This is an intriguing book on the Chautauqua Book List which discusses the studies that were carried on with regard to the anatomy of the brain and its possible clues as to the intelligence, criminality or insanity of its owner. The first inkling of clues to the brain was the subject of phrenology which was popular in the middle of the 19th century and which believed that the shape of the skull and the bulges that existed there could determine the character of the person being examined. This practice was proven to be quackery to some extent and was followed up with the dissection and study of the lobes, folds and fissures of the sliced brain.
Scientists have sought for over a century to affirm the differences in brain structure between men and women, blacks and whites, the normal and the insane, and the intelligent and the mentally challenged. The American Association of Anatomists and other prestigious scientific associations were allowed to examine the posthumous brains of the likes of Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), Vladimir Lenin, Albert Einstein as well as a succession of criminals who had died in prison.
Hundreds of these specimens are extant in universities and laboratories throughout the world, many of which can be viewed and researched by medical students and other interested parties. Theories abound as to the meaning of a brain’s size, weight, fissures, traumatic scars and other configurations. For many years, a large brain was supposedly a sign of high intelligence. This has since been proven false. Sadly, researchers routinely begin their investigations by assuming the conclusion they wish for and then try to find the data to back up their suppositions.
Interestingly, Albert Einstein’s brain weighed 1,230 grams which is far less than the average adult male brain which is 1,400 grams. It was discovered that the groove in Einstein’s brain known as the sulcus, which normally runs from the front of the brain to the back, did not extend all the way in the case of Einstein. Scientists theorized that the partially missing groove may have allowed more neurons in this area to establish connections and work together more easily.
Care must be taken, however, not to form conclusions drawn from one study since conflicting conclusions can always be drawn in further studies. A true scientist will chase down possibilities in order to rule them out. They make every effort to disprove their theories before announcing them to the world. The English philosopher Francis Bacon is quoted here with regard to the correct manner of conducting laboratory studies. He stated “If a man will begin with certainties, he will end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he will end in certainties.”
The book is careful to state in its conclusion that it is impossible to tell from dissecting a brain the sex, race, intelligence or criminal bent of the specimen.
I learned a great deal from reading this offering of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. It is a topic that I would not ordinarily choose. If you are interested in learning more about the Chautauqua Book Club, click here.
Postcards from the Brain Museum by Brian Burrell