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Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  585 ratings  ·  52 reviews
In this unprecedented history of a scientific revolution, award-winning author and journalist Carl Zimmer tells the definitive story of the dawn of the age of the brain and modern consciousness. Told here for the first time, the dramatic tale of how the secrets of the brain were discovered in seventeenth-century England unfolds against a turbulent backdrop of civil war, th ...more
Paperback, 384 pages
Published June 6th 2005 by Atria Books (first published 2003)
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Dec 28, 2008 rated it liked it
It’s impossible to talk about the history of the brain – about the history of medicine at large, actually – without also talking about religion and politics and philosophy. Mostly religion, as you might expect. This book tackles all of the above with admirable aplomb, starting off with one of my favorite childhood anecdotes about the ancient Egyptian burial custom of removing the brain through the nostrils because it was clearly a useless organ (how can you not love that; it’s totally disgusting ...more
Jul 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting look into the scientific period where people switched from thinking that the heart was the source of the mind to the brain being the source. Also some good writing on the changes in the scientific method during that time. My only complaint is that there was a little too much biography of historical figures for my taste.
Aurélien Thomas
It's difficult to think, but for centuries the heart was considered as the ruler of the body - not the brain. When medicine was based all around a set of four humours those unbalance were supposedly the source of all diseases, the brain was seen as just a nest for 'pumps', various ventricules just there to distribute 'vital fluids'. Thomas Willis, a 17th century English doctor and scientist, will radically change all that.

Willis was the first to describe some sort of 'animal spirit' travelling t
Jul 10, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
In Soul Made Flesh (2003), Zimmer describes the scientific revolution of the 17th century in terms of medicine and psychology. Before the 17th century most of medicine was based on Hippocrates and Galen, which in essence was an explanation for the workings of our bodies and diseases in terms of the relative abundance of four bodily fluids. This was not science as we know it, this was all based on deductive logical systems à la Aristotle, mixed with a unhealthy dose of mysticism.

René Descartes w
Dave Ciskowski
A solid introduction to the history of the realization of the role of the brain. The book centers on Thomas Willis, the alchemist, physician, and anatomist. His studies, conducted among the early fellows of the Royal Society in seventeenth-century England, cast off a great deal of ancient and Medieval teaching about the body in general and the brain in particular. The book is strongest at the somewhat grisly work of describing the experiments and dissections conducted by Willis and others who fo ...more
Chris Branch
Sep 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I’ve enjoyed Zimmer’s books before, and he remains the best science writer I know of who isn’t actually a scientist himself.

In this book, he attempts to describe the transition in thinking that happened in the mid to late 1600s, during which alchemy became chemistry and a mystical view of life gave way to scientific thinking about biology and anatomy. As a broad history, it often reads like a summary of notes abridged from a longer textbook. It succeeds in clearly conveying the material, but fo
Jun 02, 2017 rated it liked it
This book presents a broad brush picture of seventeenth century developments in exploration of the relationship of mind and brain. From my research on the main character in Zimmer's book--Thomas Willis--I can say that Zimmer has got most of the facts of the story right. While many will find his chapters on the political history of this tumultuous era in British history engaging, I found it somewhat distracting. That is merely a matter of taste. Zimmer is a fine story teller. What one gets from t ...more
Ann Michael
Jul 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
I learned as much about Restoration England as I did about Thomas Willis and the pre-Enlightenment discoveries that led to the science of neurology and the idea of psychology.

Interesting read and well-written, though I felt some of the editorial decisions concerning the structure of the book were a bit inconsistent. Interesting perspectives on John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and Christopher Wren.
Megan Hex
Mar 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting if a bit slow at times. The biographical information on various scientists, alchemists, and philosophers was really interesting, as was seeing human understanding make small leaps slowly adding up to more knowledge.
Mark Evans
May 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
The well-told story of the beginnings of what would become modern neurology and the paradigm shift that came with it.
Jun 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was expecting more balanced chronology, instead of the strong focus on the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Well written with lots of interesting anecdotes, though.
Nov 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful read about the history and discovery of the brain.
Sep 11, 2011 rated it liked it
This book is about Thomas Willis and his compatriots, who in the seventeenth century led the way for a new medical science based in careful observation and experimentation. It's also a book which looks at history, politics and religion, and how these shape the possibility of, and reception to, new ideas. Finally, it is a book which introduces neurology as a science and discusses the spiritual and religious implications of discovering the brain in its neuro-anatomical reality.

I found this book a
Toni Moore
May 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I'm a science nerd, and I really like reading about the brain. I also like reading about the history of science. So this book was a perfect fit for me.

Carl Zimmer is an excellent writer. He has a knack for making science understandable for non-scientists without "dumbing down" the science.

The story of the brain ranges from Aristotle to current-day neuroscientists trying to map the brain. Zimmer relates the development of the modern idea of the brain by telling the stories of the men who studied
Apr 22, 2013 rated it liked it
I confess to a Physicist's bias as a general feature of my worldview, which, so as it pertains to "Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain and How it Changed the World," means that in general, I'm a reductionist, in that I believe almost all phenomena are reducible to basic mathematical laws, and, less rationally, that only those explanations of phenomena which are so expressed are correct or interesting.

What is so interesting, then, about "Soul Made Flesh," which is a lay person's history
Jan 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I picked this up off the shelves at work where we keep books sent to us for our organization's magazine to review but that we ignored. I was really impressed by it. It's a history of the discovery of our nervous system (and many other anatomical and scientic systems), but it's rendered absolutely fascinating as the author conveys the interplay of these discoveries with the heady and impassioned social, religious, and political contexts of the times.

I have a hard time remembering historical event
This was surprisingly accessible, I was expecting something much more complex but it is aimed as a layman's account which was lucky for me! The story Zimmer told is a fascinating one. He discusses how ideas developed from the ideas of Galen and Plato to the vital work of people like Thomas Willis, William Harvey and Christopher Wren. The work Willis did mapping the brain was an important turning point in how people perceived the brain and the place of the soul within the body. Placing it within ...more
Duane Donecker
Apr 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
I have recently become interested in reading books on medical/disease history and picked this one up based on the look of the cover (I do that a lot) and was presently surprised by this one.

Carl Zimmer did some excellent research for this book, my mine interest is United States and World History, and in the process of pursuing my love of history I discovered by reading medical history books, not only do you get history of the particular condition relating to the author's subject matter; you also
Lissa Notreallywolf
This is largely devoted to the study of Willis and his associates who formed one of the contingents of the early Royal Society. Willis is the father of neurology and is rarely discussed in anatomy courses or recognized in the history of science. Yet through a number of horrifying experiments on people and many, many dogs, he and Christopher Wren did for neurology what Harvey did for blood and circulation. One of the best aspects of the book is the exploration of the many talents of people like W ...more
Jul 02, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Personally, I thought this book was a little closer to two stars, but I've read great books before and after it, so I'm sure I'm biased. Overall, a good work on the development of anatomy and medicine in the early Enlightenment. As for telling the story of the brain, it takes several chapters of development to get to the important two on its actual discovery and analysis by Willis and friends. For those not well-versed in the era, the background information is well-presented and easy to follow. ...more
Jun 15, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Debbie
Shelves: science, newton-mania
Standing on the shoulders of giants, seems to be the only way science can work. Every new idea and path, produces information, even when proved wrong or false. Any curiosity explored, any question that begs an answer, can be steps towards a refined understanding.

Besides making clear iterative science at its best when it comes to neurology, Zimmer also placed historical events (I am embarrassed to admit that these events are most clear to me through my reading of Outlander) against a backdrop of
Richard Williams
Jul 06, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library
the story of the scientific discoveries of how our brains work.
i like the author's writing, i've read several of his books and keep an eye on his blog-the loom, he's an out spoken secularist and physicalist, which forms the philosophic point of the book.

it's organization is 2-fold, chronological divided by prominent scientist, so it has a feeling of the steady cumulation of wisdom, of progress, of dynamic movement which makes easier and more interesting reading, although probably doesn't do just
Jul 25, 2011 added it
I hadn't even thought this was a topic worth reading about, but a friend recommended this book and I had a peek. I was drawn in immediately and amazed at the history I didn't know and was never taught! What's interesting is that it takes about 120 pages to finally get to the gist of the actual subject of the book, but those 120 pages are filled with wonderful detail of English history, war, medicine, religion, superstition and science. The story of the protagonist is then told over another 120 o ...more
Mar 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
‘Soul Made Flesh” by Carl Zimmer is a fascinating examination of the history of the discovery of the brain’s function as the center for rational thought. While 17th Century doctor Thomas Willis is at the heart of this story, it proves to be a much more expansive tale than that just what he found and did about it. Certainly, noggin stuffing is important enough that a lotta pages should be devoted to the many convolutions of its illustrious medical history.
Jun 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Zimmmer has written an interesting and accessible book that puts medical science in the context of the philosophical and scientific debates of the scientific revolution. Still, for me at least, this will always be the book in which I learned that Descartes was a bit of a dandy who favoured green taffeta suits and plumed hats. One of the books great strengths is its descriptions of the main players and their relationships (as well as their idiosyncrasies).
A fascinating history of the Western world's discovery of anatomy and the true seat of the "soul" in the human body. The only flaw is that it's not really billed as being specific to Western civilization, but in truth it is, as there is no mention of Asia and Middle Eastern studies of anatomy and physiology.
Jun 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Engaging story of early alchemist-physicians who basically discovered the function of the brain and nervous system, thereby radically challenging prevailing views about the soul. In laying out how this all intersected with England's religious and political upheavals in the 1600's, Zimmer shows how powerful an idea can be.
Cassandra Kay Silva
Jun 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Great author, lots of wonderful history here. Not so much information about the brain, but lots of insight into what scientist in the 1600's were seeing and experimenting with as they tried to find the location of the human soul. It follows Willis mainly and includes a number of his original drawings which were delightful.
Jul 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
A book about the discovery of the purpose of the brain as more than a pump for the humors or a mostly inanimate blob. While well researched, I felt it dragged on somewhat, and coming away from the book, I felt more educated about past methods of scientific inquiry than the specific study of the brain.
Anderson Ferreira Sepulveda
It is not just about the history of anatomy or physiology of the brain in XVII century, started by Willis. It' about a group of men that initiated a "scientific revolution". Zimmer proposes to show how a complicated epoch in England affected and, at same time, encouraged men like Boyle, Hooke, Harvey to begin what we know as modern science.
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Carl Zimmer is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of 13 books about science. His latest book, She Has Her Mother's Laugh, will be published in May 2018. Zimmer is a frequent guest on Radiolab and has written hundreds of articles for magazines such as National Geographic, The Atlantic, and Wired. He is, to his knowledge, the only writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named ...more

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8 likes · 6 comments
“[Writing to Lucretius, on Epicurus' belief that the soul was no different from the rest of the cosmos; made of atoms] "Death is therefore nothing to us, and does not concern us at all, since it appears that the substance of the soul is perishable. When the separation of body and soul, whose union is the essence of our being, is consummated, it is clear that absolutely nothing will be able to reach us and awaken our sensibility, not even if earth mixes with sea, and sea with heaven.” 0 likes
“It was final sour proof of something Harvey had suspected for years: "Man, "he declared, "is but a great mischievous baboon.” 0 likes
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