An Army of One

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On Leadership in the Development of the Electroencephalogram

  • by Lisa Brock

Texting a friend doesn’t usually provoke thoughts of Alexander Graham Bell. Driving to work doesn’t always make people think of Henry Ford. In the same way, when told by their doctors that they require an electroencephalogram (EEG) scan, most people don’t consider the dispiriting, tragic story of the man who developed the technology. Like Joseph son of Jacob, Jewish-Egyptian leader of the fifth century BC, Hans Berger’s strange ideas got him into a lot of trouble. Though he often had to prevail alone, he ended up being a sort of hero. True leadership means pressing on even when someone’s peers are against them and their goals crumble around them. Despite his tragic end, Berger’s work continues to aid in the detection and diagnosis of neurological conditions today. Though he suffered in his own time, he truly was set aside for eminence in the world of functional neural imaging. Despite harassment from his peers, Berger asserted, “I openly declared that I do not hold the popular parallel as the solution.” Joseph and Berger show that some leaders are without followers, but this does not mean they are without the ambition, resourcefulness, and versatility needed to accomplish great things.

Leaders can derive ambition to pursue their goals from a variety of sources. For some it may be from the desire to gain credit, and for others it may be the desire to achieve a personal dream. For Berger, it was the compulsion to explain a supernatural experience he had. Believing that as a young man he had a telepathic connection with his sister, Berger set out to quantify psychic energy. His methods included studying changes in blood flow, temperature, and electrical signals of the mammalian – primarily human – cerebral cortex. His studies of electrical cortical impulses drove him to create a human EEG. After achieving a taste of success in this, Berger’s pursuit became a search for God, fueled by his belief that God is manifest in psychic energy. The spiritual aspect of the development of the EEG buoyed Berger during times of ostracism. Before he was orphaned by his scientific community, Berger enjoyed assistance, validation, and promotion from his peers. Feeling safe and supported in the pursuit of one’s goals is important for the nurturing of ambition. When his research produced useful results, it was easy for Berger to feel ambitious.  Then when he began to hit dead-ends, Berger sank into multiple spells of depression, but rebounded several times. In the other extreme, Berger was said to have become obsessed with quantifying psychic energy, a fanaticism that was revealed in his reports and diaries. However, passion and ambition and yes, sometimes obsession, breed perseverance. On November 30, 1910, Berger declared in his diary, “One can therefore not say that I gave this thing up lightly. Eight years! Trying always, time and again.” His decline from brilliant optimism to fatal despair is disheartening, but indicative of his devotion to his work.

Resourceful leaders take advantage of the resources of other leaders. A true leader recognizes his own limitations and acknowledges  the strengths of others. Berger used information gathered by other scientists to guide his work in observing mental energy to create a human EEG. One such scientist was Richard Caton, who used a Lipmann capillary electrometer to record electrical impulses of the dog brain. Berger was unsatisfied with this method for its lack of precision. He sought to explore experimental psychologist Alfred Lehmann’s idea that studying blood flow is the first step to understanding cortical energy transformation. Berger looked to Angelo Mosso’s work with the plethysmograph used to measure blood flow in the brain. Angelo Mosso had also studied peripheral and cortical blood temperature, leading to the discovery that temperature in the brain is independent of the temperature in the rest of the body, probably due to metabolic activity. Berger wanted to add to Mosso’s work, and studied cortical temperature as an indirect observation of nutrient metabolism. In this study, Berger adopted ideas from Max Verworn, Professor of Physiology at the University of Jena. Berger used Verworn’s concept of the balance of nutrient breakdown and synthesis for the theory that different mental states are related to changes in metabolism, which translates to changes in temperature. He then created the hypothesis that metabolic excess is used as energy for thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Resourcefulness allowed Berger to build on the accomplishments of other’s accomplishments in order to further his goal.

At last, leaders must be versatile. Sometimes an original plan may not work out, but this is no reason to abandon a dream. Berger used at least three main methods to try and define the transformation of energy from cortical to psychic. His study of changes in blood flow was difficult and highly inaccurate, but divergence from one’s intended course of action can produce unexpected blessings. The importance of monitoring peripheral blood flow when studying cortical blood flow would later teach Berger to monitor cardiac and muscular electrical impulses when studying cortical signals. Although the blood flow study earned him invaluable insight, it did not get him directly closer to discovering how energy is transformed in the brain. He then tried using changes in the release of thermal energy, which earned him a wealth of knowledge including an estimate of the energy available to the brain. He was still not able to apply this conclusively to quantify psychic energy however, and needed to turn once again to his most important method: creating an EEG. Attempts to use an Edelman string galvanometer did not facilitate the distinction of electrical impulses in his canine subjects. When he tried using the galvanometer on human subjects, the instrument was neither sensitive nor hardy enough to produce useful results at first. Later in 1925, a primitive, indistinct human EEG was finally produced using a better version of the galvanometer. At one point, to observe the results, Berger even reversed the electrical technique and instead of observing natural electrical impulses, applied external electricity to the cortex. Even though the other two methods did not get him the end result he desired, he still gained invaluable knowledge from the unsuccessful methods. His versatility was rewarded and he celebrated by writing: “Is it possible that I might fulfill the plan I have cherished for over 20 years and even still, to create a kind of brain mirror: the Elektrenkephalogramm!”

Berger is Joseph’s wretched counterpart. Instead of being celebrated and honoured by society for his work, Berger was met with hostility and ridicule. Raphael Ginzberg, who worked with Berger, comments as follows in 1949: “There can be no doubt but that Berger was the sole creator of electroencephalography. He let nobody into the secret of his investigation. What he achieved, he achieved by his individual effort.” The EEG is humankind’s greatest scientific achievement not only because of its unparalleled importance as a neurological diagnostic tool. The greatness of the technology comes from the admirable herculean effort applied by Hans Berger to deny the mockery of his community and his insecurity in order to bring the technology to life. Only eleven days after his sixty-eighth birthday in 1941, Berger committed suicide. After dedicating his life to thankless and often disapproved work, his innovation was considered fraudulent and foolish. He never saw the positive impact of his drudgery. So while solitary trailblazing can have fateful consequences, the measure of greatness is the ability to lead alone.

Chinook Scholarship Essay

Lisa Brock

March 15, 2015

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