HTP Prints

The vibrating nerve impulse in Newton, Willis and Gassendi: First steps in a mechanical theory of communication

Wallace, Wes (2003) The vibrating nerve impulse in Newton, Willis and Gassendi: First steps in a mechanical theory of communication. Brain and Cognition 51(1):pp. 66-94.

Full text available as:


In later editions of his two major works, Isaac Newton proposed an electrical hypothesis of nervous transmission. According to this hypothesis, an electrical “aether” permeates the nerve and transmits vibrations along it. This implies that the nerve is a communication line, and potentially, an extension of the mind. The opposite view was held by Cartesian mechanists, namely that the nerve is a power line, transmitting either pressure or tension, and that the mind is separate from the nervous system. The Newtonian model eventually supplanted the Cartesian model in the mid 18th century, and became a crucial part of the conceptual environment in which neuroscience originated. In this paper I examine the scientific origins of the Newtonian model. I argue that Newton's model relies on prior work by Thomas Willis and Pierre Gassendi. Willis supplied the anatomical and physiological “hard data” upon which the model was built. But Gassendi, a generation before, laid out the conceptual foundation of the problem. It was Gassendi who first spelled out the principle of impulse-transmission, and the corrolary principle of the muscle as an autonomous generator of force. Gassendi's theory of the nerve impulse was elaborated within an Aristotelian framework and was part of a larger historical movement to define a corpuscular model of the Sensitive Soul, that is, the soul that man shares with animals.

EPrint Type:Journal (Paginated)
Keywords:history of neuroscience, electrophysiology, nerve impulse, nervous transmission, 17th century science, fermentation, aether, animal spirits, sensitive soul, artificial intelligence
Subjects:Chronology > 17th Century
Psychology > Neurology/Neuroscience
Psychology > Physiological
Theory > Mechanism
ID Code:137
Deposited By:Wallace, Wes
Deposited On:14 April 2003