What Can Historians Learn from Neuroscience?



Christopher U.M. Smith was the Dean of Faculty of Life and Health Sciences at Aston University in Birmingham, England. Retired from full-time employment since 1996, he is an Honorary Visiting Fellow in the Department of Vision Sciences.

Editor's Note: This article is the second in a two-part series on the intersection of history and neuroscience -- read the first part by Daniel Lord Smail here. It is our hope that these two essays will spark a lively conversation amongst historians about the opportunities and challenges that neuroscience and neurobiology present to the historical profession. We encourage comments below, on Twitter at @myHNN, on Facebook, or via email to editor@hnn.us.

False color image of a human brain. Credit: Wikipedia.

There is a flourishing academic interest in the history of neuroscience. An international society, the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) is devoted to its study, publishes a quarterly journal (the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences) and conferences are held each year.

But is there a similar interest in the neuroscience of history? Should there be? Can the great accession of knowledge in the neurosciences over the last decades be used to illuminate, to use the words of H.G. Wells, "what happened in history?"

This is an intriguing possibility. History, after all, records the deeds of men and women and these deeds are ultimately the outcome of the workings of the brain. Can our ever deeper understanding of these workings help us understand more fully what happened in history? Can it, perhaps, provide new angles on the human motivation which Thucydides, at the beginning of history, believed to be its major driver?

Both neuroscience and history are huge subject areas. It is unlikely that the one could illuminate every part of the other, and vice versa. Nevertheless there are several areas where, like Venn diagrams, the overlap is clear. One of these is the whole area of sensory physiology which has been the focus of much attention in recent years (1). This area is clearly relevant to what the French Annales movement call the history of mentalities (2).

Neuroscientists, for example, are steadily dissecting out the bases of taste and smell and showing how intimately they are related to the other senses and to the emotions (3). One of the great episodes in European history was the quest for spices in the East. This led to the great voyages of discovery with all their consequences. Similarly visual neuroscience has much to contribute the history of art. Chris Woolgar, in his 2006 book The Senses in Late Medieval England, has (finally) shown how the sensory world of medieval England was in many ways richer and far different from the world we live in today. All these histories could well benefit from neuroscientific insight.

Another significant overlap arises from our increasing understanding of neuropathologies. These frequently affect the highly stressed lives of the elderly men, and they are usually men, who have successfully climbed the greasy pole to the pinnacles of power. The former British Foreign Secretary, David Owen, trained in medicine and neurology, has published interesting analyses of the neurology of some recent political leaders (4). Other studies of the neuropathologies of significant historical figures include those of George III of England (5) and Abraham Lincoln who is thought to have suffered from a type of spinocerebellar ataxia (6). One must, of course, recognize that these new insights are only peripheral to the main business of historians: the pivotal role of Lincoln in the American Civil War or British politics at the accession of George III (7). It may be that some of these retrospective diagnoses will be open to confirmation by the new and powerful techniques of molecular genetics. In a recent article it has been suggested that the genes responsible for the neuropathologies of significant 19th century figures may still be retrieved from saliva adhering to postage stamps and envelope folds (8). Yet other techniques of this type of forensic genetics may be devised in the future to interrogate the historical record.

In this connection it is worth noting that not only neuropathologies but also human personalities have a genetic base. These are, of course, not the outcomes of single genes but of constellations of genes acting and interacting together, and these outcomes then interacting with the social and other environments (9). Now that the human genome has been deciphered, studies of these multigene effects have been published in numerous scientific journals (10). There is no doubt that a whole spectrum of human personalities is present in human societies, modified by life experience and cultural expectations.

Domesticated mammals, too, have their personalities. There is good evidence that these, like their physical characteristics, have been altered by millennia of domestication. May it not be that humans, also, have had their psychophysical characteristics modified by ‘domestication’? May it not be that certain personality types were selected to fit the mass labor required in the ancient riverine civilizations of the Middle and Far East and other personality types, less docile, more aggressive, even paranoid, selected to survive in, for example, the Castallan chaos of the early Middle Ages in Europe? (11).

Paranoid personalities are, of course, situated at the extreme end of the spectrum. It might be argued that schizophrenia marks the end of another spectrum of personality types. It is, we all know, an extremely disabling condition. Yet it has a strong genetic basis and it is puzzling that the predisposing genes have not been selected out of the genome (12). Can there be an up side? Can these genes, despite their devastating effect in full blown schizophrenia, have some advantageous outcomes when less dominant? An analogy is provided by the genetics of sickle-cell anemia. The gene for this similarly devastating condition remains in the population because, in its heterozygous state, it protects against the malarial parasite. Are the genes underlying schizophrenia, when expressed in a more restrained manner, responsible for the creative abilities of those who hear voices summoning them to leadership (Joan of Arc) or are otherwise convinced that they are ‘men of destiny’ (de Gaulle in 1940)?

Studies, such as these, on the neurogenetics and neurobiology of personality bring us into the vicinity of one of the most active areas of contemporary neuroscience – social neuroscience. This topic received an immense boost by the discovery of so-called mirror neurons by Giacomo Rizzolatti and co-workers in the late 1980s and 1990s (13). Mirror neurons fire both when an action is performed and when the subject sees the performance of a similar action. It may well be that their activity ensures that agency is detected where perhaps none exists. It has been suggested that they, plausibly account for the mythopoeic thought that is so universal a characteristic of primitive mankind (14). Primitive man sees agency everywhere (15). It has taken humanity countless millennia to recognize that the natural world is supremely indifferent to the hopes, fears and doings of homo sapiens.

This feature of the human brain is strongly reinforced by its overwhelming demand for "meaning" or "gestalt." Half a billion years of predator-prey "arms races" have ensured that sensory systems are exquisitely designed to detect pattern and breaks in pattern. Breaks in a patterned background warn prey animals that a camouflaged predator is moving in for the kill and, vice versa, allow a predator to detect camouflaged prey. We too have our patterns of expectation. When these are broken we are puzzled and adrift. Is it too much to suggest that, in addition to all the other causes of human strife, religious wars, inquisitions and autos da fé reflect this deep feature of the brain?

Space does not allow discussion of the many other features of the human brain ultimately traceable to its evolutionary history. Human societies, like those of many, but not all, other primates, show repeated movement toward dominance hierarchies. Often those at the top of these hierarchies adorn themselves in exaggerated costumes -- the emperors of the Aztecs and the Chinese, the grandees of European armies. These absurdities cannot but remind ethologists of the supernormal releasing stimuli of oversized eggs placed before nesting herring gulls (16). Perhaps, returning to an earlier topic, the spice trade was itself initiated by the quest for supernormal gustatory stimuli. There has also been no space to discuss the many relevant findings of contemporary neuroimagining. It is interesting, for example, to note that recent fMRI studies have shown that the social areas of adolescent brains differ from those of adults (17). These areas are still developing during adolescence. This may well be of interest to those working on the history of education or the history of dissent in society.

Finally, turning from small-scale histories to large-scale world or universal history, it may be that evolutionary neurobiology can, again, provide useful insights and analogies. It cannot have escaped the reader’s notice that the recent upsurge of interest in the social brain not only helps us understand the mind-sets and world-pictures of primitive mankind but also helps to explain the popularity of social networking in our present age. It may well be that those so-inclined could trace an axis of evolutionary history running through the coming together of neurons to form nervous systems, the development of eusociality -- Wilson defined four pinnacles (18) -- to the billion-strong social network running across cyberspace today. It may be, also, that animal phylogeny can provide interesting analogies, indeed, perhaps more than just analogies, with the sweep of world history. Conway Morris, for instance, argues that of the vast assemblage of weird and wonderful forms (19) that appeared in the Cambrian "explosion" 545 million years ago only three major "designs" have won through to the present age: arthropods, mollusks, chordates. Perhaps we should look again at the largely neglected ideas of Spengler, Toynbee and others. Perhaps a similar winnowing is at work in human history. Perhaps we are converging on two great solutions: the Chinese and the West, or, as Francis Fukuyama once thought, just one, the West’s free-market capitalism. In ending, a note of caution is, however, needed. There are, no doubt, surprises in store. Charles Darwin taught us, contrary to "Whig interpretations" (20), that there are no crystal balls, the future is not predictable, there is no "point omega" to which biological and/or human history points.


(1) Christopher Smith, Biology of Sensory Systems (Chichester: Wiley/Blackwell, 2009).

(2) Robert Mandrou, "L’histoire des mentalities," Encyclopaedia universalis 8 (1968), 436-438. Patrick H. Hutton, "The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History," History and Theory 20 (1981), 237.

(3) Herb Brody, "Taste," Nature 486 (2012): S1-S18.

(4) David Owen, The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair, & the Intoxication of Power (London: Politico, 2007) and In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years (London: Methuen, 2008).

(5) T.J. Peters and A. Beveridge, “The Blindness, Deafness and Madness of King George III: Psychiatric Interactions,” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 40 (2010): 81–85.

(6) Laura P.W. Ranum, Katherine A.D. Krueger, and Lawrence J. Schut, “Abraham Lincoln May Have Had SCA Type 5,” Neurology 74 (2010): 1836–7.

(7) Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (London: Macmillan, 1929).

(8) Paul Butler, "A Stroke of Bad Luck: CADASIL and Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Dementia’ or Madness," in Patrick McNamara, ed., vol. 1 of Dementia, (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011), 57-74.

(9) Lars Penke, Jaap J.A. Denissen, and Geoffrey F. Miller, “The Evolutionary Genetics of Personality,” European Journal of Personality 21 (2007): 549–587.

(10) Monya Baker, "Gene data to hit milestone," Nature 487 (2012): 282-283.

(11) Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

(12) Bernard Crespi, Kyle Summers, and Steve Dorus, “Adaptive Evolution of Genes Underlying Schizophrenia,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274 (2007): 2791–2799.

(13) G. di Pellegrino, L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, and Giacomo Rizzolatti, "Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study," Experimental Brain Research 91 (1992): 176-180, and Rizzolatti and Maddalena Fabbri-Destro, "Mirror neurons: from discovery to autism," Experimental Brain Research 200 (2010): 223–37.

(14) Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (New York: Penguin Books, 1960).

(15) Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghostsand Gods to Politics and Conspiracies --- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011).

(16) Nikolaas Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951).

(17) S.J. Blakemore, "Development of the social brain in adolescence," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 106 (2012): 111-116.

(18) Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975).

(19) Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1990).

(20) Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: Norton, 1930).

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