Hans Berger has a real brainstorm

Hans Berger, inventor of electroencephalography, wanted to investigate the mysteries of the stars but ended up revealing some of the secrets of the human brain.

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Hans Berger was unfazed by lack of recognition. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A recent article about Berger, born on 21 May 1873 in Neuses, in southern Germany, describes how in 1892 he’d enrolled in the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena as a mathematics student, hoping to become an astronomer.

The article, published in the journal Child’s Nervous System by Turkish researcher Rumeysa Ince and others, says Berger left school after just one semester and joined the army, where he served in the cavalry.

It was during a training exercise that he was thrown from his horse, fell into the path of an onrushing wagon, and was nearly killed. At that moment his sister, many kilometres away, sensing that he’d been in jeopardy, sent him an urgent telegram expressing concern about his wellbeing; it was the first time his family had contacted him since he’d joined the army.

A 2014 website posting from Spanish research company Neuroelectrics says Berger became “obsessed” by the incident, “which he interpreted as a mental connection between him and his sister”.

It says that years later he would write in his diary, “It was a case of spontaneous telepathy in which at a time of mortal danger I transmitted my thoughts”.

After he completed his military service, Berger returned to the University of Jena, but now he studied medicine, with the goal of establishing a career in psychiatry and neurology.

In 1897 he received his degree as a Doctor of Medicine and began working at the school’s clinic in the department of psychiatry and neurology. He became head of the clinic in 1919, and remained at the university until he retired in 1938.

A 2003 article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry by New Zealand neurologist LF Haas says that in his early work “Berger had hoped to discover the physiological basis of psychic phenomena”, but was disappointed by the results. He turned instead turned to “investigating electrical activity of the brain”.

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EEG registration by Berger from 1928, a year before his first publication about EEG.

Rumeysa Ince says Berger recorded his first EEG on 6 July 1924, “on a 17-year-old boy during a neurosurgery performed by neurosurgeon Nikolai Guleke”.

An article on the Psychology Wiki says Berger inserted silver wires under the patient’s scalp, one at the front of the head and one at the back. Later he used silver foil electrodes attached to the head by a rubber bandage.

“As a recording device he first used the Lippmann capillary electrometer, but results were disappointing. He then switched to the string galvanometer and later to a double-coil Siemens recording galvanometer, which allowed him to record electrical voltages as small as one-ten-thousandth of a volt. The resulting output, up to three seconds in duration, was then photographed by an assistant.”

Haas says Berger “characterised the wave patterns, including alpha and beta waves, and coined the term ‘electroencephalogram”, or EEG.

Berger “described or touched upon a large number of normal and abnormal EEG phenomena, for example EEG changes associated with attention and mental effort, and alterations in the EEG associated with cerebral injury”.

Unrelated to EEG, Haas says, in 1920 “Berger also described intellectual changes after prefrontal cortex injuries, and in 1923 his was one of the first good descriptions of perseveration after damage to the frontal lobes”. 

Renowned American-born British neurophysiologist and robotician William Grey Walter, in his 1963 book The Living Brain, says Berger “was not regarded by his associates as in the front rank of German psychiatrists, having rather the reputation of being a crank”.

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Plaque at the University of Jena. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“He seemed to me to be a modest and dignified person,” Walter says, “full of good humour, and as unperturbed by lack of recognition as he was later by the fame it eventually brought upon him. But he had one fatal weakness: he was completely ignorant of the technical and physical basis of his method. He knew nothing about mechanics or electricity.”

In a 2015 article in the American Journal of EEG Technology, Canadian researcher Pierre Gloor says that despite Berger’s eventual fame as the inventor of electroencephalography, “few have actually read his papers and thus have any accurate knowledge” of his contributions and motives.

Gloor says all of Bergers papers are written “in a difficult and involved German”, making them challenging to read, and contemporaries “looked upon him as an amateur, a hobbyist”.

“What a different story unfolds, though, when one takes the trouble to read Berger’s original papers,” Gloor says.

Disturbed by the rise of National Socialism and the outbreak of World War II, Berger committed suicide by hanging himself on 1 June 1941.

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