I went to check out the Wellcome Collection‘s Brains: the mind as matter exhibit recently. It was pretty gory; lots of brain bits on display, heavily augmented with videos of archaic and painful-looking procedures and tools for skull cutting and trepannation – generally the history of getting mental with the physical home of the mind.
Looking at the “over 150 artefacts including real brains, artworks, manuscripts, artefacts, videos and photography,” in the collection was great. But what was noticeably absent was my favourite discredited brain science discipline: phrenology.
Phrenology, if you don’t know or remember, was the study of the brain by looking at head shape. Like palm reading is for hands, so phrenology is for the head. It was where people first started thinking about how the brain worked, and where thoughts and personality live. It is also the name of The Roots fifth album.
The Brains exhibit at Wellcome doesn’t mention this gentler, macro-level examination of brains. It just gets straight into the scraping, slicing and zapping. Not that scrapping, slicing and zapping haven’t contributed to our understanding of how the mind works – for surely they have. But phrenology just touched parts of the head, and assigned labels to parts of them (“Here’s where the dog training thoughts live!”, or “Concerns about sports scores are located here.” to cite two examples). How pleasingly simple and tidy that approach is.
At the Wellcome Exhibit they have shavings and slivers of head guts scattered throughout, including a piece of Albert Einstein’s grey matter, as if it might contain some key to his towering intellect. Basically, all we’ve done since phrenology was discredited way back when, is go from feeling the brain inside its headcase, to cutting the skull open and poking around inside with a series of increasingly complex and specialised tools. We’re just looking for the person in smaller bits of brain.
But the principles first explored by the brain pioneers (that parts of the brain are responsible for parts of the person), are alive and well, even if unacknowledged. Phrenology was a combination of head massage and pseudo-science, which to me sounds relaxing and charmingly misguided; it surely deserves more than the snub it’s received.
I’d really like to get my hands on the heads of those curators and find out what they were thinking.