Lionel S. (Lionel Smith) Beale.

Protoplasm : or, Life, matter, and mind online

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slowly, or not at all ; if the muscle contracted now in one
part and now in another, according as it willed if it
elected to contract in one direction, and then in a different
one ; if the nerve cells decided among themselves which
should produce current and which not : if the current chose
to run along one fibre at one time and then along another,
according to the object it had in view then, but only then,
as it seems to me^ could mental activity be regarded as in
any way analogous to the function of an organ or of a tissue.
To look upon mental action as a mere function of the brain
seems to be a fundamental error, and one which those who
have really studied the structure and action of secreting
organs and nerve organs could not make.

Mental activity may rather be compared with that mar-

138 OF MIND.

vellous power, property, or capacity, which enables the liver
cell to form what we call bile, which renders possible that
change in shape of the ultimate particles of muscle which
gives rise to contraction, and determines the change in the
ultimate molecules of nerve matter upon which the current
depends; but this power is not the function; it is that
which alone renders function possible. But even this com-
parison is not a true one, for the power above referred to
acts as if it were of some necessity, while the remarkable
characteristic of mental action is freedom of choice. Cer-
tain conditions being present, the liver cell must form bile,
the muscle must contract, the nerve cell must give rise to,
and the nerve fibre must transmit, the current ; but is it con-
ceivable that under certain conditions, actual or supposed,
the brain must think ? Is what I am now writing but the
result of the distribution of a little extra proportion of
certain nutrient constituents and oxygen to my nerve cells
which thereby compels me to say all these things ? Have
I no choice ? must I say all this, and in the precise way in
which it is here said ? All these things would surely have
been said in a far better and more perfect manner if the
ideas had been formed like a secretion by a healthy gland,
independently of experience and without any efforts of my
own. All our glands perform their work perfectly when
their formation is complete. They require no teaching, and
they work without effort, and for the most part without our
knowledge. Again, there is nothing in the action of a
gland which at all corresponds to the improvement in
capacity which results from exercise, so remarkable in the
case of cerebral nervous action. The general tissues and


organs, at least of those persons who have reached or
passed middle age, performed their functions some years
ago as well as, and I fear in some respects even better
than they do now. Will has exerted, and can exert upon
them, no direct influence. But it is very different with
regard to the organ of the mind and the tissues concerned
in intellectual action. Every one knows that the degree of
perfection which these have attained or will attain is deter-
mined in great measure by his own efforts by his own will.
The thinking instrument of one individual is not capable of
being perfected in the same degree as that of another, but
is is quite certain that each may be improved and made to
work more perfectly, if its possessor determines that this
shall be ; nay, I think I may say, if he will not interfere
actively to prevent its improvement, for the natural tendency
of the mind is to exercise itself, and, in doing so, the in-
strument which it directs necessarily improves. As the
mechanism becomes more perfect, the pleasure afforded by
its working becomes greater, and to real desire and sustained
effort on the part of the mind soon succeeds improvement
in the structure of the healthy instrument, by which the
attainment of the end desired is rendered possible.

But no doubt the degree of perfection to which an Jn-
dividual can attain in giving expression to his thoughts is
limited by the excellence of structure reached by the
mechanism upon which thought operates, and this will of
course depend very much upon original developmental
capacity, but yet in no small degree to the training to which
it may have been subjected from early youth when it was
in an eminently plastic state, and capable of being so dis-

j 4 o OF MIND.

posed as to attain ultimately a very high state of efficiency.
In order to produce the greatest possible results, the thinking
power, the selective capacity, must have at its disposal a
mechanism of eminent perfection capable of being im-
pressed by and of giving exact expression to the slightest
undulations of the matter upon which the mind imme-
diately acts.

Of Mental as compared with Mechanical Action. If a
machine could be made which would change from time to
time, of its own accord, the kind of work it performed
without any alteration being made in its mechanical arrange-
ments, a rough comparison might be drawn between such a
machine and the brain, but a machine of the kind supposed
exists not, and is not conceivable.

Let us consider if the actions of the mental apparatus
exhibit any analogy with those performed by a vast number
of highly complex machines so arranged as to be under
the influence of one person, this or that being made to
work according as he willed ? In order to make the case
as strong as possible, we may further suppose every machine
to be constantly wound up ready to be brought into opera-
tion on the instant, and capable of being stopped with
facility. Or can we imagine an immense telegraph system
which, besides communicating information, shall be capable
of effecting mechanical work ? The supposed machines have
no breaks or any of those arrangements to prevent injury or
over-action, as in the various kinds of apparatus made by
us. And further, our imaginary machine ought to be made
of soft material, like brain-matter, and every portion of it
should be capable of gradual renovation. Such conditions,


we know, cannot possiby be fulfilled, and therefore no true
analogy can exist between any machines made by us and
the nervous mechanism concerned in mental action. But
admitting that they might be, and without laying stress
upon the fact that the nervous apparatus, unlike the machine,
keeps itself in order and in working condition if only the
rest needful for its repair and renovation be granted, we
have yet to find the power, the hand that guides the mental
engine, its superintendent, who bids the wheels revolve or
stops them, who allows the work to proceed or checks it, as
he wills. What sort of guide can we find in the case of the
mental machine, where is he seated, and how does he
influence the complex apparatus under his immediate indi-
vidual care and sole control ? In what spot in the brain
are we to search for him ? But do we not know that the
structure of the grey matter is such as to preclude the
possibility of the existence of anything exhibiting any
approach towards any mechanical arrangements known ?
We understand its construction sufficiently to justify us in
concluding that the nervous matter operates in a manner
different in principle from the action of any known me-

It has been said that in the brain we have " molecular
machinery" built by the sun, but no one has shown what
this supposed molecular machinery is like, what is its
structure, how it acts, or how it is formed. Molecular
machinery is a term which conveys no idea whatever to the
mind. No one could draw or make a model of the supposed
molecular machinery. We may have molecular matter, and
we may have machinery, but there are no machines the



molecules of which are active, and there are no molecules
which act like machines in fact, there is no molecular
machinery, and, it is scarcely necessary to say, nothing what-
ever has been built by the sun. The expression is altogether
incorrect, is calculated to mislead, and, there is reason
to think, has led many to accept conclusions utterly at
variance with established truths. The phrase " properties of
the molecules" is made to do duty in the same way, and
we are told that the properties of a living being existed
potentially in the molecules of cosmic vapour of which his
body is made; but can we hope to learn much by discussing
the possible properties of the hypothetical molecules of
hypothetical primitive nebulosity ? The brain we do know
something about, and we can learn much more concerning it,
but of the primitive nebulosity of ourselves, or of the world
we inhabit, we can know nothing and can learn nothing.

Of Thought as a Result of Chemical Action. Some
have expressed the opinion that thought was to be explained
by the oxidation of chemical compounds in the brain.
Judging from some of the remarks which have been made
concerning the supposed chemical changes in nerve matter,
one would infer that the brain, instead of consisting of
millions of separate anatomical units exhibiting an elaborate
structure and arranged in beautiful order, was but a mass of
fatty albuminous pulpy material, rich in phosphorus, the
action of which was determined by the oxidation of certain
of its component elements, particularly the last, the oxygen
being carried to the nerve pulp, and the products of chemical
change being removed from it by the blood circulating in
the vessels freely ramifying in the substance of the pulpy


mass. But although there is no doubt that in the expression
of thought chemical changes takes place in the nerve matter,
it has by no means been proved, nay, I cannot admit that
the arguments advanced render it even probable, that thought
itself results from chemical change. It would be more in
accordance with what we know to conclude that thought
preceded and determined the chemical change occurring in
particular particles of the brain matter, than that it was a
consequence of it. Chemical change will not alone account
for any vital acts whatever. If the movements of part of
a mass of living matter in advance of other parts were due
to chemical action, such movements would soon be pro-
duced in the laboratory, but chemistry has not yet advanced
one step in this direction. The special action of any par-
ticular apparatus is not usually explained by asserting that
it is due to the disintegration and oxidation of its con-
stituent parts of wheels and cranks, for example but yet
some will have it that the action of the cerebral apparatus
is to be satisfactorily accounted for by the disintegration
and oxidation of the matter of which it is composed.

Is the Brain to be looked upon as a Voltaic Battery ?
" Another hypothesis, to the legitimacy of which no objec-
tion can lie, and one which is well calculated to light the
path of scientific inquiry, is that suggested by several
recent writers, that the brain, is a voltaic pile, and that each
of its pulsations is a discharge of electricity through the
system. It has been remarked that the sensation felt by
the hand from the beating of a brain bears a strong re-
semblance to a voltaic shock, and the hypothesis, if followed
to its consequences, might afford a plausible explanation of


many physiological facts, while there is nothing to discourage
the hope that we may in time sufficiently understand the
conditions of voltaic phenomena to render the truth of the
hypothesis amenable to observation and experiment."* By
adducing in its favour such a statement as that about the
resemblance of the beating of a brain to a voltaic shock,
Mr. Mill upsets his favourite hypothesis, for it is certain that
if there be any resemblance between a brain and a voltaic
pile it is not of the kind implied.

But it may be that each little brain cell with its con-
nected fibres in some way resembles a minute voltaic battery
with its wires \ the matter of which the cell is composed
undergoing chemical change, in the course of which slight
electrical currents are developed. These being transmitted
by the fibres ramifying to different parts exert an influence
upon distant tissues and organs among which they ramify.
In this case some further arrangement is required by which
the action of particular cells and fibres is determined or
prevented. Perhaps the closest analogy we can draw
between cerebral action and that of an electrical battery is
the following : We may suppose in the brain multitudes
of minute active galvanic batteries with their delicate con-
ducting wires or threads ramifying over extensive tracts
of tissue, the action of which is determined by the currents
traversing the wires. Situated among these wires or threads,
we may suppose little bodies intimately connected with one
another which are capable of undergoing alterations in form
like the amoeba, white blood-corpuscle, and other forms of
living germinal matter. Not the slightest movement, though
* Mill's "Logic, "p. 18.


it only amount to gentle quivering, can occur in any part
of these bodies without an effect being produced upon the
currents which traverse the delicate wires impinging upon
different parts of their surfaces. Points in a vast number of
circuits differing widely in their ultimate distribution are
thus brought, as it were, within the influence of it may be
each of these little masses of living matter, and the rate of
transmission of the current through many different wires
having different destinations and acting upon diverse
machinery may thus be affected at the same moment, de-
termining a variety of actions. But if it be admitted that
the brain in structure and action resembles such an arrange-
ment of minute voltaic batteries and conducting wires, we have
to explain how all these were formed and made to take up
the positions they occupy in relation to one another and to
other organs before we can give any satisfactory and com-
plete explanation of its action. For the kind of work per-
formed by a machine is due to its structure as well as to the
forces by which the machine is set in motion. And further,
the movements occurring in the little bodies supposed to
act upon the currents transmitted by the threads must take
place spontaneously. It need scarcely be remarked that
any such action in a machine or any mechanical or chemico-
mechanical contrivance whatever, is impossible.

On expressing Thoughts. But in considering the nature
of mental nervous action, it is necessary in the first instance
to distinguish clearly between the mental action the actual
thought ; and its expression. The conversion of thoughts
into symbols which others can appreciate is due to a highly
elaborate mechanism working in the most perfect manner,


146 OF MIND.

but it by no means follows that if we understood exactly
the manner in which this mechanism worked, we should
therefore be able to form an accurate conception of the
nature of thought itself. Thoughts and ideas may, and in
some cases do, undoubtedly exist, although they cannot be
expressed in any way in consequence of the derangement
or destruction of the mechanism concerned in expression.
And in certain forms of cerebral disease intellectual action
is performed, although the mechanism concerned in expres-
sion is completely deranged. Ideas are formed by the
mind, and although the person can indicate this and con-
vince us by his gestures that the idea is in his mind, he is
quite unable to express it and make it intelligible to others.
The mechanism concerned in expressing thoughts consists
of a nervo-muscular apparatus arranged with such consum-
mate skill, and occupying so small a space, that it is possible
for the mind to form but a most imperfect conception of the
arrangement of even a very small part of it.

It is difficult in many cases to decide to what extent
the apparatus concerned in expressing ideas is engaged in
silent reasoning and cogitation. When we think over
complex matters, and reason upon them, we work with
certain mental images or symbols of the things, but cer-
tainly not with the verbal expressions of them, nor even with
their representatives, but with something far short of either,
though sufficiently distinct and exact nevertheless. A great
number of these images may be marshalled, as it were,
before the mind almost in a moment, and conclusions
arrived at which would require the greatest cleverness and
a long time accurately to express. And in but too many


instances, after making the greatest efforts, we only succeed
in conveying to the minds of others the roughest, coarsest
representation of a mental image which to us is distinct,
clear, and perfect in all its details. And it is well known
how much more fatiguing is the operation of expressing
than that of thinking and drawing conclusions mentally.
The results of a few hours' thinking, obtained without any
perceptible exhaustion and without any conscious effort,
may require many days' hard labour to reduce to a form
intelligible to other minds, and in this operation the bodily
health may suffer, as well as the mental vigour be impaired.
It would therefore seem as if thinking and cogitation
belonged to the class of actions which I have distinguished
as vita/, and which* are performed without waste or change
in constitution of material substance, while the expression
of thoughts undoubtedly involves material changes of the
most active kind. We may roughly compare the first to
the acts of an engineer who directs and controls a machine,
and the last to the work performed by the machine itself.
The engineer or superintendent, it may be said, merely
exerts a directing and controlling influence which has
nothing whatever to do with the combustion of coals or
the falling of the weights, uncoiling of the spring, &c. He
contributes nothing that can be weighed or measured
towards the work performed by the machine. He can
exist without the machine, and the latter may act without
him, yet we all know how very much the result produced,
as regards both the quantity and the quality of work per-
formed, is due to his interference.

L 2

148 OF MIND.


I will now refer further to the results of anatomical
investigation. Near the surface of the grey matter in that
extensive layer above the planes in which the caudate
nerve-cells are situated, which is generally said to be com-
posed of delicate nerve-fibres and " granular matter," I have
succeeded in demonstrating multitudes of very small masses
of germinal matter lying amongst the finest branches of the
nerve fibres. In some places there are aggregations or col-
lections of these bodies, which are extremely delicate, and
become disintegrated very soon after death. Some sections
appear to consist almost entirely of these bodies, so great is
their number. They seem to be connected together by very
delicate processes of the same transparent material. Masses
of germinal matter thus situated are arranged very favour-
ably for influencing the fine nerve-fibres which ramify
amongst them. The slightest change in their form could
not fail to affect nerve currents traversing these fibres, and
as we are now well acquainted with the active movements
of germinal matter, it is impossible to help suggesting that
the movements occurring in these masses of germinal
matter produce a direct effect upon the adjacent fibres,
and that these vital movements or vibrations occurring
in matter of excessive tenuity constitute or are rather the
immediate consequences of mental vital action. The direc-
tions in which the living matter is made to move by the
conscious life-power which directs it, will determine the



particular cords of the nerve mechanism to be struck ;
special movements expressing the inward ideas then follow.
If this be so, mind is the vital power which is associated with
this the most exalted form of living or germinal matter, so
arranged that the slightest change occurring in it may pro-
duce indirectly an effect through the influence of a most
elaborate mechanism, brought into very intimate relation
with it. Although I am not prepared to deny that the
germinal matter of the caudate nerve-cells of the grey
matter of the cerebral convolutions is concerned in mental
nervous actions, there are many arguments which lead me
to think that this is not the material substance which is
immediately influenced by the mind, but belongs rather to
that wonderful mechanism which is concerned in the
expression of thought, and in the conversion of ideas into

Of the Character of the Germinal Matter taking part in
Mental Operations. Some might anticipate that the matter
immediately influenced by mind would exhibit some remark-
able structure and arrangement, but those who have studied
the characters of living matter in the lowest and highest
organisms will not expect to find this, the highest form,
exhibiting any structure whatever or possessing any peculiar
chemical composition. They will be prepared to find the
highest forms composed of the same colourless, structure-
less, moving substance which constitutes the living matter
of the lowest organisms, and they will look for a difference
in power in endowment, not for any material difference.
The germinal matter of the embryo of the highest and most
complex being in nature cannot be distinguished from that


constituting the germ of a very simple creature, nor does
the germinal matter of the nerve-cells of the human embryo
exhibit any special characters. We should therefore an-
ticipate that the highest form of germinal matter known,
that which takes part in mental action, would agree in its
characters so far as we are able to determine them, with
other forms. The difference, vast as it is, is a difference in
power, which, however, we can only estimate by the results
of its action by the effects produced by it. In the living
state this form of living matter is no doubt perfectly trans-
parent, of excessive tenuity, and exhibits no characters
which would enable us to form any notion of its exalted
powers. These powers, properties, or endowments are
unquestionably due, not to its chemical composition or to
the peculiar arrangement of its particles as compared with
other forms of germinal matter, but solely to that wonderful
force, property, or power, which I would place under the
head of vital power.

We should anticipate that of all kinds of germinal matter
known, that concerned in mental nervous action would be
most evanescent and prone to rapid decay and disintegration
after death. It is therefore not surprising that in many
cases no trace of the delicate masses of germinal matter I
have described should be discovered. And I feel sure that
what I have been able to demonstrate affords but a very
imperfect idea of the real number and arrangement of the
masses of germinal matter which exist in the living state.
We should expect that change would almost immediately
follow the death of the individual, and that this form of
germinal matter would be completely broken down long


before other kinds existing in the same organism had ceased
to manifest vital phenomena. And I may remark that the
length of time during which different forms of germinal
matter survive the general death of the organism varies
greatly some dying very soon, while others live even for
days. The capacity for living under altered conditions
becomes greater as we descend from the highest towards
the lowest kinds of germinal matter, the highest being killed
by slight alteration in the surrounding circumstances, while
the lowest resist very considerable changes, and for long
periods of time. The pus corpuscle and the particle of
contagium, both which are descendants of the germinal
matter of the organism, retain their vitality under conditions
which certainly would have been fatal to the germinal
matter from which they sprang.* The power of resisting
the destroying influence of varying external conditions seems
to increase as germinal matter becomes more and more

And it is interesting to note here, that this, the highest
form of germinal matter, when exposed to altered conditions,
dies, instead of, like many lower forms of germinal matter,
growing, and mulitiplying, and giving origin to masses
of germinal matter possessing different properties. In in-
flammation this is, so to say, protected by the lower forms

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Online LibraryLionel S. (Lionel Smith) BealeProtoplasm : or, Life, matter, and mind → online text (page 11 of 12)