Alt-Facts and Medical History

L0006584 Descartes: The Nervous System. Diagram of the brain
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Descartes: The Nervous System. Diagram of the brain and the pineal gland.
De Homine
Descartes, Rene
Published: 1662
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Last night at the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. George Makari, a historian, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, spoke about his latest book, The Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. The book traces the debates about the origins of the mind and the soul during the 16th through 18th centuries. It’s really a history of what makes us human. It’s also a story about how medical ideas take hold.

In 1649, go instance, René Descartes, an eminent French philosopher, claimed the pineal, a pea-sized gland in the brain, was the seat of the soul, or as Makari explained, “the meeting place between the soul and the mechanical disruptions that came from memories, sensory information, passions, appetites and bodily forces.” Other experts at the time thought the idea was cockamamie. Descartes was later proven wrong. Still, ideas persist.

Makari’s talk, much to my delight, added a new wrinkle to my own hormone-history research. In my forthcoming book, I explore medical testimony given during a trial dubbed the “Crime of the Century.” Two college students were charged with murdering a young boy. A doctor, called in to testify on behalf of the defendants, claimed that one of the killers, the ringleader, had a faulty pineal gland that screwed up his hormones, sparking a killer instinct. In other words, his hormones made him do it. Or his pineal gland made him do it. Either way, the judge didn’t buy it and both boys were both sentenced to life in prison.

What struck me when I heard Makari talk about the 17th century pineal gland debates wasn’t so much what this little gland does or doesn’t do, but how scientific ideas—whether true, false, or alternative facts—linger and shape our notions of health and disease for better and for worse.


PS: We know the pineal emits bursts of melatonin, a hormone, that controls our internal clock. Whether over-the-counter melatonin cures jetlag and promotes a good night sleep, well that’s still up for debate.


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