by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is one of the most famous fictitious neuroscientists of all times. Written by Mary Shelley in 1818, Frankenstein is a seminal Gothic novel that tells the story of a man-made, man-like, monster, and the scientist who created him. The tragedy of Frankenstein's monster, is that despite being wise, clever, and desperate for social acceptance, he was left alone and lonely, rejected by every living soul because of his horrible and repelling looks.
The exact scientific premises of the creation of Frankenstein's monster remain obscured:
"It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."
The use of the phrase "a spark of being", along with other light-related references, implicate electricity as the "vital fluid" that gives life. But only in the preface of the revised version from 1831, Shelley explicitly state that electric power is what brought the monster to life:
"Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated, galvanism had given token of such things. Perhaps the component parts of a creature could be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth".
Galvanism is the action of a muscle contracting after being stimulated by an electrical current. In 1789, Luigi Galvani, who was experimenting on dissected frogs, realised that electricity can cause a contraction of muscle in an otherwise dead frog. This led him to believe that electricity is the “vital force” of life.
Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini, attempted to continue his uncle's work and to prove that electricity can "reanimate" lifeless limbs and bodies. In 1803, he ran his most famous experiment: he applied electro-stimulation to the corpse of a prisoner who was just executed. As Aldini applied currents to different spots on the dead body, it body twitched, raised a hand, clenched his fist, and even appeared to be attempting to walk. This experiment drew renewed attention to Galvanism, and probably inspired Shelley's Frankenstein.
Aldini's experiment earned him a spot in the questionable "hall of fame" of mad scientists. Nevertheless, his discoveries had, and still have, considerable influence. Following his studies, scientists started to use brain stimulation to understand the functioning of the brain, and also to develop techniques for therapeutic purposes such as:
And Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS):
The science of the monster's creation was inspirational but not feasible. Nevertheless, the moral and ethical questions raised by Frankenstein, especially regarding the responsibility of the scientist, remain relevant today. Can scientific discoveries ever go too far?
Illustration showing Galvani's experiments animating dead animals with electrical currents. Source: https://frankensteinproject.wordpress.com