Why Aristteles thought we have a refrigerator in our heads and other fun facts about the brain

Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I?

These are the questions that our forefathers asked when observing the world around them, seeking to understand how the body and mind work, explains Spanish neuroscientist Ignacio Morgado.

These are also the questions that open Materia Gris – La Apasionante Historia del Conocimiento del Cerebro (Grey Mass – The Passionate History of Brain Knowledge, in free translation), the most recent book of the Professor of Psychobiology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain).

“Assuming that we think with an organ of the body other than the brain is unthinkable for a cultured person today. It is certain that there is no sign, sense or special feeling that indicates to us, not even intuitively, that we think with what is inside our head”, says the writer when talking about the difficulties of our ancestors in their attempts to solve the unknowns that they had about the mind and the body.

Morgado, author of and more than a hundred works in psychobiology and neuroscience, exposes in Materia Gris everything we have learned about the brain and the mind “and how much we still have to learn”.

But how much do we really know about the brain and why it remains the most complex and mysterious organ in the human body? In this BBC News interview, the neuroscientist gives some answers.

BBC News – Mr. He says in his book that “what is known to us today and seems normal to us, was previously unknown and mysterious” times. Why did it cost us so much to understand what our brain is for?

Ignacio Morgado – This thing we know we think about with the brain is very new. I often say to my students, “I know you’re right that we think with the brain, but how do you know? Do you feel the brain thinking or working?” The truth we feel. There is nothing to tell us, not even intuitively, that we think with the brain. We know this because science, culture, knowledge have taught us.

So much so that, for centuries, there were many people who thought it was not the brain, but other organs of the body that allowed us to think and reason.

Furthermore, it took a long time for people to believe that mental illnesses were linked to the brain. Today it seems natural to us, but for a long time it was believed to be something spiritual.


News – Like the “natural spirits” that the Greek physician and philosopher Claudio Galeno proposed as “instruments of the soul”.

Morgado – In antiquity, it was not known how the brain worked, nor everything he does, but they thought there must be something in there. exciting to talk about them! “What makes the nerves work? There has to be something! Something has to travel through the nerves that go into the muscles for them to contract and we walk and talk or move,” they wondered.

But in those ancient times nothing was known about electricity, which today we know is the key to how neurons work. Any of us would also have resorted to a curious explanation, which we could call “spirits”, which transform themselves to make possible the different functions of the body, as proposed by Galen, the great physician of antiquity, when speaking of “natural spirits” and “animal spirits” with more precision.

This is what happened when, much later, in the middle of the century 18, the Italian Luigi Galvani began to discovering from his frog experiments that electricity could cause muscles to contract, which allowed him to know that the brain produces its own electricity.

And now we know that every neuron as a small power plant and that the brain, together with the digestive system, is the body’s organ that spends most of our energy.


News – At some point it was even said that the brain was a refrigerator, and maybe they weren’t so mistaken

Morgado – Yes! It was Aristteles who said this, the great father of philosophy. Studying Aristteles’ thought is fascinating, because his own mistakes are based on great successes, on things that he saw and that seemed to him too normal to understand that the brain could not be the organ of sensibility.

Aristteles saw the heart as the organ of sensibility, he believed that it was the organ that allowed us to think and reason. But the brain had to be good for It wouldn’t be there for nothing! According to Aristteles, we had a refrigerator in our heads. It’s an amazing theory.

Observing the structure of the brain, he who was a blood cooler thought. The heart, being the organ of passions, heated the blood a lot when he was in love, and this was cooled in the brain, which returned it to the rest of the normally body so that it continued to function.

It took us a long time to leave these ideas behind. Even today, many people continue to attribute to the heart a cognitive, mental capacity, which it does not have.

BBCNews – Why do we keep clinging to this theory? Why that the dichotomy between brain and heart is still in force?

Morgado – Because a heart with an arrow stuck in it is much prettier than a brain, which looks so coarse! The heart is much redder, and the brain darker, stratified. It is not an organ that invites us to draw attention from an aesthetic point of view. The heart, yes. Connecting it to the emotions and feelings that we are already absolutely used to something.


News – Do we know little about the brain?

Morgado – Well, when someone shows up at the university and asks me, “Ignacio, is it true that we know very little about the brain?” I show them a very thick book that I have in my living room, put it in their hands and say to them, “Look at this book. Do you think this knows little?” And I’m usually told, “No, no! This is very knowledgeable!”

And we learned a lot about how the brain works, especially after our fellow Spaniard Santiago Ramn y Cajal discovered what neurons are like, which are individual cells that connect to each other through of contact, but not by continuity, and that makes the brain an intelligent organ. We’ve learned a lot, but there is still a lot to learn.

BBC News – But, as much as we have learned, we know a lot more about the mind than the brain, don’t we?

Morgado – Without a doubt! This is why the mind began to be known – as far as it is possible to know it – long before the brain.

The great thinkers of antiquity knew a lot about the human mind, although not knew nothing about the brain. And the medieval [filósofos teólogos] scholastics wrote treatises on the human mind that still have an extraordinary validity. We continue to think that the mental is something spiritual, different from the brain and the body, root of this dualism that was first proposed by the Scholars and later by the French philosopher Ren Descartes (soul-body).

In the United States, the researcher of his origin Louis Agassiz began to propose that the brain of blacks was inferior to that of whites and that, therefore, blacks only had to carry out minor work – no intellectual work or being part of it. of the social elite.

Later, the Nazis tried to adopt eugenics. The Nazi military and psychiatrist Max de Crinis introduced Adolf Hitler to the theory of “gentle death”, and a macabre program was launched to eliminate the “weak” and the mentally ill and create a “superior” race, which for them was the Aryan .

It has been clearly demonstrated over time that no race is inferior to another because of their brains or their genetics, but they had to justify this ideological racism, which was one of the greatest evils that humanity has already suffered.

There were also theories that said that a woman’s brain was inferior to that of a man, something that we happily surpassed.

But now a book is circulating that talks about “female supremacy”. To justify it, there are scientists who cling to data that they like, but forget about others that do not fit their thesis. This gives me the impression that this is not the best way to help equality between men and women.

BBC News – Mr. says that we now know a lot more about the brain, but what are the most important outstanding issues?

Morgado –

Our big outstanding question is to find out how to cure the mental and neurological illnesses, particularly the ones we are so afraid of, like Alzheimer’s. Then there are things that interest us more from a philosophical point of view or that interest scientists more, such as the way in which neurons make consciousness, subjectivity or imagination possible.

There is so much left to know, impressive! We have a body that we can touch and that seems a very understandable thing to see. But when we think of our imagination, our thoughts, our mind “What is this? Air? Smoke? Are they again the natural spirits that have returned?”

And, look how hard it is for us to get out of our minds! When something gets too complicated for us humans, we tend to explain it in a supernatural way, believing that there are things that go beyond us, that go beyond ourselves. This inability of the human brain to understand certain things in our own mind is precisely what makes so many supernatural beliefs exist and that human beings have lived, from the remotest antiquity to the present, immersed in them.

If we could understand all these what you call the mysteries of our conscience and our subjectivity, the deepest part of the human mind, probably many religious and supernatural ideologies would not exist.

Science is still not able to explain well many things that go beyond ourselves, and I have the impression that the human brain has not evolved enough to understand them.

BBCNews – E if we succeed? What if one day we can really understand how our brain works?

Morgado – But I ask myself: why are we going to believe that our brain has the ability to understand everything? We say, “It can’t be that we still can’t understand certain things!” We are eager to know.

A chimpanzee cannot understand what is a square root or the concept of entropy. Your brain doesn’t have the capacity to understand certain things, so we don’t try to teach them. But neither does he ask what imagination, what subjectivity, or how the brain creates consciousness. would have a problem that you don’t have now and would wonder about all these things .

That’s what can happen to us too. In a few years, we may know what subjectivity is and understand how the brain creates it, but then we will have other problems that we are not even capable of imagining now.

Many of the things we ask ourselves are a creation of our own mind. And we believe that the absolute questions we ask are, that they would be here even if we didn’t exist.

“Why do things need to have a beginning and an end?” If there were no brains, no human minds to ask, that question would be meaningless. But our minds like and need to know why things happen. “Why are we like this?” Someday we will know. But then we will have new questions. There will always be unknowns that surpass us.

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