Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind (Book Review)

Book Review of Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind by Ben Shephard. Reviewed by Amy Ione.

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
by Ben Shephard

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind traces a slice of history that in turn introduces us to some of those drawn to study human psychology and mental health a few decades after Darwin’s theory of evolution took root. Four of these pioneers are the focus of this book: William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers, and William McDougall. They met at Cambridge in the 1890s and Shephard links their lives more broadly through their efforts to study the brain as biological approaches were gaining increased leverage due to Darwin’s work. The author begins the book by placing us in that context:

“How, then, did the human brain evolve? Why did it evolve as it did? In the 1870s, modern experimental neuroscience began, using electricity to stimulate the nervous system of animals and microscopes to observe the nerve cells of humans. Within two decades, researchers had established the location of functions within the brain, unraveled the way that the nervous system automatically governs the body’s functions, and begun to discover how messages are sent between neurons and synapses. But these extraordinary advances only posed further questions — about human behavior; man’s relations to his fellow primates, and the human occupation of the earth. A generation of scientists went looking for answers” (p. 1).

Whereas I had hoped Shepard would speak to the specific innovations and insights alluded to in the paragraph quoted above he does not. Rather his analysis is intended primarily to experientially contextualize brain research. Thus, as we meet these men we can see that their epoch was quite different from our own technologically and in terms of connectivity. We can also conceptualize how their pursuits seeded today’s scientific and social scientific investigations. For example, the many geographical arenas these four figures populated as they worked show us that the broader world scientists engaged with at the end of the nineteenth century laid the foundations for the kind of cross-disciplinary, global research we take for granted today. We also see that their work laid the foundations for what we now call anthropology, evolutionary biology, ethnology, psychology, psychiatry, and zoology.

Headhunters begins by bringing the four men together through a 1898 expedition organized by Alfred Cort Haddon to the Torres Straits. It was this project and anthropological field studies in Melanesia that brought Rivers, Myers, and McDougall in direct contact with one another. A parallel trajectory connected Rivers with Smith through a collaboration they forged after they met in Egypt. In this case, Rivers was collecting data on cross-cultural sensory perception and his interest in diffusion as a mode of cultural change impressed Smith, who later elaborated a theory of global diffusion from an Egyptian origin. This was one of several projects that spoke to their shared interest in human evolution as Darwinian ideas gained footing.  Shell shock, a psychological condition caused by warfare, also brought them together, as discussed below. Once their reputations were established each of the four men also brought a sense of social engagement to his career.

Well researched and filled with entries from journals and other primary sources I found the book insightful and compelling when the biographies were effectively melded, as is the case in the section speaking about how the war changed their lives. Where the book is particularly strong is in conveying an ongoing reframing of knowledge within individual lives and in showing that these kinds of personal changes mirror the larger culture as well. In this case, a good example is how the pioneers helped reformulate the views of the Victorian culture that bred them. The concept of “lower races” was among the well-established tropes of the time when these researchers were educated. Over the course of the book we learn how the idea was both adopted and refuted as the men first reckoned with their findings from studies of non-Western people and then found themselves needing to come to grips with the first World War and its aftermath. In other words, if early anthropology was intended to gain insight into the “lower races,” fieldwork did not justify this conclusion. More precisely, if the 1898 expedition to the Torres Straits was transformative initially in terms of raising questions about European prejudices, it also had its own problems. What stood out is that when the researchers asked if primitive brains are more sensitive to sensory stimuli they found no significant differences. Later, however, when it was discovered there were methodological flaws that accompanied their data gathering the same work opened a space for the racial biases to return. Some of the later revisions fueled Nazi theories later in the 20th century.

Another strong area was the way this book brought to mind the long historical record of brain research related to head injuries and war injuries. This line of inquiry extends back to early Neolithic trepanations and the medical case studies from Ancient Egypt recorded in documents like the Edwin Smith Papyrus. It also extends forward to current studies of concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Headhunters discussions of efforts to heal and define shell shock not only provides another iteration of the ongoing investigations, it also underscores their importance. In the book Shepherd compares shell shock to classic cases of hysterical dissociation, where patients reacted to some awful experience by developing physical symptoms such as deafness, paralysis or stuttering. We also learn that Charles Myers introduced the term “shell shock” in a 1915 article in The British Medical Journal, using it to reflect an assumed link between the symptoms and the effects of explosions from artillery shells. He studied afflictions while serving in the army in France. In parallel, Rivers developed a methodology based on dream analysis and a patient’s emotional response. (Shepherd’s studies of Rivers’ most famous patient, the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, led to the narratives of the Headhunters book.) William McDougall, a student of Rivers, like Myers, argued that shell shock could be cured through cognitive and affective reintegration. He wrote of patients he treated in England. Smith coauthored Shellshock and its Lessons (with Tom Hatherly Pear) to explain the condition and its unique set of circumstances. These authors wrote that that anyone could develop a psychoneurosis if exposed to a sufficiently difficult environment, which refuted the pre-war ideas that mental illness was hereditary and untreatable.

Staying on track was a problem I had while reading the book. It was not just that some sections worked better than others. Rather, because the four only sporadically worked in tandem, the threads seemed to unravel at times. For example, we are told that Myers and McDougall disliked one another after the Torres Straits expedition, but it is unclear why, or the degree to which their personality differences influenced their later work and interactions. In other words, since the four lives were often only minimally intertwined, the narratives did not always cohere. Still, this lack of coherence also allows Shephard to effectively remind us that every age redefines its assumptions and as they do so ideas about the human mind and psychology change as well.

From a late 19th, early 20th century perspective we can speak of the biological story in terms of how neurologists formulated hypotheses about the origins and nature of our cognitive architecture. We can also explain that thinkers, mainly men, joined forces with those working in fields we now define as ethnology, evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, and so forth in their efforts to create a science of mind. Similarly, just as we learn that earlier thinkers like McDougall endeavored to forge a grand synthesis of physiology and philosophy of mind, we can identify cohorts focused on the task today. A compelling study, Headhunters conveys this ebb and flow through introducing a cohort that explored the brain and the nervous system at a time when the culture was re-evaluating the human’s place in history. Shephard extraordinary rendition deftly shows that this period clearly informed our own time. His presentation also underscores that science includes individual idiosyncrasies and passions. Admittedly, I came to the book hoping for an in-depth analysis of how Darwinian ideas had changed studies of human psychology. Since Shepherd’s goal was to present biographical information rather than an academic analysis on brain research, what I had hoped to find was not within this book’s scope.

The scientific and social scientific landscape of our time shows that projects like those conceived by Rivers, Smith, Myers, and McDougall continue to entice human minds. Contemporary fields such as neuroanthropology and neurohistory expand on the legacy of these pioneers, even as the details of the work these men presented have receded into the background. Thus, while readers looking for a scientific critique of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will no doubt find this book limited, I do recommend it to those seeking a more generalized picture. People who are drawn to wonder about the nature of those who study human nature will no doubt find this volume illuminating as well. Despite some disappointments with the book overall, I was glad I read it and learned of the work done by William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers, and William McDougall since I was only vaguely aware of the contributions of these four men previously. Indeed, this survey no doubt expanded my sense of several minds behind the brain research of another time.

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Book info:

Headhunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
by Ben Shephard
Vintage, 2014
323pp., paper, £11.99
ISBN: 978-0-099-565734