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Exorcizing the animal spirits: Jan Swammerdam on nerve function

Abstract

For more than 1,500 years, nerves were thought to function through the action of 'animal spirits'. In the seventeenth century, René Descartes conceived of these 'spirits' as liquids or gases, and used the idea to explain reflex action. But he was rapidly proven wrong by a young Dutchman, Jan Swammerdam. Swammerdam's elegant experiments pioneered the frog nerve–muscle preparation and laid the foundation of our modern understanding of nerve function.

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Figure 1: Descartes' illustration of his hypothesis of the movement of the 'animal spirits' in response to burning.
Figure 2: Swammerdam's frog nerve–muscle preparation.
Figure 3: Swammerdam's demonstration of the contractile power of a frog muscle.
Figure 4: Possible electrical stimulation of the frog nerve by Jan Swammerdam.

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Académie des Sciences

Encyclopedia of Life Sciences

Descartes, René

history of physiology

muscle contraction

The Royal Society

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Cobb, M. Exorcizing the animal spirits: Jan Swammerdam on nerve function. Nat Rev Neurosci 3, 395–400 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn806

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