A history of psychology, warts and mysteries and all

“Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology” at the Science Museum is an exhibition which offers few rigid conclusions.


Shock treatment: a 19th-century apothecary experiments with electricity. Image: by Edmund Bristow (1824) courtesy of the Science Museum. 

It looks more like an art installation than the remains of a 400-year-old experiment: a life-size image of a man rendered in dark, angry scrawls on a wooden panel. It is, in fact, a human nervous system, painstakingly removed from a corpse by Italian medical students and then varnished on to the dissecting table. Scientists in the 17th century believed that human beings were animated by the “animal spirit” that flowed from the brain down the nerves.

The display is part of the “Mind Maps” exhibition at the Science Museum in London, which explores how people have tried to gain a better understanding of their minds.

For such an ambitious project, the exhibition is unexpectedly compact: the material is organised around four brief periods, each one marking a significant shift in psychology. We start in 1790-1810, when a distinguished cast of historical figures was brought together through attempts to cure “nervous disorders”. There’s a glass harmonica, designed by the American founding father Benjamin Franklin, which was used in séances by Dr Franz Anton Mesmer, from whom we derive the verb “to mesmerise”. So impressed was Mozart by Mesmer’s instrument, he composed music for it. His eerie melodies induced convulsions in Mesmer’s patients.

Around the same time, medics were exploring the effect that electricity could have on the nerves. John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, was an early proponent of the use of small electric shocks to cure ailments ranging from headaches to “insanity”. The Italian scientist Luigi Galvani was fascinated by this link and spent much of his life applying electric shocks to dead frogs to explore how their legs moved. In 1803 Galvani applied electricity to a human cadaver in London to reanimate its limbs – a gruesome experiment said to have inspired Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.

Jump forward to the turn of the 20th century and nervous disorders were a common preoccupation, seen as a product of the stresses of modern life. What we now call depression was then “nerve weakness”, to be treated with amulets, poisonous nerve tonics or electric currents. It took a former nerve doctor, Sigmund Freud, to argue that mental illness might be the result of unresolved emotions.

By the 1930s modern technologies allowed scientists to probe deeper into the brain. We learned how to measure brainwaves; a discovery that ushered in one of the most troubling periods of mental health care. The 1930s marked the first use of some of our most invasive treatments for mental illness, including electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies, carried out with little understanding of how or why they might work.

So how far have we come? “Mind Maps” wisely leaves this question unanswered. Advanced scanning techniques have allowed us an ever more detailed understanding of the brain’s physical structure but there’s also renewed interest in low-tech solutions. Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy demonstrate a new emphasis on empowering patients to take charge of their own recovery. Meanwhile, the “communicube” and the “communiwell” – stones, buttons and tokens placed on a structure resembling a cake stand, used to help people describe and position the voices they hear in their head – don’t look so very different from the amulets our forebears might have carried to ward off mental illness.

Perhaps that’s fitting, because, for all our scientific sophistication, elements of human consciousness still feel as remote and underexplored as the surface of Mars.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.