This World and the Mind of Man
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 16 Jan 1969, p. 124-137
Penfield, Dr. Wilder, Speaker
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Some observations about the mind of man. Some remarks about women first. A discussion of knowledge and wisdom and the spirit of man. Science and religion. The interaction of mind and brain. The need for us to see man and his world in clearer perspective. The Vanier Institute of the Family—l'Institut Vanier de la Famille: its founding and purpose. Some concluding remarks about discovering wisdom in human affairs.
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16 Jan 1969
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Full Text
JANUARY 16, 1969
This World and the Mind of Man
AN ADDRESS BY Dr. Wilder Penfield, O.M.
CHAIRMAN The President, Edward B. Jolliffe, Q.C.


As we all know, children in our schools are invariably told about the early explorers. And there are many exciting tales of their advances in the human story from the man who first circumnavigated the globe to those who recently circled the moon.

But there have been other explorers, other great voyages into the unknown, no less exciting, probably in the end more important. Among the great explorers is Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield. His life has been crowded with experience, adventure, inquiry and achievement. He studied under men like Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and Sir William Osler at Oxford. He has been a student of philosophy and literature, an athlete, a football coach, a scientist, a physician, a pioneer in neuro-surgery, and head of the famous neurological institute at Montreal. He was a casualty in the first World War, later a Colonel in the Army, a teacher, the author of many scientific works and even a novelist. With the Vanier Institute he has led a study of the evolution of the modern family and its needs. He was by birth a United States citizen, became a Canadian citizen by choice 35 years ago; he is a citizen of the world. His work has been recognized and honoured in so many countries that the list reads like a roll-call of the United Nations. I mention only one: he holds--and he is the only Canadian to hold--that very rare and perhaps most distinctive of all civilian awards: the Order of Merit.

He has often shown what must be described as extraordinary prescience about certain of the more significant issues of our time. I shall cite only three.

More than 15 years ago, when little thought was given by most of us to the use of more than one language, he told the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that if languages are learned in the right way, and particularly if they are learned at the right age, preferably before the age of ten, a second language and even a third language may be learned perfectly with little effort and without physiological confusion, and that this could lead to a richer and fuller life.

A decade ago, before early retirement and universal pensions gained general acceptance in Canada, he advocated a second and different career for men after 60; he attacked the fallacy that older men and women have nothing to contribute to society and he described the psychological malady of pseudo-senility or false senility which afflicts those who allow themselves to rust away instead of engaging in constructive and purposeful activity. He said: "Every year from birth to death has its purpose and should have its use."

And long before so many millions were spent on probing the depths below our seas and our land, and so many billions of dollars on exploring outer space, Dr. Penfield referred pointedly to that "knowing animal, homo sapiens, who knows so much about his world, so little about himself." Today he will talk to us about ourselves--we who know so much, and so little.



When Apollo 8 took its recent flight from earth to moon and back to earth, you and I joined the astronauts in spirit for fleeting but unforgettable moments an imaginary companionship, but real nonetheless. Thanks to the incredible perfection of that scientific project, we seemed to be looking out of the space-craft with a heavenly perspective. We saw the moon, the planets, the galaxies, and, strangest of all, as we moved away at a speed of nearly 25,000 miles an hour, the world. Our world was no more than a dwindling satellite. Returning after this faultless flight of half a million miles, some of us splashed down again, punctual to the Pacific Ocean rendezvous, and floated there with the astronauts, regaining an earthly perspective.

What the loyal members of Britain's Flat Earth Association may have thought of all this "nonsense" is not recorded. We laugh at this little band of stubborn-minded Englishmen. But most of us have something in common with them. In spite of Copernicus and Galileo, we still think, instinctively, that we stand at the very centre of the universe. And there are very good reasons for doing so, as I shall point out.

Last year, your President, Graham Gore, was good enough to invite me to one of your luncheons. "Speak to us," he wrote, "on a topic close to your heart or at any rate one of your own choice." His first surmise was correct. Since 1960, when I left behind me the investigation of the human brain with its surgery and turned to the art of writing, hoping to make of that a second career, many topics beyond the frontiers of medical concern have been "close" to my "heart".

This is not my first appearance before this venerable society. At the close of the war in 1944, I had started to write a historical novel during a short stay in Baghdad. It was a woman and an accident that started me on it, as I explained to the Empire Club when in 1954, the book was published, ten years later. They asked me to speak, I think, because President Arthur Inwood was curious. He must have surmised that another surgeon had gone off the rails! So he chose April 1st as the date and made it Ladies' Day so wives could see the fun.

The book had called for five years of occasional research and painful efforts to learn to write and five years of occasional writing and polishing of the second draft, but the work fascinated me. It was called "No Other Gods", a historical novel that had to do with Abraham, the founder of monotheism, and Sarah, before they appeared in the pages of the Bible.

After that, having discovered thus that historical fiction is a most effective method of presenting the truth about the distant past, I turned to Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine. As a man, he had almost been lost in the haze of time. And so, "The Torch', which was better done, followed four years later, just as I was turning away from medicine.

I propose to make some observations about the mind of man. This topic will bring us to the border line where scientist and layman must meet. Forgive me if I seem to make a circuitous approach to this topic.

You did disturb my equilibrium profoundly, Mr. President, when you made this "Ladies' Day". I am no psychoanalyst--not yet. But I suspect this explains the uneasy feeling of inferiority that has come upon me during the weeks of preparation for this address.

In the past four years, while involved in helping to launch the Vanier Institute of the Family, I have, sometimes, dared to criticize the "new woman" of the West. Perhaps I may now pay my tribute to women, both new and old. But first there is something I would like to quote. At the close of the three days of discussion at the Canadian Conference on the Family in 1964, a woman asked to speak from the floor:

"I think," she said, "families are fun. We have talked about the heartbreaks and the strains, and these are problems we all have to face, but let us keep all this in perspective. We learn from our families to be considerate of others; we learn tolerance; we learn unselfishness, and we have the pleasure and joy and fun of doing so."

There had been many thoughtful studies, and some scientific analyses, during the three days. But this brief observation, which the reporter caught and included in the Transactions, had in it the insights that would come only to a wife and mother. The speaker, we found out later, was Mrs. A. F. W. Plumptre. She is the new President of the Vanier Institute of the Family--a charming Toronto housewife, and a distinguished economist in the social field.

Man is important in his own way but there is no substitute for the vital role that woman must play in the successful home life of a nation. She holds, for us, the keys to happiness. She has the inborn gift of understanding--the understanding of so many things that cannot be catalogued nor converted into a science. Man has his essential job in the family too. But enough of that! My prologue grows too long.

Wisdom and the Mind of Man

There is a science of almost everything. Professor J. Tuzo Wilson of Toronto has made a science of the earth under our feet and its progressive change. He was one of those, at the Montebello Conference in 1963, who gave the creators of "Expo 67" the theme of their presentation. It was called "Terre des Hommes". The English rendering, "Man and His World", puts the emphasis where it should be placed, on the word "Man".

Helen Hogg, Professor of Astronomy in the University of Toronto, has pointed out that "astronomers at present cannot point to any other place in the whole universe which has conditions as favourable" as are to be found on this planet, parts of it, she says, "flowing with milk and honey".* This may suggest Ontario, not Labrador, certainly.


*Man and His World--Terre des Hommes. The Noranda Lectures Expo 67. University of Toronto Press, 1968.


Who would prefer the moon, where the temperature varies 500 degrees Fahrenheit during the swing from the two weeks of day to the two weeks of night. Who would fancy Mars where the air at the surface is as rare as our atmosphere 100,000 feet above the earth, or Venus at 600° Fahrenheit, or Mercury where the sun is ten times as hot as here and each day lasts a month, or great Jupiter where the enormous pull of gravity makes locomotion difficult, where all the water is frozen and the atmosphere is composed of noxious gases.

There is, so they say, only one universe. But it contains many solar systems like ours. Satellites, that could perhaps be like the earth, cluster about many of the stars one sees at night. They are not fixed, but seem to be going somewhere like our solar system. Some move outward, causing the universe to expand. If this is an "expanding universe", you and I might wonder: "Into what, does it expand?"

But no one can answer that, and we are left to muse. Is it the end of the infinitely large or, perhaps, the beginning of infinity? God knows!

It was indeed a surprise, at Christmas time, to hear one of those three admirable American astronauts, in outer space, read from the Bible the story of the creation--and fitting, too. What a story! and what an audience! The recent discoveries of geologists, biologists and astronomers show this story of the six-day creation to be the most important piece of historical fiction ever written and, if understood, amazingly accurate.

And the story of the Garden of Eden, which follows, presents the rules of family morality as they have been established over and over again by man and woman ever since civilization had its beginning in cave and tent and urban house. Included in that plot is the discovery (and it is a discovery that science could not have made) the discovery that there is a right and a wrong, a ban on murder, the meaning of loyalty and love and, finally, a vigorous statement of the lot of mankind: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken."

How else could the perceptive writers of the scriptures present their meaning to the ordinary people who lived in Ur of the Chaldees or wandered through the deserts and the pastures of Mesopotamia?

The brain of man was just as good an instrument then as it is today. That is clear enough. The mind of man was obviously capable of penetrating insight and reasonable inference. All they lacked was accumulated knowledge.

If these writers were inspired, then inspiration must still be possible. And many men believe that it is. Like discovery in science, I suspect that inspiration comes only to the prepared mind.

It is possible, even probable, that life on other cooling spheres has emerged there too, in the water and on the land. It is possible that they have days and nights like ours. Time, that is as long as our time, may well have elapsed. Thus, by means of survival of the fittest, evolution on those spheres may well have created beings much like us. No doubt, they could learn to talk with us and we with them if they could visit us or we them.

And if, on any of those planets in outer space, our cousins have emerged as a master race, one can predict something with relative certainty.

My prediction is that each has a brain. If they think and understand and decide and communicate, they must, it seems to me, have brains that are like our own. Whatever their style of beauty may be, and however they may walk and fly and swim and manipulate the things we use ten fingers for, they must have a brain that hums with neuronal activity.

This is what makes the conscious mind possible. But that is not to say that the brain of man creates the mind. A mind appears--and, as Aristotle expressed it 2,000 years ago, the mind is attached to the body. It goes about with man, you might say, although it seems to be without material substance. One may assume as well, of course, that other creatures, endowed with a brain, have minds too.

At times the mind seems to direct the brain and, through it, the body. Electrical activity within the cells and fibres of the brain certainly makes understanding and decision and communication possible. Science shows that, but nothing more than that. Without brain activity, there is no evidence of mind activity.

But, alas, we shall never meet our cousins. As Dr. Hogg points out, "the very nearest of these other eligible planets would be some light-years away and one light-year means approximately six million million miles." No, we are alone. We must think out our own destiny with no hope of otherworldly help or companionship. If we make a mess, it is the end--unless a new race is born.

It may be that the spirit, or mind, of man does indeed communicate with the spirit of God. But to pursue that statement would be to go beyond the intended limits of this talk in which I have allowed myself to wander through heaven and earth. As Georges Vanier remarked to me once, "We do not have to think alike when it comes to religion."

My intention, as far as religion is concerned, is to point out one thing only: Science does not contradict, nor does it throw any light on religion. Religion has to do with the things of the spirit. Science has to do with the brain, the body and the material universe.

The material elements and the basic laws of nature, we have reason to assume, are the same throughout the universe. But here on earth, there are fields of scientific exploration that are just as vast as those in the cosmology of outer space, for they embrace the infinitely small. In this sense, the brain too is vast and its secrets most important to man.

We have learned that there are in each living human cerebrum electrical currents passing in changing patterns along many millions of insulated wire-like fibres. This constitutes action in the brain and, as I have said, this brain-action makes awareness, reason, understanding and decision possible. These things constitute the activity of the mind. Thus we have come to the great frontier between mind and brain. This is a simplified statement and there is danger of over-simplification. But I shall not complicate or amplify it.

If it interests you, I might express the apparent interaction of mind and brain in another way.

Consider a child growing to manhood or womanhood: From the early months of life, something from within each individual seems to direct and focus attention at will, and sometimes with stubborn intent. This continues from time to time all through life. As long as attention is being focused, the brain is being conditioned. The mind, then, seems to select what the brain is to remember, record or use in later action. The mind conditions its own brain somewhat as a technician conditions a computer.

The actions, that of brain and that of mind, correspond in time and to some degree in content. And the one makes a record of the other. This can be demonstrated, from my own experience, as follows: When the brain of a conscious patient is exposed at operation under local anaesthesia, an electrode applied to certain areas of the cortex sometimes causes the stream of previous consciousness to flow again. It brings former conscious experience back, exactly as in some previous interval of time, except that the patient retains his present awareness as well.

He listens to complicated music or hears and sees his friends talking and laughing. This exact recall of previous experience throws light on one aspect of memory, but it does not explain the original conscious state.

The two activities of mind and brain, then, correspond in time. Science shows us that, but it can do no more. It has not explained the spirit of man. Not yet. Perhaps it never will.

Mind, and the word "spirit" that is used so often in places of worship, mean, I suppose, the same thing. I shall not, as I have said, discuss religion. But as my purpose is to consider human wisdom, we must, at least, skirt religion. I might say, then--it is my impression that there are at least as many who believe in God, and make some personal use of the belief, among the men of science as among non-scientists--in proportion to their relative number, of course.

There is urgent need for us to see man and his world in clearer perspective. Instead there is on earth a vast confusion of thought. The complete fundamentalists of yesterday are mostly dead. But many believe sincerely that science threatens belief in God and the possibility of continuing inspiration. They feel that to alter their own understanding of myth and story will lead to loss of moral code and family loyalty and all the accumulated wisdom of the Bible and other conclusions of the past, written and unwritten. These people stand fast but they are confused.

Others are angry that the conservatives cannot face the facts of science. Angry ones see no angels in outer space, they learn that Darwin was right. They think that there is no God, the Bible is absurd, man has no spirit, only a brain mechanism which amounts to a portable computer. This computer was programmed before he came into the world, programmed in what men call a "genetic code". They adopt the faith of the materialists. Materialists believe blindly in science. They repeat, as though it were proven, the statement that the material and the mechanical explain all things. But all the while, the mind of the materialist goes unexplained.

An honest scientist realizes that some understanding of material structure has come to man, along with comprehension of the forces that operate through that structure. This earth of ours is not the physical centre, as man supposed once upon a time. But in a certain sense, it is the centre of the universe. It is the "place of understanding".

Like the astronauts, you and I might turn back 3,000 years. We might read, with profit, the thoughts of other men who wondered as we do:

"Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they fine it.

Iron is taken out of the earth, and brass is molten out of the stone . . .

But where shall wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding?"

These questions, asked by the writer of Job, must be answered now. The time is short. Wisdom, I fear, is not to be found in science. No planned experiment will point the way for us. Wisdom does not change. Like inspiration and discovery, wisdom comes to the prepared mind. But she must be wooed and waited for.

She is as old as creation, and yet it is to man that she would speak:

"I wisdom dwell with prudence . . .

When there were no depths, I was brought forth;

When he prepared the heavens, I was there: . . . rejoicing always before him . . .

Rejoicing in the habitable parts of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men . . .

For who so findeth me findeth life . . .

Wisdom bath builded her house, she bath hewn out her seven pillars."*

Man, seen in long perspective, is the master of life and of understanding on this remarkable planet. His creation may have required a very long period, but his civilization is of short duration and there is, in it today, a frightening crescendo of change. The tribes of men have become mighty nations. Some of them watch each other in fear and distrust. Their leaders hold the poised weapons of ultimate human destruction. Thus, man is faced by man, while the fate of the human race is in the balance. Let "wisdom cry and understanding put forth her voice!"

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------*From Proverbs, 8 and 9.


Vanier Institute

Any thoughtful, thorough-going effort to help man control civilization must be given high priority in public affairs. There is such a project in the making at present in Canada. It will strengthen "the moral fibre of the nation". It is unique. It is not a religious project, being planned for men and women of all faiths and for those of none. It is not another welfare effort. The well-to-do need what it can give as much as the destitute.

In June 1964, General Georges P. Vanier opened the Canadian Conference on the Family and spoke to the delegates.

"The future is in our hands," he said. "It is up to us to direct the course of civilization . . . . The amazing development of economics and material civilization has brought a crisis upon the family. It is time for men with serious responsibilities in society to take stock together of the problem facing us."

He and Madame Vanier had known a deepening, concern for the people of Canada during the four years that followed his appointment as Governor-General. Consequently, with the help of a group of citizens who learned to share his concern, he had called this Conference, hoping to draw from many minds the whispering of wisdom that would point the way to wise action.

He was a man of clear vision and deep conviction, our Governor-General. He spoke as only a great leader can, with the thrilling assurance of inspiration. Although deeply religious, he was completely open-minded. His gay sense of humour made him a good friend and an excellent companion--withal a simple man despite his brilliant and heroic life's achievement.

A year after the Conference an institution, planned for research as well as action, was born--The Vanier Institute of the Family--l'Institut Vanier de la Famille.

After what seemed to us a long year of waiting, Prime Minister Lester Pearson pledged federal help to create the required endowment. This "reflects," he said, "the Government's concern that the aims of the Institute be realized the strengthening of family life in Canada as the basis on which our nation's moral strength and vitality depend."

The Institute, on its part, reserving its independence of action at all times, asked for the privilege of making an annual report to Parliament and thus, through Parliament, to the people of Canada. It asked also that the Prime Minister should nominate four members to the twenty-member Board of Directors.

General Vanier was pleased when the Institute was named for him. He had advised and befriended the founders and organizers. And yet, even up to his death in March of 1967, he never ventured an opinion as to how the Institute should carry out the job. Instead, he pointed only to the strategic approach, the unit that called for reinforcement the family of man.

"This is not," he said, "a nebulous ivory-tower endeavour . . . . I appeal urgently to Canadians everywhere to recognize the pressing necessity of strengthening the family structure."

The decision of the founders was to use the methods and the organization that have been so successful in the field of applied science and medicine. To establish, therefore, an institute for research and action. Like an institute in the field of preventive medicine, the Vanier Institute has entered the field of education. They have begun already to convey to the Canadian people information and recommendations that will help families to help themselves.

Education that is worth anything continues through adult life and many things are best learned at home from cradle to grave, including love, morals, self-discipline, culture, service to others. In the normal healthy home, there are things that all should learn and the Vanier Institute will promote all forms of education that make the society of man better, happier, safer.


In conclusion, the acceleration of change in human society is, in large part, the end result of scientific innovation which sometimes, but not always, deserves to be called advance. In the amazing expansion of our scientific knowledge, there has been no proven contradiction of spiritual values, no valid opposition between science, on the one hand, and the basic concepts of morality in human society and man's belief in the spirit of man or God, on the other.

To discover wisdom in human affairs, we must turn to the best elaborations of human thought. They come from the past and the present. Scientific method may be of great help. But in the end truth is to be found in the minds of men.

The materialist assertion that the brain and its mechanisms explain the mind is an unproven hypothesis. It is, if you like, a matter of faith like the assumptions of the Christian Church and the other religions.

The time has come when man must control the course of civilization on this earth. But the time is short, the need for action urgent. Human society cannot survive without the institution of the family. By bringing strength and wisdom to new families in the ever-changing context of modern society and by establishing an accepted code of common morality and teaching reasonable self-discipline and service to others, civilization can be controlled.

Thanks of the meeting were expressed by Dr. Murray G. Ross.

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This World and the Mind of Man

Some observations about the mind of man. Some remarks about women first. A discussion of knowledge and wisdom and the spirit of man. Science and religion. The interaction of mind and brain. The need for us to see man and his world in clearer perspective. The Vanier Institute of the Family—l'Institut Vanier de la Famille: its founding and purpose. Some concluding remarks about discovering wisdom in human affairs.