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Sherrington, Sir Charles Scott

The Oxford Companion to the Mind
Georges ThinèsGeorges Thinès

Sherrington, Sir Charles Scott 


British physiologist, born in London and educated at Ipswich grammar school and at Cambridge; he qualified at St Thomas' Hospital in London in 1885. As a physiologist he anticipated Pavlov in attempting to uncover the structure of the nervous system by looking at input and output. Moreover, his discoveries stand up better than Pavlov's because he worked mainly on a comparatively simple aspect of the nervous system, spinal reflexes, whereas Pavlov was attempting to investigate the workings of the brain using the same techniques. This work on nervous integration and brain functions resulted in a neuroanatomical theory of behaviour that prefigures ethological models and, unexpected as it may seem, converges with some basic teachings of phenomenological psychology. Yet his originality is not limited to his masterwork The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (1906; 2nd edn. 1948); it is equally patent in his two late works, Man on his Nature (1940; 2nd edn. 1952) and The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (1946), which deal with man's place in the world as a living being endowed with consciousness and reflective power, and involve fundamental issues in the fields of philosophy of science, ethics, and theory of values. To complete the picture, one should remember the great physiologist's interest in the humanities and literature, as evidenced, among other things, by his publication in 1925 of The Assaying of Brabantius, and Other Verse.

Sherrington's career was exceptionally brilliant. He was Brown Professor of physiology, London (1891), Fellow of the Royal Society (1893), Holt Professor of physiology, Liverpool (1895), and in 1913 he became Waynflete Professor of physiology at Oxford, a post he held until 1935. In 1932 he shared the Nobel Prize for medicine with E. D. Adrian. His physiological investigations, which began with the study of nerve degeneration in the decerebrate dog (1884), developed into a manifold and steady production covering a great diversity of topics, ranging from anatomy to perceptual processes. However, the guideline in the vast majority of his works is analysis of the functional properties of the nervous system. Important discoveries within this framework are the reciprocal innervation of antagonistic muscles, decerebrate rigidity, and the basic features of peripheral reflexes. In addition to The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, he produced Mammalian Physiology (1919; rev. edn. 1929), Reflex Activity in the Spinal Cord (1932), and some 300 specialized articles. He opened an era of experimental research and theory by clarifying the functional relations between reflexes and behaviour patterns. This is one of the major objectives, if not the major one, of neurophysiology, comparative physiology, physiological psychology, and, most recently, neuroethology. It is therefore necessary to ask where exactly Sherrington's originality lies.

First, his experimental studies of reflexes on decerebrate animals allowed him to discover both the complexity of spinal reflexes and the control effected on them by superior (or ‘higher’) brain centres. This he could achieve by decerebrating the animal at the mesencephalic level, a technique which proved most appropriate and led him to clear evidence of integrative processes. Secondly, he was able to establish a now classical distinction between different categories of receptors—interoceptors, exteroceptors, and proprioceptors—according to the sites where they gather information as required by the organic processes actually in course. For the connections between neurons, the term synapses was introduced by Sherrington and Michael Foster in 1897.

These and other important contributions to the systematic and accurate knowlege of the anatomo-physiological structures and functions of the nervous system amounted progressively to a general interpretation of the organism's activity which is present on every page of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System and is fully developed in the last two chapters of that work. Sherrington succeeds in explaining the emerging properties of behaviour patterns by referring to the continuity that exists between anatomo-physiological substrates and overt behaviour, thus doing away at the outset with classical dualistic views. Moreover, the question of internal causation of behaviour is viewed not in the form of extrinsic mechanical links between acts and supposedly corresponding internal organic events: it is systematically related, rather, to the structural constraints of the body as a spatio-temporal system within the process of evolution.

In brief, physicochemical changes inside the body and bodily changes at the behavioural level occur within subsystems included in overall organic activity. Continuity therefore implies integrative action, for causal factors to be at work between one level and the other in order to ensure survival. This comprehensive philosophy of the organism is exceptionally well outlined in the penultimate chapter of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. After discussing the main features of the reflex arc, Sherrington goes on to describe the central nervous system as a synaptic network. He then turns to the analysis of receptive fields, contrasting the richness of the exteroceptive field with the relative poverty of the interoceptive one. This is apparently due to the fact that receptors of a special kind, the distance receptors, initially appeared in relation to locomotion requirements, and are located for this reason in the leading segment of an animal. The distinctive functional advantage of the distance receptors lies in their unique power of dissociating the stimulus from its physical source, thereby enabling the organism to develop around itself peculiar space–time relations in perceptual activity. This may be observed in various degrees in vision, hearing, and smell, as well as in some less widespread mechanical and thermal receptors. The distance receptors are said to be ‘precurrent’—i.e. they can gather information about the animal's surroundings without requiring a direct physical contact between the source of a stimulus and the body surface. This important feature is not to be found in the proximal receptors, namely those of touch and taste.

The high survival value of precurrent responses is evident, since it allows for explorative appreciation of, for example, potential prey and predators. If food could be detected only by taste, or enemies only by mechanical contact, an organism would be unable to make any preparatory decision as to the positive or negative nature of any biologically important stimulus. In other words, the subjective spatio-temporal field would be practically non-existent and the autonomy of the animal would be drastically limited (as is the case, to some extent, in so-called ‘primitive’ living forms). Clearly, the product of evolution we call the ‘superior’ animal is that type of organism which has evolved towards an increasing explorative autonomy, due to the potentialities of the distance receptors and the corresponding development of a highly complicated brain capable of integrating a great diversity of sensory information. Considering the time sequences of behaviour patterns, anticipatory responses, which allow for an extension of subjective space and consequently for an increase in reaction time and duration of response, have the fundamental function of preparing the responses of the immediate receptors, i.e. the reactions triggered by proximal stimuli in contact with the body.

Sherrington's account of these active relations established by the organism with its surroundings converges to a great extent with later ethological teaching, a fact which is still hardly recognized in ethological circles. The expression ‘consummatory reaction’ appears in The Integrative Action of the Nervous System twelve years before Wallace Craig introduced the term ‘consummatory act’, to which ethologists refer as the first formulation of the concept. The main difference is that Sherrington's outline of the role of anatomical structures in exteroceptive communication emerged from his neurophysiological experiments, whereas the corresponding topic was developed in ethology on the basis of naturalistic descriptions of behaviour patterns in the social life of animals within the framework of phylogenic studies.

Finally, there exists a definite affinity between Sherrington's analysis of the precurrent receptive fields and the phenomenological descriptions of bodily subjectivity. Phenomenological themes, such as the lived experience of bodiliness in the active constitution of a meaningful world, or even descriptive studies of animal subjectivity referring to the perception of bodily limits in the actualization of observable behaviour patterns, may conveniently be set against Sherrington's theory of the biological significance of the body's ‘interface’ as meeting point of exteroceptive and interoceptive experiences. His interpretation of the subjective field as a result of his experimental studies on reflex activity also laid the foundations of a physiologically inspired psychology which is in many interesting respects at variance with the Pavlovian model. In Sherrington's view, behaviour must be considered as that sector of overall biological activity which is initiated by the precurrent receptors and which ceases to exert itself as soon as the subsequent activity of non-precurrent receptors comes into play. Concerning feeding behaviour, for instance, he writes: ‘The morsel vanishes from an experience at the moment when our choice in regard to it becomes inoperative. The psyche does not persist into conditions which would render it ineffective.’ In Pavlov's view, on the contrary, behavioural processes are conceived as events resulting from stimuli which impinge on the organism without any previous activity in the behavioural field. Whatever the case may be, the careful reader of Sherrington's writings will readily be convinced of the founding character of his contribution to the biology of behaviour.

(Published 1987)

Georges Thinès


Straus, E. (1935). Vom Sinn der Sinne. (Eng. trans. J. Needleman (1963), The Primary World of Senses: A Vindication of Sensory Experience.)Find this resource:

Thinès, G. (1977). Phenomenology and the Science of Behaviour.Find this resource: