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  • Writer's pictureTim Djedilbaev

The Great Brains' Legacy

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

How the great Russian minds contributed to the neuroscience as we know it

At the outset, brain studies in Russia were shadowed by the idea the greater the mind, the complexer the brain parameters. Following that assumption, the brains of prominent individuals were examined post-mortem in search of the neuroanatomical evidence of their extraordinary mental capacity.

The Pantheon subsequently acquired the brains of the brilliant Russian scientists Pavlov, Bekhterev, Vygotsky

When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, his brain was dissected and mapped in the series of brain examinations which later would make up a collection called the Pantheon of Brains. That was the work of the Moscow Brain Research Institute (largely done behind the closed doors which is another story). The Pantheon subsequently acquired the brains of other brilliant Russian scientists - Pavlov, Bekhterev, Vygotsky.

Although questionable, that approach was not unique to the Soviet Russia as some argue. In Europe, the interest in geniuses' brain anatomy started as early as 1830. In 1901, there was a wave of movements establishing national Brain Institutes across Europe and in the US following an initiative of the International Association of Academies held in Paris.

The scientist who performed Lenin's brain examination, Oskar Vogt, operated in a lab based in Berlin. Vogt was sure that it would be “possible for such a study to provide a material basis for determining the genius of V. I. Lenin” (Paul Gregory).

The material Vogt's study provided wasn't substantial enough to answer the question how a particular brain allows for brilliant mental abilities. But the history of (neuro)science in general is full of examples when an initial assumption proved unreasonable lead to important developments later (think of phrenology). The question, thus, remains valid.

The great Russian brains contributed to the neuroscience as we know it not by being the subjects of the notorious Pantheon of Brains; Pavlov, Bekhterev, Vygotsky each left a solid scientific legacy. It is unfortunate their names are missing in the major neuroscience textbooks.

Pavlov's experiments on conditioning are very well known. Less known is that they prepared the way for the modern studies of neural substrates of learning. Pavlov actually invented "a new way to study the mind, learning, and human behavior" (Michael Specter).

About Bekhterev, Leiden-based Dutch neurologists write "From his attempts to combine research in neurology, psychiatry, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, neuropsychology, neurosurgery, etc., one might consider him to be the founder of the multidisciplinary approach to brain exploration" (Alla Vein and Marion Maat-Schieman).

Re-discovery of Vygotsky's legacy "especially relevant in light of the increasingly interdisciplinary character of the modern science" (Olga Vasileva and Natalia Balyasnikova) has started recenlly. His work “Mind in Society” is being closely read and cited by the new generations of researchers in the West who probably never ever heard of the Pantheon of Brains.

Now, brain studies in Russia focus on modelling of cognitive processes, behavioural genetics, computational neuroscience, brain connectomics in health and pathology (#HSE). Russian labs are integrated in the global research network. Neuroscience enjoys its status of a university discipline in several universities.

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