Cornhill Magazine,  5 (1862), 153–66.

What are the Nerves?

[James Hinton]



Relevant illustrations:

wdct. [8]


Neurology, Astronomy, Natural Law, Analogy, Telegraphy, Soul, Physiology, Politics, Government

People mentioned:

Charles Bell , Marshall Hall , William B Carpenter , Claude Bernard

    Begins by asserting that 'there is hardly anything in the whole range of science better ascertained, or more simple' than the 'fundamental principles' of nervous activity (153). The nervous system resembles 'an elaborate telegraphic system' (156) in which 'the living telegraph flashes along its wires not only messages, but the force also which ensures their fulfilment' (160). It is from the brain and spinal cord that these fibrous wires emanate. However, even though 'the grey matter of the brain' is 'the laboratory of reason; the birthplace of thought; the home of genius and imagination; the palace of the soul', it is in fact 'a structure of the very lowest form. Mere cells and granules—Nature's first and roughest work' (158). Draws attention to recent considerations of the 'reflex function' of the nervous system by which 'actions having all the appearance of design may be produced' even though they are accompanied by 'no feeling and no will' (160). The reflex function suggests that 'we live an automatic life, in which various actions are carried on merely by virtue of the mechanical powers in the organs, and the arrangement of the nerves and cells within the spinal cord'. While this may be the case with the lowest animals, 'Man is the least automatic of all animals, through the greater preponderance of his conscious part, which uses the automatic organs as its ever ready instrument'. Indeed, this machinery of 'automatic action' is only 'the superstructure of our conscious, our human, life' and is ruled by 'the dictates of consciousness and will'. (163) The 'unconscious operation of nervous power' which controls functions such as respiration allows the human mind to be 'emancipated, and placed in its fit relations; devoted to other interests and burdened with nobler cares' (164). Concludes that a 'sort of constitutional monarchy exists within us' in which 'the brain is King', although 'no power in this small state is absolute' and the maintenance of 'the "constitution" of our personal realm' depends upon each of the different powers and organs being 'lawfully directed to a common end' (166).


Hinton 1871

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