The Third Ventricle: Memory and memory disorders in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance

Harry Whitaker1 < whitakeh@ere.umontreal.ca> and Claudio Luzzatti2
1University of Quebec at Montreal and 2University of Milan

The most durable model of brain function so far has been the Medieval Cell Doctrine. Derived originally from Herophilus (c.270 B.C.) and Erasistratus (c.260 B.C.), Galen (130-200) and Avicenna (980-1037). Finger (1994:333-334) noted contributions by the Church Fathers, Nemesius (c. 400), Posidonius (c. 370) and Saint Augustine (354-430). Medieval Cell Doctrine was sufficiently entrenched to have endured into the 17th century, for example in the mechanistic model of brain function advocated by Descartes (1596-1650). From the 11th century through the Renaissance one finds textual discussions and graphic representations of MCD, occasionally in the form of neuropsychological case reports. These studies usually accepted the standard model which placed memory in the third ventricle and then "fit" the lesion evidence from brain damaged subjects to that model. Guillame de Conches (1080-1150/4) reported that Solin had spoken of a man who suffered traumatic injury to the last cell of the brain and who fell into an amnesia so profound that he had forgot his own name. Other reports contradicted ventricular localization; Teodorico Bergognoni, a 13th century Italian surgeon, presented a case of a lesion that destroyed the 3rd ventricle without memory loss. Another report by Amatus Lusitanus, a 16th century Portuguese scientist, demonstrated that a lesion in the brain's white matter (medullary substance) accompanied a loss of memory. Many of these cases were compiled by Johannes Schenck, Observationes medicae de capite humano (Basel, 1584) and again by Johannes Wepfer, Observationes medico-practicae de affectibus capitis internis & externis, published posthumously in 1727. Others are discussed in Jules Soury Le Système Nerveux Central (1899). In this paper we discuss the late Middle Ages-to-Renaissance version of medieval cell doctrine, with a particular focus on the third cell or ventricle, the cell responsible for memory and motor function in most versions of MCD. We argue that some data could have been used to refute the "empty space" aspect of the model before Descartes. Other aspects of the model, for example, the concepts of localization, information flow, the link between memory, language and motor function, and the idea that memories are stored images, were not only never challenged but seem to have just become absorbed into post-Renaissance models of brain function.


Session I
Friday, 20 June 1997, 9.20 - 9.35

Second Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and 6th Meeting of the European Club on the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Leiden, The Netherlands