It Blinks, It Thinks?

Luminous Brains and a Visual Culture of Electric Display, circa 1930

in Nuncius
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


This article traces attempts in the 1930s to create a spatio-temporal model of the active, living brain. Images and models of electric, illuminated displays – derived from electro-technology and engineering – allowed for a changing imaginary of a brain that was immediately accessible. The example of the Luminous Brain Model, a three-dimensional science education model, demonstrates how the visual language of illumination could serve as a flexible rhetorical tool that offered sensations of liveliness to modern viewers and promised to show a transparent view of a dynamic brain. Alternatively, various scientists in the 1930s used the analogy of the brain as an illuminated electric news ticker to conceptualize temporal patterns of changing brain activity, thus drawing the brain into a new metropolitan sphere of material surfaces with real-time mediation. These two historical imaginaries of blinking brains reveal new trajectories of the ‘metaphorical circuits’ through which technology and cerebral biology are mutually articulated.

It Blinks, It Thinks?

Luminous Brains and a Visual Culture of Electric Display, circa 1930

in Nuncius




Laura Otis“The Metaphoric Circuit: Organic and Technological Communication in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Ideas2002 63:105–128. Otis emphasizes the interpretative contingency of techno-biological metaphors; the metaphor of the telegraph network for example could be used to make differing arguments about the nature of the nervous system. Cornelius Borck “Toys Are Us. Models and Metaphors in Brain Research” in Critical Neuroscience: A Handbook of the Social and Cultural Contexts of Neuroscience edited by Suparna Choudhury Jan Slaby (Oxford UK: Wiley-Blackwell 2011) pp. 111–133.


Cornelius Borck“Media, Technology and the Electric Unconsciousness in the 20th Century,” in L’ Ère électrique – The Electric Ageedited by Olivier Asselin Silvestra Mariniello Andrea Oberhuber (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press 2011) pp. 33–60: 37; Timothy Lenoir “Helmholtz and the Materialities of Communication” Osiris 1994 9:184–207.


Fritz GiesePsychotechnik (Breslau: Ferdinand Hirt1928) p. 105. I thank Max Stadler for directing me to this passage.


Cornelius Borck“Urbane Gerhirne. Zum Bildüberschuss medientechnischer Hirnwelten der 1920er Jahre,” Archiv für Mediengeschichte2002 2:261–271 p. 272. Kahn’s images became more well known after the translation into English of his Der Mensch. Bau und Funktionen unseres Körpers allgemeinverständlich dargestellt (Rüschlikon-Zürich: Albert Müller 1940) which was subsequently reprinted many times.


Ibid. p. 261.


Arne Schirrmacher“Introduction: Communicating Science: National Approaches in Twentieth-Century Europe,” Science in Context2013 26/3:393–404; Sybilla Nikolow Erkenne Dich selbst!: Strategien der Sichtbarmachung des Körpers im 20. Jahrhundert (Köln: Böhlau 2015).


Peter J. BowlerScience for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2009) p. 50.


Roger Smith“Physiology and Psychology, or Brain and Mind, in the Age of C.S. Sherrington,” in Psychology in Britain: Historical Essays and Personal Reflectionsedited by Geoffrey C. Bunn A.D. Lovie Graham D. Richards (Leicester: The British Psychological Society 2001) pp. 223–242.


Ibid. p. 237.


L.S. JacynaLost Words: Narratives of Language and the Brain 1825–1926 (Princeton: Princeton University Press2009) pp. 103–107; Anne Harrington Medicine Mind and the Double Brain: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1987) pp. 260–268.


Karl Lashley“Basic Neural Mechanisms in Behavior,” Psychological Review1930 37:1–24 p. 24.


Alfons M. Jakob“Die Lokalisation im Grosshirn,” Klinische Wochenschrift1931 44:2025–2030 p. 2025. In the case of Weimar Germany Anne Harrington describes this atmosphere of crisis in neurology as part of a more general preoccupation with a sense of crisis in various disciplines a general movement against mechanistic or machinic explanations and a turn to phenomenology. Anne Harrington “Kurt Goldstein’s Neurology of Healing and Wholeness: A Weimar Story” in Greater than the Parts: Holism in Biomedicine 1920–1950 edited by Christopher Lawrence George Weisz (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998) pp. 25–45.


Robert Exner“Das Leuchtende Gehirnmodell,” Psychiatrisch-Neurologische Wochenschrift1933 35:501–502; Edith Klemperer “Demonstration: Das Gehirnmodell. Ein Plastischer beleuchteter Unterrichtsbehelf zur Darstellung der Einzelnen Funktionen” Zentralblatt für die Gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie 1932 61:499. One of the first official presentations of the model was at the First International Neurological Congress in Bern in 1931.


Werner Lincke“Lehrmeister Licht,” Das Licht. Zeitschrift für praktische Leucht- und Beleuchtungs-Aufgaben1931:123–127 p. 127. I thank Max Stadler for the reference to this source.


Otto Pötzl“Über die Rückbildung einer reinen Wortblindheit,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie1919 52/1:241–272.


Otto PötzlDie Aphasielehre vom Standpunkte der klinischen Psychiatrie (Leipzig: F. Deuticke1928) p. 231. Pötzl’s research offered detailed descriptions of individual patient cases and lesion studies yet nowhere in the book could the reader could find an averaged image or a diagram summarizing his findings on these individual cases.


Constantin Von Economo“Some New Methods for Studying Brains of Exceptional People (Encephalometry and Braincasts) (Presentation with Models and Demonstration at the New York Academy of Medicine, Section on Neurology, December 3, 1929),” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease1930 72:125–134.


Michael HagnerDer Geist bei der Arbeit: historische Untersuchungen zur Hirnforschung (Göttingen: Wallstein2006) p. 270.


Robert G. Frank“Instruments, Nerve Action, and the All-or-None Principle,” Osiris1994 9:208–235 p. 233.


George H. Bishop“Electrophysiology of the Brain,” in The Problem of Mental Disorder: A Study Undertaken by the Committee on Psychiatric InvestigationsNational Research Council (New York NY: McGraw-Hill 1934) pp. 120–132: 127. Quoted in Cornelius Borck Hirnströme: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Elektroenzephalographie (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2005) pp. 190–192.


Karl Lashley“Basic Neural Mechanisms in Behavior,” Psychological Review1930 37:1–24 p. 9.


Ralph W. Gerard“Brain Waves,” The Scientific Monthly1937 44:48–56 p. 56.


Max Stadler“Biophysikalisches Doppelleben, 1939–1946. Oder: Räume Der Lange-Weile. Zur (Nicht-) Zäsur des ‘Informationsdiskurses’,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte2011 34:27–63.


Michael Hagner“Das kybernetische Gehirn,” in Geniale Gehirne: zur Geschichte der Elitegehirnforschung (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag 2004) pp. 288–296: 289.


Ibid. p. 293.


Michael Hagner“Bilder der Kybernetik: Diagramm und Anthropologie, Schaltung und Nervenstystem,” in Konstruierte Sichtbarkeiten: Wissenschafts- und Technikbilder seit der Frühen Neuzeitedited by Martina Hessler (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2006) pp. 383–404: 394.


Anne Beaulieu“Images Are Not the (Only) Truth: Brain Mapping, Visual Knowledge, and Iconoclasm,” Science Technology & Human Values2002 27:53–86; Michael Hagner “The Mind at Work: The Visual Representation of Cerebral Processes” in The Body Within: Art Medicine and Visualization edited by Renée van de Vall Robert Zwijnenberg (Leiden: Brill 2009) pp. 67–105.


  • View in gallery
    Figure 1

    Fritz Kahn, Die LichtwarhnehmungFrom: Fritz Kahn, Das Leben des Menschen: eine volkstümliche Anatomie, Biologie, Physiologie und Entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen, Band IV (Stuttgart: Kosmos, Gesellschaft der Naturfreunde; Franck’sche Verlagshandlung, 1929), plate XXII

  • View in gallery
    Figure 2

    Luminous Brain model from Viennaphotograph printed in “Use Glass in Model of Brain,” Popular Science Monthly, December 1931, 119/6:32

  • View in gallery
    Figure 3

    Edith Klemperer, patent, “Anatomical Model,” US1951422 A, filed October 29, 1931, and issued March 20, 1934

  • View in gallery
    Figure 4

    Photograph of push-button brain diagramprinted in Werner Lincke, “Lehrmeister Licht,” Das Licht. Zeitschrift für Praktische Leucht- und Beleuchtungs-Aufgaben, 1930:124

  • View in gallery
    Figure 5

    Constantin Von Economo’s plaster models of cyto-architecture, late 1920sPhotograph printed in Constantin Economo, Cellular Structure of the Human Cerebral Cortex, edited by Lazaros Constantinos Triarhou (Basel, New York: Karger, 2009 [1927]), p. 174

  • View in gallery
    Figure 6

    Film still, Fritz Lang, Die Spione, 1928Foto/Copyright: Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (Wiesbaden). Special thanks are extended to the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung for providing and allowing the publication of this image.

  • View in gallery
    Figure 7

    “Science’s Futile Attempt to Build a Perfect Mechanical Brain,” The Salt Lake Tribune, November 25, Web. January 20, 2016.

Index Card

Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 50 50 39
Full Text Views 8 8 8
PDF Downloads 5 5 5
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0