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Towards the end of the 19th century, scientists began to turn their attention from the biological to the psychological evolution of mankind. So the discipline of neuroscience was born, and Ben Shephard’s ambitious, erudite book follows four pioneers – William Rivers, Grafton Elliot Smith, Charles Myers and William McDougall.

Theirs was as much a geographical as an intellectual adventure. The book takes us from Cambridge to the Torres Strait Islands, where Alfred Haddon’s expedition provided an opportunity to “measure” the mental capacities of the inhabitants. Then on to Borneo, Egypt and the psychiatric hospitals of the first world war, where Myers identified shell shock and Rivers treated Siegfried Sassoon among others.

Early neuroscience was an unruly amalgam of disciplines, taking in anthropology, zoology, psychology and, regrettably, eugenics. Shephard’s is a rich and stimulating account of the first truly modern attempt to understand the mysteries of the mind.

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