IX. THE NEW SCIENCE OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY
Attempts were made to find an answer through consideration of the very peculiar character of the blood-supply in the brain. Here, as nowhere else, the terminal twigs of the arteries are arranged in closed systems, not anastomosing freely with neighboring systems. Clearly, then, a restricted area of the brain may, through the controlling influence of the vasomotor nerves, be flushed with arterial blood while neighboring parts remain relatively anaemic. And since vital activities unquestionably depend in part upon the supply of arterial blood, this peculiar arrangement of the vascular mechanism may very properly be supposed to aid in the localized activities of the central nervous ganglia. But this explanation left much to be desired—in particular when it is recalled that all higher intellection must in all probability involve multitudes of widely scattered centres.
No better explanation was forthcoming, however, until the year 1889, when of a sudden the mystery was cleared away by a fresh discovery. Not long before this the Italian histologist Dr. Camille Golgi had discovered a method of impregnating hardened brain tissues with a solution of nitrate of silver, with the result of staining the nerve cells and their processes almost infinitely better than was possible by the methods of Gerlach, or by any of the multiform methods that other workers had introduced. Now for the first time it became possible to trace the cellular prolongations definitely to their termini, for the finer fibrils had not been rendered visible by any previous method of treatment. Golgi himself proved that the set of fibrils known as protoplasmic prolongations terminate by free extremities, and have no direct connection with any cell save the one from which they spring. He showed also that the axis cylinders give off multitudes of lateral branches not hitherto suspected. But here he paused, missing the real import of the discovery of which he was hard on the track. It remained for the Spanish histologist Dr. S. Ramon y Cajal to follow up the investigation by means of an improved application of Golgi's method of staining, and to demonstrate that the axis cylinders, together with all their collateral branches, though sometimes extending to a great distance, yet finally terminate, like the other cell prolongations, in arborescent fibrils having free extremities. In a word, it was shown that each central nerve cell, with its fibrillar offshoots, is an isolated entity. Instead of being in physical connection with a multitude of other nerve cells, it has no direct physical connection with any other nerve cell whatever.
When Dr. Cajal announced his discovery, in 1889, his revolutionary claims not unnaturally amazed the mass of histologists. There were some few of them, however, who were not quite unprepared for the revelation; in particular His, who had half suspected the independence of the cells, because they seemed to develop from dissociated centres; and Forel, who based a similar suspicion on the fact that he had never been able actually to trace a fibre from one cell to another. These observers then came readily to repeat Cajal's experiments. So also did the veteran histologist Kolliker, and soon afterwards all the leaders everywhere. The result was a practically unanimous confirmation of the Spanish histologist's claims, and within a few months after his announcements the old theory of union of nerve cells into an endless mesh-work was completely discarded, and the theory of isolated nerve elements—the theory of neurons, as it came to be called—was fully established in its place.
As to how these isolated nerve cells functionate, Dr. Cajal gave the clew from the very first, and his explanation has met with universal approval.
In the modified view, the nerve cell retains its old position as the storehouse of nervous energy. Each of the filaments jutting out from the cell is held, as before, to be indeed a transmitter of impulses, but a transmitter that operates intermittently, like a telephone wire that is not always "connected," and, like that wire, the nerve fibril operates by contact and not by continuity. Under proper stimulation the ends of the fibrils reach out, come in contact with other end fibrils of other cells, and conduct their destined impulse. Again they retract, and communication ceases for the time between those particular cells. Meantime, by a different arrangement of the various conductors, different sets of cells are placed in communication, different associations of nervous impulses induced, different trains of thought engendered. Each fibril when retracted becomes a non-conductor, but when extended and in contact with another fibril, or with the body of another cell, it conducts its message as readily as a continuous filament could do—precisely as in the case of an electric wire.
This conception, founded on a most tangible anatomical basis, enables us to answer the question as to how ideas are isolated, and also, as Dr. Cajal points out, throws new light on many other mental processes. One can imagine, for example, by keeping in mind the flexible nerve prolongations, how new trains of thought may be engendered through novel associations of cells; how facility of thought or of action in certain directions is acquired through the habitual making of certain nerve-cell connections; how certain bits of knowledge may escape our memory and refuse to be found for a time because of a temporary incapacity of the nerve cells to make the proper connections, and so on indefinitely.