[Untitled] 1, Goldstein

The contemporaneous film medium of radiography, the X-ray, disclosed the brain—or rather the space of the brain inside the skull. By 1919, William Dandy’s pneumo-encephalography would show the ghostly outline of the brain within the otherwise impenetrable skull by displacing the cerebro-spinal fluid with air. A decade later, in 1929, Hans Berger suggested that he was showing the brain at work with his electro-encephalography apparatus (Borck 2005).

This Goldstein film clip, untitled, is likely from the same period. It resembles the one, some authors call ‘Tonus’ (Geroufalos and Meyers 2014). Does either one show the brain?

Goldstein used film frequently: showing clips at medical conferences (Goldstein 1926), incorporating film stills in publications (Goldstein 1924, right), and circulating films to illustrate the ‘idiosyncratic mannerisms’ of his famous case of visual agnosia (Benary 1922, fn. 2).

Films of neurological patients are images but they lack the immediacy of the sliced brain at autopsy or the printed brain of encephalography—they show the brain only in showing the body within which the brain is embodied. Acculturated within a localizationist paradigm, neurologists were of course quick to read the stumbling walk, the inability to control hand gestures, or the lolling tongue as indicators for lesions in nerve tracts, some of them in the brain. In Goldstein’s publications the tests familiar from ‘Tonus’ and this film are indicative of damage to the cerebellum and other areas—and he was sceptical that any single cortical lesion was responsible for the disordered movements or sensory perceptions he was observing (Goldstein 1927). Scrutinising movements and perceptions whether in the patient or on film thus brought attention to the nervous system at large.

Understanding the brain at large required patients and painstaking ‘psychological analysis’ (Goldstein 1927, 687)—was the man in the moustache able to locate the site of pain in his hand—what if he looked at his hands, if one eye, or the other, was distracted, if his ears were put under pressure… though there the experimental apparatus failed. Could he maintain the orientation of his body if distracted, prodded, with eyes closed? The interest was not in the movements that could be controlled or willed, but those that arose from a deeply personal interplay of body and environment.

In his contribution to Critical neurosciences, Max Stadler demands that we should be giving up our cerebral romance and consider the less glamorous nervous system (Stadler 2012)—do neurological films reflect this less cerebral brain in situ, the embodied, prodded brain?


Comment (CG):

I’m fascinated by the possibility that film may have helped to focus the attention of neurologists away from the brain and toward the nervous system more generally instead. I am really attracted by the idea that watching their patients, and sometimes watching themselves watching their patients on film, indicated to them that the movement-brain-psychology linkages that underpinned the work of people like Marey and later motion study enthusiasts were too simplistic and potentially wrong-headed. No romance there.

Both in light of this, and in light of Kathryn’s observation about the nature of film vis a vis “the sliced brain at autopsy or the printed brain of encephalography,” I have started to probe at the question of difference: how does film make one think differently about the brain? I was prompted especially in thinking about this question by Kathryn’s suggestion that films of neurological patients are less immediate than brain imaging or brain examination more generally.

I’m not sure I quite agree on this point, since in a sense, all circulate around the same question: about what’s the right way to get the necessary information out of a brain? The sliced brain has the advantage of tangibility. The look, smell, feel of the brain must be able to tell you things about it that other methods of “imaging” cannot. But it has the disadvantage of not being alive. And that’s the classic conundrum that filmmaking seemed to solve, privileging process and movement over tangibility and anatomy in the process. The printed brain of encephalography seems in many ways quite similar to the filmed embodied brain, since it too only gives us a representation of the brain. Though in a sense, all three have that in common: for even a sliced brain is only a representation. And choices about how to look at it and understand it – are slices right? Why not cubed chunks? – will determine, as is even more evident in both of these other methods, what it can and will show.

Perhaps the operative question here is whether the embodied brain gives less information about the brain itself than other representational counterparts. Indeed, it seems to be on this question that determinations about where neurological films, with their focus on movement, might finally hang. Is there something about embodiment, something about witnessing the flows and movements of bodies on screen, that resists the notion that just one organ is here being given visual expression? I think perhaps not in theory. If we think of all of these as different representational forms, each differently but only incompletely capable of reflecting different parts and characteristics of the brain, than film remains unexceptional.

Yet, it seems to me that Kathryn is also hinting that film’s pointing away from a brain, and toward a system, is as much about aesthetic considerations as about anything else. That is, looking at embodied individuals on film, moving as one coordinated being, albeit sometimes awkwardly, draws us intuitively toward thinking about systems and interconnections, about processes and actions, not single organs or parts. Unlike the printed brain or the sliced brain, this embodied brain tells us that the brain itself cannot be all there is. I like the possibility that here, in the simple act of witnessing the body, moving, on screen, rather than in any set of tests or experimental setups, we find the lover’s quarrel that ends the romance. Quite in the sense that one realises that the brain is just not good enough for us. We want and deserve the whole nervous system.


Benary, W. ‘Psychologische Analysen hirnpathologischer Fälle auf Grund von Untersuchungen Hirnverletzter: VIII. Mitteilung‘, Psychologische Forschung 2:1 (1922), 209-297.

Geroulanos, S. and T. Meyers, Experimente im Individuum: Kurt Goldstein und die Frage des Organismus (BerIin: August, 2014)

Goldstein, K. ‘Über induzierte Tonusveränderungen beim Menschen (sog. Halsreflexe, Labyrinthreflexe usw.): II. Mitteilung‘, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie 89:1 (1924), 383-428.

__. ‘Neuere Erfahrungen zum Problem der sogenannten induzierten Tonusveränderungen. Gleichzeitig ein Beitrag zur Symptomatologie der Zerebellar- und Frontalerkrankungen‘, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Nervenheilkunde 89:1-3 (1926), 72-77.

__. ‘Die Lokalisation in der Grosshirnrinde nach den Erfahrungen am kranken Menschen‘ in: A. Bethe et al (eds), Handbuch der normalen und pathologischen Physiologie (Berlin : Julius Springer, 1927), p. [599]-842.

Stadler, M. ‘The neuromance of cerebral history’ in: Suparna Choudhury and Jan Slaby, eds. Critical neuroscience: a handbook of the social and cultural contexts of neuroscience (Blackwell, 2012), 135-158.