King's College London
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Mind Matters: neuroscience and psychiatry

Charles Bell

The distinguished surgeon Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), in addition to his work in artistic anatomy, undertook important work on cerebral localisation and the relationship of the nervous system to different parts of the brain.

The divisions of the peripheral nerves as seen in Charles Bell's The nervous system of the human body: as explained in a series of papers read before the Royal Society of London. Third edition. London: Henry Renshaw, 1844 [KCSMD Historical Collection QP361 BEL]The divisions of the peripheral nerves as seen in Charles Bell's The nervous system of the human body: as explained in a series of papers read before the Royal Society of London. Third edition. London: Henry Renshaw, 1844 [KCSMD Historical Collection QP361 BEL]He built on Gall and Spurzheim’s general assumptions concerning the differentiation of brain functions and related these to the divisions of the peripheral nerves (as seen in the plate). In his experiment Bell cut the posterior roots and observed no convulsions of the muscles of the back; the opposite result was achieved by touching the anterior roots.

Bell took this result to support his opinion that the cerebellum, which he thought was the root of the posterior root filaments, contained the involuntary nervous functions (e.g. complex learnt skills, such as limb movement), and that the cerebrum, the origin of the anterior root filaments, was the locus of the voluntary movements. Bell’s division of function between the cerebrum and the cerebellum has been confirmed by subsequent research. Bell thought that filaments of involuntary nerves did not result in convulsions because there was no conscious sensation of pain.

The distinction between the actions of the conscious and the subconscious mind was to assume great importance for alienists such as Henry Maudsley, who stressed the necessity of maintaining a proper balance between the two. This distinction also influenced later neurologists, such as Ferrier and Sherrington, and physiologists such as Pavlov, who made it a cornerstone of their theories.

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