Auguste Henri Forel : Ants and neuroscience

Pierre M. DREYFUS;1 George K. YORK1,2 ; David A. STEINBERG1

1The Såa Institute, 21201 Ostrom Road, Fiddletown CA 95629, USA
2Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, 7373 West Lane, Stockton CA 95269, USA
Tel. 209-2454398, Fax. 209-2455409


Auguste Henri Forel (1848-1931) began his scientific career with a definitive study of the anatomy and behavior of the ants of Switzerland, published in 1873 to international acclaim. He conceived his interest in psychiatry as a medical student in Zurich, where von Gudden's lectures and experiments on comparative psychology aroused his interest. His neuroanatomical work with Meynert in Vienna produced his doctoral thesis on the anatomy of the thalamus. He and von Gudden perfected a microtome capable to preparing whole-brain sections for microscopic analysis, resulting in his neuroanatomical description of the subthalamic fields which now carry his name, the fields of Forel H1 and H2. He devoted his medical career to psychiatry, in which his strong moral sense led him to attempt to reduce the exploitation of patients at the Burghölzli. Following his retirement in 1898 he wrote on entomology, socialism, pacifism, abstinence and the sexual question. He also developed neurophysiological principles which could be applied equally to ants and humans.

Forel maintained that the law of conservation of energy required the mind-brain identity theory. In his doctoral thesis he asserted that animals had the same psychological properties as humans. His study of ants convinced him that they have the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch. He wrote that ants demonstrate what he called psychic powers, which include memory, association of sensory images, perceptions, attention, habits, inference from analogy and the use of individual experiences in the course of adaptation. Higher animals show more complex expressions of these psychic powers, and require a more evolved central nervous system.

Forel followed the French school which regarded neurological function as a set of faculties such as intelligence, consciousness and articulate language, rather than the English associationist school which considered the nervous system as a sensory and motor machine. His approach to neurophysiology was explicitly evolutionary, and he acknowledged the influence of both Darwin and Spencer. His commitment to practical biological psychiatry led to an insistence on the cerebral basis of consciousness, and an explicit rejection of Freudianism. His neurophysiological principles were less useful for bedside cerebral localization because they lacked the concept of a focal lesion.


Panel 5C   (Search Machine)
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