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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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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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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.
In the course of these investigations, numerous collections of preserved brains were established, some of which still languish in various states of repair. Burrell describes several of these at length. The American Anthopometric Society's collection in Philadelphia briefly held Walt Whitman's brain, only to have it disappear unexamined. (It appears to have been shattered when dropped by a laboratory assistant.) A much different fate was in store for Vladimir Lenin's brain for which a special institute was established by the Soviet government. Sliced into a huge number of sections and initially subjected to examination by a leading specialist of the l920's, it failed to yield any characteristics to prove its possessor superior. Nor have renewed efforts by post-Soviet investigators been any more successful.
As well as the political, there have been racial and gender biases behind some of the analyses but they have met with the same failure. As Burrell concludes: "No one can look at a brain and tell what sort of person inhabited it (sic). Nor has anyone discovered a scientific basis for judging the superiority of one mind over another..." (306) Although he occasionally meanders into excessive biographical detail, the author has provided a well documented record of an exercise in futility.
There is a misprint at page 142: the jurist who named the first Italian penal code was the Minister Zanardelli, not Zandarelli.
The final chapter is unfortunately the less balanced of the book, as well as the more naïve. In fact, we cannot assume the conclusion that “all human brains look essentially alike” (p. 306). They are not. In particular at the level of functioning, brains look very different. It was a big mistake to think that human nature could be understood by studying the dead brain. But it would be an equally big mistake to think that the scientific study of the living brain will not bring to mankind astonishing results.
Notwithstanding the naiveté of its ending, it is a commendable book.
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.