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Story last updated: 11 Mar 2004 1100 GMT Printable version of this page
Boffin reveals brainy obsession
Carl Zimmer  

Soul Made Flesh: the story of how the English mapped the human brain as the engine of our body... and soul.

Science writer and the book's author, Carl Zimmer, is coming to Bristol to talk on his findings.

The author is coming to Bristol for one of only three UK gigs

Zimmer has mapped out how the human brain was revealed to scientists in the latter half of seventeenth century England.

His book, Soul Made Flesh, tells the story of Thomas Willis, the founder of modern neurology and a largely forgotten figure, says Zimmer.

Willis was at the heart of a group of natural philosophers known as the Oxford Circle who revealed the brain's machinations through a series of rather gory experiments.

Zimmer told the BBC Bristol website: "I started to wonder how long people had been thinking about the brain in the same way as we do: as this three-pound chemical reactor that produces our thoughts, emotions and sense of self.

Bowl of curds

"As I probed the history of neurology, I was fascinated by the alien concepts people had about the brain 350 years ago, and how rapidly their views soon changed to mirror those of our own."

Research for the tome included the usual library study and expert analysis.

But the author went one step further: "I even went to a brain dissection at a medical school in New York. I wanted to see real brains up close."

Zimmer took over from Stephen Jay Gould as monthly essayist in the US magazine Natural History, and is coming to Bristol to talk about his work in April.

There are only three UK dates on the tour, so feel privileged.

"I'll be talking about how the brain changed in the mid-1600s from being considered nothing but a "bowl of curds", in the words of the English philosopher Henry More, to the seat of the soul.

"In working on my three books, I became more and more interested in the history behind today's scientific breakthroughs, and I was ready to write a book focused mainly on historical figures.

"All of my work has been organized around evolution, and the human brain is certainly one of the most remarkable products of that process," he said.

Don't expect any more missives just yet from Zimmer: "When I wrote the proposal for Soul Made Flesh in 2001, my first child was not yet born.

"Now my second is three months old. So I'm going to need some extra time before leaping into the next book."

Speaking about the book, psychologist Oliver Sacks said: "Willis was the first man to come to grips with the human brain, to see how different parts of it had different functions, and how the human soul could be embodied in it.

"In the book, Zimmer gives a remarkable account of England's 'genius century', and of the intertwined lives of Willis and his contemporaries."

Zimmer will be at Blackwell's on Park Street on Tuesday 6th April at 7pm.

Tickets are £2 and are available instore.


Carl Zimmer

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