How do our thoughts interact with our bodies? Do we have freedom over and above the brain’s operations? Or do we live in thrall to our biology? These problems achieved remarkable urgency in France during the nineteenth century, a period when the brain came to be taken seriously as a special organ. For many scientists, it was not only the locus of thinking but also the linchpin of a materialist worldview that excised consciousness and free will from the natural world. God, so it followed, was dispelled as an illusion as well. The workings of the nervous system ceased to be shrouded in mystery thanks to the emergent fields of psychology and neurology, which unveiled the complex network facilitating the body’s sensory and motor connections. Those workings—electrical, energetic, and material—stirred widespread excitement and anxiety in the prospect that humans’ spiritual powers—including reason, reflection, and action—were made up solely of physical matter. Today, the neurosciences shoulder a similar aspiration to reveal the material underpinnings of subjectivity. Yet, the history of the mind-body problem is so fascinating in modern France because that was not entirely the case. The early brain sciences were entangled with the immaterial. Incredibly, the deeper that French neurologists and psychologists explored the functions of the nervous system, the more they confronted the stubborn problem of spirit....
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