Medicine: Matter Over Mind

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In Boston last week, it finally happened: science set a machine to study a machine. The occasion: a meeting of the Eastern Association of Electroencephalographers (brainwave recorders).

In the famed Ether Dome of Massachusetts General Hospital, a blond British electroencephalographer named William Grey Walter unveiled his invention—a yellow box, resembling a deep-freeze unit, full of vacuum tubes, condensers, switches, wires. Walter applied to a patient's head the electrodes of an electroencephalograph (a machine that traces the peaks and valleys of the brain waves, helps to diagnose epilepsy, brain tumors, etc.). Then he attached his analyzing machine to the electroencephalograph.

As the patient's brain waves traced their wavering lines on the electroencephalograph, Walter's machine swiftly interpreted the message, wrote its analysis on a tape. Said Walter: "The analysis . . . [reveals] . . . components 4, 7, 12 and 24 cycles per second." (Translation: brain waves were coming in prominently at those frequencies.) The fascinated delegates applauded warmly; in ten seconds the machine had reached a conclusion that would have taken them hours.

But Dr. Frederic A. Gibbs of the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute, who at 43 is a patriarch of U.S. encephalographers, was unimpressed. Said he, scorning a challenge to pit himself against the machine: "The analysis looks like the work of a feeble-minded encephalographer."

By meeting's end, the argument between the humanists and the gadgeteers had invaded philosophy. Said Walter, icily: "Dr. Gibbs says that for his purposes the manual analysis is good enough. It may be for his purposes, but perhaps his purposes are not adequate. The brain is very complex. It is more complicated than the universe itself. We know a great deal about matter but very little about the mind, and it is about time we were finding out something."

But Dr. Robert S. Schwab, head encephalographer at Massachusetts General, gazing into the vistas of research opened by Inventor Walter, mused: "Machines like this don't actually simplify our problem; they make it more difficult."