Measure of the Head

Neuroanthropology has alerted me to these wonderful ‘brain maps‘ from a 1912 book on phrenology that attempted to map how the bumps on the head related to the ‘higher faculties’.

Phrenology as a science was doomed owing to the simple fact that bumps on the head can’t be reliably linked to any ‘faculties’, but it did prompt scientists of the mind to start thinking that brain areas might be related to specific functions.

The opposing school of thought was that the brain was homogeneous, and that there was no specialisation of function for particular areas. This theory was most fully formed by Karl Lashley’s idea of mass action which was published in 1950.

Now we know that certain brain areas are specialised for certain functions, but the debate focuses on to what extent areas are specialised, how many specialisations there are, and as part of what network.

Unfortunately, many media stories love the “x is the brain area for y” angle, which is a vast oversimplification and ignores the wonderful complexity of our most mysterious of organs.

UPDATE: Thanks to Neuroanthropology and Neurophilosophy who mailed to say I’d got my knickers in a twist. The link is to a Neuroanthropology post (now fixed), although apparently Neurophilosophy wrote about the same thing last year. Normal service will be resumed shortly – presumably after my brain kicks back into gear.

Link to images from phrenology book.
Link to Neuroantrhpology commentary.

One Comment

  1. Posted September 23, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I always had a soft spot in my heart for phrenologists. A few years ago at an American Psychological Association conference, one of the display booths had an antique “automatic head reader” that basically measures your head and printed out a personality readout based on the head configuration. I can’t vouch for it’s accuracy but it’s at least as valid as some projective tests I could name.


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