Popular Science Monthly/Volume 81/August 1912/The World's Most Important Conservation Problem




THE world's most important problem is the discovery of methods of conserving and increasing the brain power of mankind. If we are judged by our ignorant and reckless dissipation of energy of the most complicated organ, which the process of evolution brings to us as a priceless heritage, we are still in the infancy of the race. Life, movement and being depend upon the activity of the brain and nervous system, our superiority over the lower animals is the result of greater brain power, while our relative ranking as members of the human family is commonly rated by the amount of "brains" we possess. Individual success no less than national greatness is proportional to brain power. A victory in modern warfare is a sign of greater mental efficiency than was necessary among the soldiers a century ago, while the efforts to win success in peace have lined the roads leading to the mountain tops with a far larger number of those who are mortally wounded in spirit than ever fell on the field of battle.

One of Napoleon's greatest errors was his failure to become interested in Pestalozzi's scheme of national education on the ground that he had no time to trouble about the alphabet. The conqueror forgot that brains and not brawn rule the world. In the great struggle of modern civilization, success as well as life depends upon the functional capacity of the brain and nervous system. What will the lessons of history profit or the teachings of wise men avail if these organs are too weak to translate precept into action?

It is a mere truism to affirm that the ultimate destiny of our civilization will depend upon the degree of efficiency developed by the brains of the members of future generations; but the importance of self-evident truths is seldom appreciated. If human intelligence is measured by the interest we take in the problem of the greatest importance in determining the destiny of the race, what shall we say of our ignorance and lack of forethought with regard to the most vital of all human problems? Modern civilization is constantly increasing the strain on the most delicate organ in the human body, while but puny efforts are made to supply the opportunities for obtaining the information about the brain necessary to avert disaster from overwhelming the human race. While speaking in hysterical tones of a possible shortage of the wheat crop, or expressing gloomy forebodings of the failure of the coal supply, we are blind to the fact that some day there may be a shortage of brain-power, a deficiency made evident by our failure to cope successfully with the emergencies created by an advancing and more complex civilization. Universities, and so-called higher institutions of learning, do but little to encourage any effort made in the direction of finding out the laws which condition the activities of the brain. In relative importance all other questions become mere trivial academic discussions. If the public does occasionally discuss these topics it is "as if it had been struck by sentimentality."

Each new crisis in civilization calls for the exercise of more intelligence. Instead of having our wits about us and discussing the ways and means of developing greater cerebral capacity, we talk glibly enough about the man behind the gun, but make no effort to increase his mental efficiency. Although the success of representative government depends upon the fact that the majority of voters should have sound minds in sound bodies, we are more interested in the framing of new statutes than in any attempt to promote the mental growth of the citizens. Over the entrance to the New York Public Library the following words are inscribed: "On the diffusion of education among the people rests the preservation of our free institutions." This affirmation is true only if we include in "education" those agencies which aim to protect the brains of the people from injury. The nineteenth century supplied indiscriminately countless opportunities for squandering brain energy, and it now becomes the duty of the twentieth to determine the speed limits and endurance tests to which the most delicately balanced organ in the human body may be subjected without imperiling individual or racial existence.

In order to increase the brain power of a nation steps should be taken to conserve that which exists. Any reform which has this end in view should begin by taking cognizance of all the facts directly related to the problems under discussion, and then efforts should be made to provide the means and opportunities for extending our knowledge of this subject. In the movement to conserve the national forests the schools of forestry are not only repositories for knowledge, but are centers for investigations; the sources for information that vitalize the whole movement. An organization based on similar principles must form the basis of successful attempts to conserve all of our national resources, rivers, harbors, coal, forests and brains. First, there is the immediate attack in which the present store of knowledge is catalogued and presented to the public in an assimilable form. The popularization of the scientific knowledge of the brain will be one of the duties of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. Equally important is the establishment of bases or centers for the consideration of plans for acquiring additional facts to be used in winning the future battles against ignorance; and it is to this second plan of campaign, the discussion of methods for acquiring information, that attention is to be briefly directed.

In order to understand the methods employed in the study of the brain and nervous system attention must be directed to certain fundamental laws which are applicable to all forms of living organisms. Life will continue to be a subject of increasing interest to mankind, and the values of all forms of knowledge will be estimated by the better understanding that they give us of vital phenomena. During his early development man's interest in biology was chiefly limited to interpreting the phenomena of more common occurrence in his own life history, and to-day we observe the same egoism in savage races. Gradually educated people have awakened to a realization of the fact that the vital phenomena of plant and animal life vary in degree but not in kind from those observed in the human species. As a result of a limited horizon and a centripetalizing thought process man was led to assume a place of unique grandeur in the universe for himself, and this anthropocentric point of view not only dominated but seriously interfered with the actual progress made in the study of the brain. The concepts of this false philosophical system unfortunately limited the study of the nervous system to the human subject, whose nervous system represents the most complicated series of organs in the animal series. But more unfortunate than the establishment of false standards by which man's relative importance in nature was measured was the consequent diversion of human interest from the consideration of problems of the most vital importance to humanity. This was one of the penalties paid for assuming that the human brain had definite and specific functions not represented in other animals. The egoism of mankind is reflected in our present superstitions and ignorant attitude in regard to the questions connected with the cure and prevention of insanity. Attempting to conceal our defects by clamorously referring to our position of splendid isolation in the universe, we have failed to plan a rational system of education, and have been content to try to drive all who applied across the intellectual tight rope without any effort being made to determine the capacity of the individual nervous system to maintain its equilibrium while under strain or to restore it if disturbed. The results of these sins of omission afford excellent examples of the practical cruelties to which humanity is, as Anatole France has said, so often subjected by the sickly sentimentality that periodically is a blight upon our intelligence. Physicians compelled by the exigencies of practise too often confined their studies of anatomy and physiology to the organs of the human individual and thus unconsciously sanctioned the view that the functions of man's brain and nervous system were specifically different from those of the lower animals. After centuries of hopeless wandering in a labyrinth, investigators at last picked up the ariadnian thread that connects the behavior of the simplest organism with the complex mental life of man, and students have come to realize that in the simpler structure and more easily analyzed functions of ameba, jelly-fish, crab or fish, is to be found the key that will eventually open the book in which we may read intelligently concerning the most complex psychic manifestation.

This change in our point of view is not only of philosophic but of great practical value. The student of the brain is no longer a Sisyphus. Investigators now know that a fact discovered in relation to the nervous system of worm or jelly fish may unlock some of the secrets of the physiology of man's brain. The advance from the study of the simpler reactions of the lower organisms to those of the higher animals is made by easy stages, and the knowledge that the continuity of the chain is unbroken is a source of hope and inspiration. Already the nervous system has been deprived of the mysterious specific properties which once it was supposed to possess. Eminent physiologists tell us that it has only those properties which are found to be distinctively characteristic of protoplasm, the physical basis of life. The capacity for receiving stimuli coming from the external world, of transforming, transferring and storing these impressions is characteristic of living organisms. Plants have the power to pick up and transmit a stimulus. An example of this power is seen in the closure of the leaves of the sensitive plant after being touched. As far as is known, however, plants do not have a differentiated nervous system, but between the various cells of which they are composed there are countless connections probably forming paths for the conduction of impulses. These conditions are not unlike those found in embryos of the higher animals at the time when the movements of heart and body have already begun, but before nerves have developed.

The study of the lowest organisms teaches us that the conductions of nervous impulses occur independently of nerves. More recent studies have led investigators to believe that the nervous system does not in any sense create function, but is to be regarded merely as the great regulator, the transforming apparatus called into existence to assist in preserving the equilibrium of each living organism, amid a play of energies, light, heat, electric waves, etc. As long as the equilibrium is undisturbed we say that the body is in a state of rest, but let that balance be disturbed by any stimulus and a reaction takes place. In comparison with other animals, some of our sense preceptions are very limited as our end organs or receptors are only attuned to pick up waves of certain lengths. Other living organisms, as, for example, many insects, have the capacity of picking up sound waves of a much higher pitch than those which impress our duller senses, while the greater acuity of vision of birds, the keener sense of smell of various animals, the delicacy of perception of fishes for changes in pressure, are facts that are too well known to need repetition. To a certain extent these great differences in sense perception are directly referable to peculiarities in structure. The same fundamental system of construction characterizes the nervous system of the entire animal kingdom. The structural unit is the nerve-cell and nerve-fiber. The greater the number of these cells and fibers the greater is the complexity of the nervous system. Some of the cells are designed to pick up and transfer to the distributing apparatus the stimuli for which the organs are attuned. In addition to the receiving apparatus there is the transformer and elaborator of the incoming impulses, and finally there is the discharging apparatus as represented by the organs of locomotion, speech and. others, which express objectively the sum total of the animal's activities. Already science has taught us something about the nature of that mysterious nervous impulse upon which thought, action and life depend. In fact there is a similarity between the rhythmic character of the life processes and the rhythmic discharges of certain types of cells in a battery. Here, as in all other enquiries which concern the energies of living matter, we are led back to the study of the cell. The millions of cells composing our bodies have certain common characteristics. The central portions are probably the parts most immediately related to the production of energy, while the external layers govern the taking in or throwing off of substances by the cell. A theory in regard to the manner in which anesthetics act attributes an important role to this external layer, as the place where.the actual physico-chemical changes take place that result in anesthesia. The effects depend to a certain extent upon the presence in this outer envelope of certain fat-like substances which, combining with the enhaled ether or chloroform, produce loss of consciousness. There are also reasons for believing that in this same external layer of the cell the nerve impulse is generated, depending upon changes akin in their manifestation and mode of origin to those giving rise to electrical disturbances. One of the greatest services yet rendered biology by physical chemistry is the presentation of the facts suggesting that the regulation of the production of nerve impulses is not dependent upon some vague mysterious vital force, but is probably comparable to those phenomena called by the chemists "reversible reactions." The mixture of two substances may be followed by a chemical reaction in which the two original substances are in part decomposed, forming new chemical compounds. At a certain point this reaction ceases, as an equilibrium has been established, and then only after the balance has again been disturbed is the decomposition completed or a restitution of the original bodies brought about. Physical conditions alone determine the direction taken by these "reversible reactions." This phenomenon suggests a possible explanation of the changes taking place in nerve cells and the relation they bear to the production and regulation of the nerve impulse.

Within the past decade biologists have discovered many facts that throw considerable light on the relation that the nervous system bears to the growth of the organism, and they have also arrived at certain conclusions of great importance in regard to the manner in which nerve cells grow. Portions of living tissues, nerve as well as muscle, or the supporting elements of the body may be removed and grown outside of the animal. Photographs taken at short intervals of nerve cells placed in various artificial media which are kept at the body temperature show a remarkable series of changes. In a comparatively few hours these cells may actually be seen to throw out long processes resembling the embryonic nerves.

A limited space does not permit more than a passing reference to the advances made, and largely by American investigators in the study of animal behavior. These newer methods of study, says a distinguished English scientist, "contrast with the anecdotal method of the past generation almost as pronouncedly as do modern chemical methods with those of the medieval alchemists." Modern biology with the inspiration derived from the physical and chemical laboratory has already brought new life into the discussion of such old questions as that of variation and inheritance in living beings. To answer the question "What are the traits inherited by our nervous systems?" we must follow the paths mapped out by the new biology. The way of the statistician has been followed until the new road offered by experiment is within our sight.

Posterity will, as we have already indicated, measure our intelligence by the interest we take in acquiring information in regard to the organs upon the functional development of which depend our continued existence as a race. In the various medical schools and hospitals throughout the country the problems connected with the human brain and nervous system will continue to be subjects that have an immediate claim upon the attention of physicians, but even in these institutions these questions should not be forcibly disassociated from the consideration of more fundamental biological phenomena. The possibility of extending the scope of the work carried on in the biological departments of our universities so as to facilitate and encourage investigations in the broad field of biological psychology would be an important factor in bringing these institutions into the closest touch with the subjects of most vital importance to humanity. But in addition a new type of institution dedicated to the study of neuro-biology is greatly needed. The Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore will mark a new era in this country not only in the study of nervous and mental diseases, but also in advancing our knowledge of many questions of immediate importance for educators and those interested in the solution of social problems. The way has been prepared by science for the establishment of a new type of institution dedicated to the study of the brain and nervous system along broad biological lines. This field of investigation would include, for example, such problems as an enquiry into the nature of the nerve impulse, the manner in which it is transmitted, the changes produced by it in the body, the agents modifying its action, the factors determining the growth of the nervous system and the possibility of inducing regeneration, after the nerve cells and fibers have been injured, and the mechanism of transmission by heredity of specific functions of the brain. The neuro-biological institute should contain laboratories fully equipped for the study of complex chemical and physical problems, the determination of the laws of animal behavior, the mechanism of development of the nervous system as well as the character of structure of these organs. The selection of investigators should be made with care and the greatest amount of liberty given to them in selecting and determining the scope of their own problems, for in attempting to answer the questions of fundamental importance in connection with the brain and nervous system we are brought face to face with a line of work which leads us straight back to consider the origin of the life processes.

The advance of humanity during the past fifty years has been illuminated by the acts of an intelligent philanthropy. The noble list of benefactions includes libraries, schools, colleges, universities, laboratories, observatories, hospitals and an international tribunal for the abolishment of wars. The future progress of mankind will be directly proportional to the additions made to our knowledge of the brain and nervous system. Whether the conventional form of education proves to be a blessing or a curse will depend upon its power to minister to the needs of brain and nervous system. The reign of universal peace will come at last, not as an official act of international agreement, but as the result of the study of the individual and the adoption of methods to suppress and eliminate those undesirable mental traits which at times make the resort to arbitration impossible.

Far more important than the discovery of a new continent or a new star is the determination of the laws governing brain action, for upon our knowledge of these phenomena depends "the prosperous voyaging of humanity."