning, Sir Charles goes on, the mechanism of the " how of not a few of the processes of the living body ; we are practically sure that further application of physics and chemistry will furnish us a competent key to the various things which are dark to-day. But all growth, the shaping of the animal body, and even the brute mechanism of the mind's connexion with its bodily place seems still utterly an enigma :- " The living creature is fundamentally a unity. In trying to make the how of an animal existence intelligible to our imper- fect knowledge we have to separate its whole into part aspects and part mechanisms, but that separation is artificial. Can we suppose a unified entity which is part mechanism and part not ? One privilege open to the human intellect is to attempt to comprehend, not leaving out of account any of its properties, the how of tho living creature as a whole. The problem is ambitious, but its importance and its reward are all the greater if we seize and we attempt the full width of its scope. In the biological synthesis of the individual it regacds mind. It includes examination of man himself as acting under a biological trend and process which is combining individuals into a multi-individual organization, a social organism anrely new in the history of the planet. For this biological trend and process is constructing a social organism whose cohesion depends mainly on a property developed so specifically in man as to be, broadly speaking, his alone—namely, a mind actuated by instincts, but instrumented with reason. Man, often Nature's rebel, as Sir Ray Lankester has luminously said, can, viewing this great supra-individual process, shape oven as individual his course conformably with it, feeling that in this instance to rebel would be to sink lower rather than to continue his own evolution upward.

Surely to us laymen this is an illuminating idea, for here are biologists and physiologists reaching out towards sociologists and ethnologists—and perhaps the most signifi- cant branch of ethnology is the study of comparative religion. What is all this about instinct ?

" Actuated by instincts, but instrumented with reason."

The layman cannot help wondering whether some of the difficulties here raised are not those of an undue turning from Monism. Our mental attitude has perhaps been that of making too sure that there was a distinction not of degree but of kind between mind and matter, instinct and reason, and so forth. Suppose it were all a question of degree Is perhaps the conscious mind only a more finely sensitized portion of the sub-conscious instinctive mind ? for instance, the conscious mind reacts the first time to a stimulus ; instinct must wait until the same stimulus has been applied to several generations. Instinct seems to apprehend less stimuli than reason ; the whole series of phenomena connected with beauty, for example. And then might we not see in the subconscious and instinctive mind a refinement of reflex nervous action, just as we see in the nerves themselves a modification of muscle tissue ? If to perfect ourselves we must, as Sir Charles Sherrington holds, become truly " members one of another," and if our highest function is our relation to our fellows, we must consider our minds as higher than our bodies. For it is obvious that our bodies—those strange little instruments—must remain separate, and it is only in the mental plane that the amalgamation of construction is possible. Might we not then say, regarding the hierarchy of pure mind, subconscious mind, reflex action of nerves, nervous tissue, and body tissue, that the body is in some sort an emanation of the mind ? We have, perhaps, in the past laid too much stress upon the importance of the quality of tangibility. A LAYMAN.