Phrenology was long ago discredited as pseudoscience, but its basic premise--that the key to people's personalities can be found by examining their brains--remains the subject of heated debate even now. In Postcards from the Brain Museum
, a globetrotting tour of brain collections from Turin, Italy, to Paris to Moscow, Brian Burrell explores the long history of scientists' attempts to explain the brain's function by examining its form. Since antiquity, scientists have attempted to explain intellectual and personality traits by prodding, poking, dissecting, and examining the structures of the brain. Almost invariably, their theories have been misguided, colored by prejudice, or just plain wrong. Lord Byron's enormous brain, which weighed in at a whopping 6 pounds, was used as fodder for theories relating brain size to genius until the relatively tiny brains of Walt Whitman and Albert Einstein led later scientists to abandon that notion. From Franz Josef Gall, who first theorized that bumps on the skull corresponded to functions of the brain itself, to Cesare Lombrosio, who believed that born criminals could be identified by their "animalistic" features, the scientists Burrell introduces in Postcards
are hindered by their preconceptions even as they lay the groundwork for modern neuroscience. Postcards
, an articulate, thoughtful, and often hilarious history of scientists' early efforts to study the human brain, cleverly demonstrates how far the science of brain anatomy has come--and how much we have left to learn. --Erica C. Barnett
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. When scientists first began probing the human mind, it was commonly believed that the brain itself could provide insight to an individual's mental capacities. Though fields like phrenology—analyzing the brain from the shape of the skull—have been discredited, Burrell (Damn the Torpedoes
) reminds us that modern neuroscience shares many of the same preoccupations, including the central notion that the brain contains markers for mental and physical conditions. His history is therefore less a chronicle of quackery than a sympathetic account of scientific innovators whose ideas didn't quite pan out. Anthropologist Cesare Lombroso's theories in the 19th century about the criminal brain, for example, have never been entirely abandoned, and Burrell considers why it was so appealing to many Europeans of the time. Though such proto-neurosurgeons dominate his tale, Burrell also focuses on some of the brilliant minds they studied. We all know Einstein's brain was saved, but how many Americans know that the KGB had a full-time guard on Lenin's dissected organ? Or that Walt Whitman donated his brain to science, only to have a clumsy researcher destroy it? Burrell cites works by Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould that have told parts of this history, and his engaging account earns a place next to these illustrious predecessors on any science reader's bookshelf.
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