IX. THE NEW SCIENCE OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY
This sympathetic system of ganglia and nerves, by-the-bye, had long been a puzzle to the physiologists. Its ganglia, the seeming centre of the system, usually minute in size and never very large, are found everywhere through the organism, but in particular are gathered into a long double chain which lies within the body cavity, outside the spinal column, and represents the sole nervous system of the non-vertebrated organisms. Fibrils from these ganglia were seen to join the cranial and spinal nerve fibrils and to accompany them everywhere, but what special function they subserved was long a mere matter of conjecture and led to many absurd speculations. Fact was not substituted for conjecture until about the year 1851, when the great Frenchman Claude Bernard conclusively proved that at least one chief function of the sympathetic fibrils is to cause contraction of the walls of the arterioles of the system, thus regulating the blood-supply of any given part. Ten years earlier Henle had demonstrated the existence of annular bands of muscle fibres in the arterioles, hitherto a much-mooted question, and several tentative explanations of the action of these fibres had been made, particularly by the brothers Weber, by Stilling, who, as early as 1840, had ventured to speak of "vaso-motor" nerves, and by Schiff, who was hard upon the same track at the time of Bernard's discovery. But a clear light was not thrown on the subject until Bernard's experiments were made in 1851. The experiments were soon after confirmed and extended by Brown-Sequard, Waller, Budge, and numerous others, and henceforth physiologists felt that they understood how the blood-supply of any given part is regulated by the nervous system.
In reality, however, they had learned only half the story, as Bernard himself proved only a few years later by opening up a new and quite unsuspected chapter. While experimenting in 1858 he discovered that there are certain nerves supplying the heart which, if stimulated, cause that organ to relax and cease beating. As the heart is essentially nothing more than an aggregation of muscles, this phenomenon was utterly puzzling and without precedent in the experience of physiologists. An impulse travelling along a motor nerve had been supposed to be able to cause a muscular contraction and to do nothing else; yet here such an impulse had exactly the opposite effect. The only tenable explanation seemed to be that this particular impulse must arrest or inhibit the action of the impulses that ordinarily cause the heart muscles to contract. But the idea of such inhibition of one impulse by another was utterly novel and at first difficult to comprehend. Gradually, however, the idea took its place in the current knowledge of nerve physiology, and in time it came to be understood that what happens in the case of the heart nerve-supply is only a particular case under a very general, indeed universal, form of nervous action. Growing out of Bernard's initial discovery came the final understanding that the entire nervous system is a mechanism of centres subordinate and centres superior, the action of the one of which may be counteracted and annulled in effect by the action of the other. This applies not merely to such physical processes as heart-beats and arterial contraction and relaxing, but to the most intricate functionings which have their counterpart in psychical processes as well. Thus the observation of the inhibition of the heart's action by a nervous impulse furnished the point of departure for studies that led to a better understanding of the modus operandi of the mind's activities than had ever previously been attained by the most subtle of psychologists.
The work of the nerve physiologists had thus an important bearing on questions of the mind. But there was another company of workers of this period who made an even more direct assault upon the "citadel of thought." A remarkable school of workers had been developed in Germany, the leaders being men who, having more or less of innate metaphysical bias as a national birthright, had also the instincts of the empirical scientist, and whose educational equipment included a profound knowledge not alone of physiology and psychology, but of physics and mathematics as well. These men undertook the novel task of interrogating the relations of body and mind from the standpoint of physics. They sought to apply the vernier and the balance, as far as might be, to the intangible processes of mind.
The movement had its precursory stages in the early part of the century, notably in the mathematical psychology of Herbart, but its first definite output to attract general attention came from the master-hand of Hermann Helmholtz in 1851. It consisted of the accurate measurement of the speed of transit of a nervous impulse along a nerve tract. To make such measurement had been regarded as impossible, it being supposed that the flight of the nervous impulse was practically instantaneous. But Helmholtz readily demonstrated the contrary, showing that the nerve cord is a relatively sluggish message-bearer. According to his experiments, first performed upon the frog, the nervous "current" travels less than one hundred feet per second. Other experiments performed soon afterwards by Helmholtz himself, and by various followers, chief among whom was Du Bois-Reymond, modified somewhat the exact figures at first obtained, but did not change the general bearings of the early results. Thus the nervous impulse was shown to be something far different, as regards speed of transit, at any rate, from the electric current to which it had been so often likened. An electric current would flash halfway round the globe while a nervous impulse could travel the length of the human body—from a man's foot to his brain.