Signals from the borderland: configurations of electroencephalo-graphy in the 1930s

Cornelius BORCK

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Wilhelmstrasse 44, 10117 Berlin, Germany
Tel. 30-22667179, Fax. 30-22667299


From its beginning, electroencephalography produced curves on a photographic plate or on paper similar to those used today for clinical and diagnostic purposes. However, the scope and limit of this new technique had yet to be defined. This was a question of determining its applicability and of constituting the appropriate referent for these wiggly lines. What did these traces reveal ? Some basic regularities were quite clear. Life was correlated with quick waves and death with a flat line, with sleep and depressed consciousness in between. These hints served as justifications for further investigations, although no particular physiological process could be related to any individual wave-very much in contrast to the by then well-established electrocardiogramm or the still older pulse recordings in which the graphical methods had complemented existing schemes. Instead, the new technique invited speculative interpretations. Sensory stimulation and mental `work', such as calculation, appeared to be linked to specific changes in the wave patterns. `Charting the sea of brain waves' (as Jaspers once put it) connected questions of psychology, psychiatry and philosophy to a strictly electrophysiological device. Intelligence, personality, or psychiatric disorders became as much the object of electroencephalographic studies during the 1930s as tumors, head injuries, and seizures. From the electrophysiology of central neurons to brain theory and from the substrate of telepathy to mental states, EEG recordings produced data for heterogeneous spaces of knowledge. Electroencephalography was thus situated in a borderland at the intersection of the various investigative enterprises related to the brain and mind.

The notion of a borderland captures also the technical context of electroencephalography, i.e. the identification of signals against background noise and artefacts. Here, the constitutive work began with the sifting of signals, with selecting and placing electrodes, with filters and amplifiers, with inscription and visualisation devices. Whereas Hans Berger, the German psychiatrist at Jena who first presented the EEG in 1929, constructed the EEG as a uniform trace of the whole head, his competitor Alois Kornmueller from the physiology department of the Brain Research Institute at Berlin-Buch operationalised the EEG as the electrical fingerprint of anatomically defined brain areas. Others worked on the distribution of rhythmic patterns over the surface of the brain or on very fast oscillations that were otherwise filtered out. Electroencephalography developed during these years in various opposing directions, before it was tamed into a neurological diagnostic device.


Plenary 2   (Hess/Landolt Lecture)
Wednesday, 15 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999