The triune brain in antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Erasistratus

Christopher U.M. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Tripartite neuropsychologies have featured through two and half millennia of Western thought. They received a modern airing in Paul MacLean's well-known text The Triune Brain. This paper examines the origin of these triune psychophysiologies. It is argued that the first such psychophysiology was developed in the fifth century BCE in the Republic and its Pythagorean sequel, the Timaeus. Aristotle, Plato's pupil and colleague, developed a somewhat similar theory, though this time based on his exhaustive biological researches. Finally, a generation later, Herophilus and Erasistratus at the Alexandrian Museum put together a more anatomically informed tripartite theory that, somewhat modified by Galen in the second century AD, remained the prevailing orthodoxy for nearly fifteen hundred years until it was overturned by the great figures of the Renaissance. Nonetheless, as already mentioned, the notion that human neuropsychology is somehow best thought of as having a tripartite structure has remained remarkably resilient and has reappeared time and again in modern and early modern times. This paper investigates its origins and suggests that it is perhaps now time to move on.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of the History of the Neurosciences
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2010


  • tripartite neuropsychologies
  • Plato
  • Timaeus
  • Aristotle
  • Herophilus
  • Erasistratus
  • psuch2
  • pneuma


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