Brains & Nerves

Unit-Wide Questions:

  • Is the brain the central factor in psychology and related fields? Is there another way we could think about psychology?
  • Is the brain different than the nervous system? How so? Is one responsible for mental states and the other physical ones? Are these two things different?
  • Does thinking about a specific site of illness mean you have to target the same site for intervention? Why or why not? How do contemporary psychologists answer this question in practice?
  • How have our ideas about the brain evolved?
  • Are our contemporary ideas correct? How can we know?
  • Do our contemporary ideas reflect historical ideas about brains? How so?
  • Is the brain the same thing as the mind? What is the relationship between the mind and the brain? Does thinking about this through the lens of behaviorism or Gestalt theory help you draw conclusions? What would believers of each framework say?
  • How do we sort different illnesses into different specialist categories? Why is something a neurological problem rather than medical one? Why are some things mental illnesses and others are neurological disorders? What bearing does this have on treatments?
  • Is there a line between physical disorders and mental ones? If so, where is it? What does our ever-increasing knowledge of the brain mean for this line? What about non-brain science, like research on the effect of the gut microbiome, mean?
  • If ideas about nerves could impact and be impacted by so many other factors (gender, modernity, class, etc.) during the latter half of the 19th century, what modern factors link up to our current ideas about psychology? What recent psychological discoveries or theories have changed how we think about society as a whole?
  • Compare what different kinds of sources can tell us about psychology. Are fictional stories valid? What about patient narratives? What about non-psychologist accounts about other people’s mental illness?
    • What does this say about expertise, whose viewpoints are important, and whose viewpoints get to be heard?
    • What does it say about creativity and objectivity? Is a research study with data more valid than a creative attempt to express a mental state?

September 18: Early American Neurology


Optional reading:

  • Debra Journet, “Phantom Limbs and ‘Body-Ego’: S. Weir Mitchell’s ‘George Dedlow’” (Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter 1990)
  • David G. Schuster, “Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weird Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870-1914” (Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 79, No. 4, Winter 2005)
  • Barbara Sicherman, “The Uses of a Diagnosis: Doctors, Patients, and Neurasthenia” (Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 23, No. 1, January 1977)


  • Why did people become interested in nerves at this time? What material factors created the ability to study the nervous system?
  • What role does modernity play in 19th century understandings of nerves? What about gender?
  • Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” after Silas Weir Mitchell recommended the rest cure for her. She stated that she had written the story to show him the error of his ways and even sent him a copy. How do Gilman and Mitchell’s perspectives on treatment differ? Why do they differ?
  • What’s wrong with the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper”? How would we explain her situation today? Is it psychological? Physical? Social?

September 23: Psychosurgery





  • Why did lobotomies become popular?
  • Did they work? For what?
  • Were they ethical? If not, why not? Think about other physical interventions we make to the body; is a lobotomy different from an amputation or other irreversible treatments?
  • How does patient consent play into this? If a patient is ill enough to need a lobotomy, can they give consent? If not, should they simply not be treated?
  • How do we know a treatment works? What does it mean for a treatment to work? Does this require an underlying theory or merely observational data?