The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves, by Thomas Willis

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In contrast to Descartes, the English anatomist and physician Thomas Willis (1621–1675) proposed a distributed localization of the faculties.


Celebrated as the founder of modern neuroanatomy and clinical neuroscience, he provided seminal descriptions of many structures, notably the vasculature at the base of the brain, known as the circle of Willis, as well as the cranial nerves; he also described morphological abnormalities in pathological cases, for example, congenital mental retardation and unilateral paralysis (Molnár 2004, Rengachary et al. 2008). Postmortem study of brain lesions provoked by a loss of blood supply as well as comparisons between the cortex of humans and other animals led him to conclude that the cerebrum was the seat of the rational soul in humans and of the sensitive soul in animals. 

Nevertheless, in his Oxford lectures of the 1660s on the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the nervous system, Willis explained functions such as the will or memory by the circulation of the animal spirits in the cerebral convolutions. In The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves, first published in Latin in 1664, he accounted for the difference in cerebral convolutions between humans and animals by “the dispensation of the animal Spirits.” His explanations combine a basically humoral physiology with a new emphasis on the “substance” of the brain.

Vidal, Fernando and Ortega, Francisco. Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (Forms of Living)....

Portrait of Thomas Willis, engraved by David Loggan in 1666 (from "The Book of Oxford", printed for...

Source of the image and caption

You can learn more about Thomas Willis and his work in the following links:

Thomas Willis (1621-1675): The Founder of Neurology, an article by William Feindel

Entry about Thomas Willis in the Bulletin of the Royal College of Surgeons of England

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Published in 8/01/2019

Updated in 19/02/2021

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