‘Humans have wondered for tens of thousands of years what thoughts are, and where they come from. For most of our history, people either thought that emotions and feelings were centred in the heart or the gut or even the kidneys, or that we were as one with the land, and that our thoughts flowed from that link. Today, scientists have shown that thought is based in the brain, and and many people imagine the brain is like a computer. I will show how we came to this understanding, and in particular how comparisons of the brain with machines (hydraulic mechanisms, telegraph system, telephone exchanges) were used to explain what the brain does before we developed the link with computers. If we are always using comparisons with machines to understand the brain, what does the future hold, when we have developed new technology even more powerful than a computer?’
Matthew Cobb is Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, where he studies the sense of smell, insect behaviour and the history of science. The Idea of the Brain, which was published in March, just before lockdown, is his third popular book on the history of science – the previous two, Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code, and The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists who Uncovered the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, both won prizes.