Michael Houstoun
Michael Houstoun - Archive

What I do, courtesy of Sir James Paget .

Janion LeQuesne passed on the following piece and says about it: “The item comes from ‘Memoirs and Letters of Sir James Paget’, edited by his son Stephen Paget, and published in 1901. Sir James was my great-great-Grandfather, he was a most remarkable man and the Paget gene is very strong. Among other things he was Surgeon Extra-ordinary to Queen Victoria, and Surgeon Ordinary to the Prince of Wales (I wonder what the difference was?!). I am very proud of my Paget inheritance.”

Sir James Paget writes:

‘To the scientific student there are new wonders everywhere. Let me tell the last I observed. Mademoiselle Janotha was so good as to play on the piano, at my request, one of the swiftest pieces of music known to her, a presto by Mendelssohn. The time it occupied was taken, and the number of notes was counted. She played 5,995 notes in four minutes and three seconds; rather more than twenty-four notes per second. We may, from this, estimate approximately the number of what we may call nervous vibrations transmitted during a given time to and from the brain. Each note required at least two voluntary movements of a finger, the bending down, and the raising up; and besides these there were a very large number of lateral movements to and fro of the fingers, as well as many and various movements of the wrists, elbows, shoulders and feet. It was not possible to count these, but I think I can be sure that they were not less than at the rate of one movement for each note, making, altogether, not less than three voluntary movements for each note, even if we allow for chords in which several notes were struck at the same instant. Certainly there were not less than seventy-two distinctive variations in the currents of nerve-force transmitted from the brain to the muscles in each second, and each of these variations was determined by a distinct effort of the will. And observe, for herein may seem a chief wonder, each of these movements was directed by the will to a certain place, with a certain force and a certain speed, at a certain time; and each touch was maintained for a certain length of time. Thus there were, as we may say, five distinct and designed qualities in each of the seventy-two movements in each second.

Moreover, each of these movements, determined by the will and exactly effected by transmission of nerve-force from the brain along nerve-fibres to the muscles - each of these movements was associated with consciousness of the very position of each finger, each hand, each arm, and each foot before it was moved and while moving it, and with consciousness of the sound of each note and of the force of each touch. Thus there were at least four conscious sensations for each of the twenty-four notes in each second; that is, there were at the rate of ninety-six transmissions of force from the ends of nerve-fibres, along their course to the brain, in each of the same seconds during which there were seventy-two transmissions going out from the brain along other nerve-fibres to the muscles. And then, add to all this, that during the time in each second of which the mind was conscious of at least ninety-six sensations and directed not less than seventy-two movements, it was also remembering each note to be played in its due time and place, and was exercised, with the judgement, in the comparison of the playing of this evening with those of time before, and with some of the sentiments which the music was intended to express. It was played from memory, but Mademoiselle Janotha assures me that she could have played it as swiftly at sight, though this would have added another to the four sensations associated with each note.

Surely, it is impossible to imagine what goes on in a brain thus occupied; I think it is most impossible, if that may be said, to one who has seen a brain and has carefully examined it. Really, it is inconceivable; and here I will end, for here is a lesson for the most serious thoughts. In facts such as these, science achieves the knowledge of the reality of things more wonderful than the imagination can conceive: it sustains the faith which holds that many things that are inconceivable are yet surely true.’


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