From the four humours to fMRI

The excellent Cognition and Culture blog found a fascinating lecture by the energetic medical historian Noga Arikha about the four humours theory of medicine and how its legacy influences our modern day ideas about the mind and brain.

The four humours theory suggested that the function of the mind and body was determined by the balance of four fluids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.

While specific diseases were explained in this way, so were character traits and, in their excess, mental illness.

Indeed, some of the old names for these fluids still survive as descriptions of character traits (for example, we can still describe someone as phlegmatic or sanguine) even if we’re unaware of their origins.

However, Arikha outlines that its possible to trace the thinking behind humoural theories right through history into our current ideas about mind and brain in the age of brain scans and cognitive neuroscience.

The talk is based on her book, called Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, and the video is a bit shaky at times but worth sticking with as it’s an engrossing lecture.

Link to video of talk by Noga Arikha.

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