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Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds Hardcover – January 11, 2005


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Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; 1ST edition (January 11, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385501285
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385501286
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,116,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian Burrell's latest book - Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole - is a collaboration with Dr. Allan Ropper, in which the two authors describe their bizarre and poignant encounters with patients who are dealing with brain and nervous system disorders at a major teaching hospital. Burrell is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he has taught for 25 years. The author of six books, he has appeared on the Today Show with Katie Couric, Booknotes with Brian Lamb, and NPR's Morning Edition with Steve Inskeep. He is a product of the Lexington (MA) public school system, has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and UMass Amherst, and lives in Western Massachusetts. His research has taken him to brain collections around the world. His latest book resulted from two years spent shadowing Dr. Ropper at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.

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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Pierre R. Hart on March 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Nothing so intrigues the intellect as the contemplation of itself. Yet unlike the functional relationship between other organs and their products, that between mind and brain defies satisfactory definition. As Burrell's historical survey proves, that has not deterred countless investigators from attempting to explain mental ability in terms of physical structures.

Phrenology,which remained in vogue throughout the nineteenth century, was widely exploited by charlatans but, as the author points out, it established the basic tenet of modern neuroscience: the concept of cortical localization. Although the elaborate maps of the skull, "read" by touch, only hinted at the complexity of the sensorimotor cortex, they helped to refute the concept of the mind as a unified whole. With the development of techniques for the removal and preservation of whole brains, the scientists' attention began describing the gross anatomy of that structure. Laboring under the assumption that there was some correlation between quantitatively determined properties, such as weight, and intellectual capabilities, they published numerous studies of virtually no worth.

Of particular interest were their efforts to establish the physical basis of genius. Many distinguished intellectuals would donate their own brains for postmortem analysis. Only in those instances where the investigators were persuaded of their subjects' capabilities did the results sometimes confirm a correlation between the physical and the mental. Completely objective inquiries invariably showed no correlation.With the development of sophisticated cytological techniques, the focus shifted from gross structures the the cellular level but with no change in the results.
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Perhaps it is simply my tastes to want all the knowledge I can lay my hands on regarding the field of neurology and related disciplines. One reviewer was disappointed that this book went into too much detail about neurology's history. Frankly, this was WHY I loved the book: a convenient collection of the random odds and ends of its history, from Descartes onwards.

I don't think it was poorly written, but for someone who doesn't revel in the minutest of details, who perhaps isn't as interested in the nitty gritty background of the field, then, yes, I can see how this book wouldn't earn its five stars. For me, there are few other books I've enjoyed-- or referenced in conversation-- moreso than this book.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Paul Karlsberg on May 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is about "Phrenology" in the broadest concept of that word, that is, the attempts to localize certain

aspects of "mind" in various parts of the human brain. Originally, it was thought that certain functions of the

brain such as intellectual, or personality traits could be determined from simple observation and palpation of

bumps on the head, and this quickly became the territory of charlatans and pseudoscience. Gradually, however,

during the 19th century, neuroanatomists attempted to find correlations between those functions and the gross

and then the microscopic features of the brain. Throughout this time, various claims were made, e.g. that "minds

of geniuses" or "minds of criminals" could be found in certain distinct areas of the brain. Or that there was a

direct connection between genius and insanity. Some of the claims even went so far as to promote eugenics-

breeding of people of superior intelligence, or not allowing criminals or the insane to propagate. But all of these

claims could never be scientifically proved or validated. Often, non-scientific claims were voiced and

publicized by the popular press only to fade into obscurity. Even in the 20th century, using modern techniques

such as PET scans, careful microscopic examinations of brains of the famous and infamous were done, but

never could there be found any correlation between intellectual ability and brain anatomy. The book relates how

time after time scientific and non-scientific methods led to erroneous conclusions.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Ken Zirkel on May 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I generally appreciate a good general-interest book about science and the history of science. But while this book definitely has some interesting points to make, it does get bogged down quite a bit in the very specific minutiae of the hitory of brain study. This story would make an excellent magazine article, but I think it suffers in full-length book form, and ends up being a bit too long and even (in parts) dull for the general reader.
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