Though this study focuses on nineteenth-century scientific debates, the controversies I examine have not gone away. Fears spawned by cerebral localization and the related anxiety surrounding cerebral automatism have persisted in twentieth- and twenty-first-century art, literature, and popular culture. The most obvious examples come from science fiction, a genre directly descended from nineteenth-century Gothic novels like Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde. In the last several decades, science fiction novels and films have addressed concerns surrounding cerebral localization, psychosurgery, and interfacing between brains and computers. The latter possibility seems to evoke the same fears as Victorian theories of cerebral automatism: namely, the idea that humans are mere machines, lacking free will and spiritual significance. Like the mechanistic vampire villain of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, computers behave according to a system of rigidly stereotyped codes rather than responding to situations morally or empathically. As Oliver Sacks explains, computers lack the functions associated with the right hemisphere of the human brain, so that computational models of brain function are inadequate to explain the full range and complexity of personality, human relationships, and our sense of individual identity or “selfhood.”
Accordingly, much modern science fiction explores the ominous notion that human brains are (or are in the process of becoming) computers lacking any residue of “mind,” “soul,” or moral inhibition. For instance, in physician-litterateur Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1972), neurosurgeons implant computer-controlled electrodes in the brain of an epileptic man, Harold Benson, to help him suppress his violent seizures. In one doctor’s words, “this procedure represents the first direct link between a human brain and a computer.” But because the neurosurgeons place the electrodes too close to pleasure centers in the brain, Benson starts to provoke seizures on purpose and descends further into madness, becoming a homicidal maniac. Ironically, Benson is a computer programmer with delusional fears that computers are taking over the world. The tragic outcome of Benson’s surgery seemingly validates his psychotic ruminations.