Back to zero

Back to the zero

The golden age of psychometrics extended from the first measurements of current in the nerves, effected by Helmholtz, and the first attempt to measure the time of sensation, which was performed by Helmholtz’s student, Sigmund Exner, up to the Pavlovian era of the conditioned reflex in the 20s. It was a mad scramble of different instruments all employed to make psychology a science of the smallest interval – the measure of the thought, the nerve impulse, the present of seeing, hearing, and touching. He who says science says measurement – such was the law and the prophets in the 19th century – and under this law, psychology seemed, by its very object, to be excluded – since psychological states seem preeminently qualitative. But instrument by instrument (the myrograph! the Weber compass! The kymograph!), a physiological route to psychological states was carved out. If the object of psychology was not the qualitative state, but the quantitative reflex arc, then psychology could finally be legitimated as something more than a mishmash of post-humoral speculations, for it would have found its total material correlate.

By the 1860s, some advances had been made in the instrumentation and measurement of current in the nerves in relation to stimulus. Helmholtz had determined, through the use of a galvonometer, calculating the distance between the nerve end to be stimulated and the muscular contraction that was observed, the time measuring the traversal of the nerve current. He found that the impulse took between 0.0014 and 0.0020 seconds, which meant that the speed of the conduction was between 25 and 43 meters per second. As in frogs, so in man. If shock were collision, if stimulus could be reduced to mechanical motion, then we could set up our speeds for the present.

But was shock collision?

It was at this point that we can locate as an event in both science and literature an essay written by a Russian physiologist, Ivan Sechenov, entitled Reflex Actions of the Brain (1863). It was an essay that drew conclusions from clinical and laboratory work to evoke a certain paradigm for working with the mental.  They key was the reflex:

“Thus all the exterior manifestations of cerebral activity are reduced to muscular movements. This very much simplifies the question. In fact, an almost infinite multitude of phenomena are reduced to the combined play of some tens of muscles… Furthermore, the reader may immediately perceive that all qualities appertaining to exterior manifestations of cerebral activity: animation, passion, mockery, sadness, joy, etc. are of a mechanical origin. The most rigid spiritualist is obliged to agree. Besides, could it be otherwise when we know that the stone comes to life under the hand of the sculptor and that that of the musician pulls out from an inert instrument sounds that are full of life and passion? Thus the hand of these artists being only apt to produce purely mechanical movements, how could it in turn introduce in the sounds and forms a passionate expression, if it were not in its turn a purely mechanical act? After what we have said, do you not feel, dear reader, that a moment must come when we can analyse the exterior manifestations of cerebral activity as easily as the physician today analyses a musical accord or the phenomena given by a falling body?” [My translation of the French translation]

It was this address to the reader that strained the Russian censor’s tolerance. The essay in which Sechenev was not originally meant to be published in a medical journal. It was meant to be published in a literary one, The Contemporary, edited by one of the famous names in Russia’s politico-literary history: Chernyshevsky. 

By the time The Contemporary was banned, Chernyshevsky was already in prison. It was in prison that Chernyshevsky wrote What is to be Done, featuring a materialist physiologist based on Sechenov. And in one of those reflex arcs that are called “response” or “influence” in literary criticism and intellectual history, Chernyshevsky’s book called forth another book, Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Mousehole.

It is hard to read Sechenov’s essay without seeing the shadow retrospectively cast across it by Dostoevsky. For instance, this is how Sechenov makes the point that what we call habit is a matter of muscular movement:

“Fearing to multiply examples, I will limit myself to asking my readers: is there anything in the world that is so repugnant, so horrible, that man cannot get used to it? Each will doubtlessly respond that there isn’t. And yet each knows that, in order to get used to many things, one needs to make long and painful efforts. To get used to odious or repugnant things isn’t about supporting them without effort (to claim this would be absurd), it is about directing one’s effort skillfully.” (19)

Yet, this flash of the real vileness of life has a scientific purpose. Sechenov was, if not the sole discoverer, the great purveyor of the idea of inhibition. In this sense, Sechenov closes out a period in which shock, whether as something vital or as mechanical motion, had a simple relationship to the body electric of man.

“Twenty years ago, physiologists still believed that the excitation of every nerve attached to a muscle led infallibly to a contraction of the latter. And then Eduard Weber demonstrated, by the aid of irrefutable experiments, that the excitation of the nerve wave which, by certain of its ramifications, arrives at the heart not only does not augment the activity of the latter organ, but even paralyzes it.”

After listing other discoveries in this vein, Sechenov writes a sentence that is heavy with the future: “In the presence of these facts, the idea has gained, little by little, credit with  contemporary physiologists that nervous influences can exist in the animal body having for result to moderate or even arrest involuntary movements.”

In other words, there exists inhibition. The shadow side of shock, numbness, has a physiological correlate. And it is from numbness, from inhibition, that we can build out, precariously, the spiritual world beyond the muscle:

“Knowing all these facts, can contemporary physiologists refuse to admit in the human body –and notably in the brain, since the will only operates by the intermediary of that organ –the existence of mechanisms that arrest reflex movement?” (22)

The complexity added by inhibition to the reflex picture is then compounded with another feature of animal life: the natural exaggeration to which the animal is carried by sudden circumstances, emergencies, fears. Sechenov lists them, including stories of the sudden incredible strength of the weak in emergencies, the fleetfootedness of asthmatics in panic, and various Plinian stories of animal feats. All of which does not bring us outside the mechanical – one can devise machines that also perform non-linearly. However, it does bring us outside the predictable. To find a place for inhibition and exaggeration in our animal life, Sechenov considers that there is such a thing as unconscious reflex action.  

“Thus, the operations which produce an accumulation of the final energy of reflex action take place in the cerebral hemispheres. There is two ways to explain the fact: the mechanism in question could itself be organized on the plan of the reflector, and thus its central partmust serve as a point of junction between sensitive and motor nerves; or one could consider it as an appendix to the reflector, producing unconscious reflex actions. This second conjecture is infinitely more probable than the first…”

Shock leads us here, to a point where numbness, inhibition, and the unconscious meet. The experimental data for this will come not simply from the beheaded frogs and trepanned cats of the laboratory, but from men and women – in train wrecks, entangled in factory machinery, under bombardment. The shocks produced by the industrial experience will carry the unconscious reflex action into the court room, make it a matter for insurance adjustors as well as doctors, lawyers as well as researchers, and create a massive trace that will be felt by the agents of circulation as well as the working class.