Reasonable groundings of Hartley's eighteenth-century neural "vibration" theory but excessively parsimonious reactions

Robert B. GLASSMAN
Lake Forest College


Building upon a conjecture endorsed by Isaac Newton, in 1749 David Hartley published an extensive theory of neural “vibrations,” coupled to an ambitious theory of psychological associations. A few decades later, Joseph Priestley republished and popularized Hartley's theory of associations but, wielding Occam's razor, extirpated the theory of vibrations. As late as the 1880s, a grappling with the mind/brain puzzle in very similar terms appears in the writings of T. H. Huxley and Henry Maudsley. I argue here that the notion of neural vibrations was a good presumptive insight, and that theory and speculation in behavioral and neural sciences have been inhibited for much of the past two and a half centuries by excessive empiricist conservatism That antitheoretical bias remains. While acknowledging that hindsight can be seductive, I attempt here to identify instances of reasoned, or reasonable implicit, historical groundings for the idea of neural “vibrations,” and suggest that more theoretical openness, with more adventuresome empiricism, historically might have led to more scientific progress regarding neuroelectric oscillatory dynamics.


18th Century Neuroscience Symposium -- Function in the "Long" 18th Century: The Transition from Medieval Cell Doctrine to Cortical Localization Doctrine
Saturday, 26 June 2004, 9:00 am - 6:30 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada