School of Medicine

The cell doctrine of brain function, as seen in three illustrated books, 1491-1543

From the WashU Becker Medical Library

We believe the earliest illustrations of the brain that can be found at Becker Library are in two books in from the 1490s: “Fasciculus medicinae, 1491” (facsimile 1988) and “Philosophia Pauperum (Philosophy for the simple),” 1496.

In these books, as well as in  “Margarita Philosophica” by Gregor Reisch, 1508, in Olin Library special collections, we find highly schematic pictures of the brain showing three or four circles or cells. They represent the medieval cell doctrine of brain function, which states that cognition and memory were stored in the cerebral ventricles, or fluid-filled interior spaces of the brain. This is very different from our modern understanding that mental processes are localized in different parts of the cerebral cortex.

The roots of the medieval cell doctrine go back to Aristotle’s (384-322 B.C.) ideas on cognition. He thought that the five senses came together in the head in a place called “sensus communis,” or common sensory input, where mental images were formed. The images were interpreted by cognitive processes and later stored in memory. By the fifth century,  Augustine and Nemesius, the Bishop of Emesa had assigned components of Aristotle’s cognitive ideas to the cerebral ventricles (Whitaker, 2007, p. 45).

One highly schematic illustration of ventricles of the brain (above) is found in the fifth table of anatomy in “Fasciculus medicinae, 1491” (1988 facsimile). The ventricles are labeled with their function from front to the back of the head as follows:

  1. Common sense
  2. Cell of the imaginative faculty
  3. Cell of the estimative or rational thinking faculty
  4. Cell of the faculty of memory (Ketham, 1988, p. 64)

Becker Library’s 1496 edition of “Philosophia Pauperum” contains only three ventricles or cavities in its illustration of the brain (below left). They consist of the anterior, a small posterior and the middle, not so much a ventricle as a passageway between the anterior and posterior (Clarke, 1972, p. 23). Albertus Magnus asserted that the anterior ventricle was connected to judgement, the posterior ventricle to memory and the intermediate position to imagination (Weisheipl, 1980).

  Read more at the Becker Medical Library.