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The Spark of Being

Episode 5 of 10

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 11 November 2011

Dr Geoff Bunn's 10 part History of the Brain is a journey through 5000 years of our understanding of this complex organ in our heads. From Neolithic times to the present day, he reveals the contemporary beliefs about what the brain is for and how it fulfils its functions.

While referencing the core physiology and neuroscience, this is a cultural, not a scientific history. What soon becomes obvious is that our understanding of this most inscrutable organ has in all periods been coloured by the social and political expedients of the day no less than by the contemporary scope of scientific or biological exploration.

In Episode 5: The Spark of Being, the focus is on electricity and communication, within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. When John Walsh showed, in 1776, that an eel could generate electricity, it became possible that human consciousness also relied on sparks fizzing within the brain. Coming at a time when Benjamin Franklin - an acknowledged expert on electricity - was signing the Declaration of Independence which asserted that all men are created equal, it generated a new perspective on the workings of the brain; the old hierarchical model was discarded in favour of the doctrine of equipotentiality.

The series is entirely written and presented by Dr Geoff Bunn of Manchester Metropolitan University, with actors Paul Bhattacharjee and Jonathan Forbes providing the voices of those who have written about the brain from Ancient Egypt to the present day, and actor Hattie Morahan giving the Anatomy Lesson which establishes the part of the brain to be highlighted in each episode - in this instance the Corpus Callosum. The original, atmospheric score is supplied by composer, Barney Quinton.

Producer: Marya Burgess.

  • Presenter - Dr Geoff Bunn

    Presenter - Dr Geoff Bunn

  • Benjamin Franklin

    Benjamin Franklin

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    Portrait of Benjamin Franklin with his kite in the background. After the painting by Benjamin West

  • Leyden Jars

    Leyden Jars

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    Apparatus formerly used by Luigi Galvani - three Leyden jars

    Hand-cranked frictional generators and electric storage bottles called “Leyden jars” created sparks for use in amusing scientific demonstrations.

  • Dissection of a sheep by Galvani

    Dissection of a sheep by Galvani

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    Page from De viribus electricitatis in motu
    musculari commentarius by Luigi Galvani

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

    Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

    Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - a novel all about the creation of artificial life

  • Science Explorer

    Science Explorer

    Explore the big ideas from A History of the Brain with the Science Explorer, featuring hundreds of programmes from the Radio 4 science archive

    Science Explorer - Dr Geoff Bunn


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