The museum of criminal brains

Today’s Nature has a fascinating one page article on the Turin anatomy museums that have the archives of the controversial founder of criminal psychology, Cesare Lombroso, who thought that deviant behaviour was imprinted in the face and brain from birth.

Lombroso had the theory that criminals were biologically defective, and that these defects – and hence criminality – could be found by measuring the body. This practice of interpreting someone’s character from their physical features is known as physiognomy and was in full swing before Lombroso started his studies but he was the first to apply it to criminology.

Unfortunately for the physiognomists, it’s impossible to reliably judge a person’s character from their physical appearance (although subtle statistical differences can be found when comparing the average of many people – such as with an iris patterning and personality study we reported on last year).

During his studies, however, Lombroso made a huge collection of brains, skulls, death masks, life masks, photos, measurements and even tattoos to try and prove his theory.

His other unshakeable theory held, ironically, that genius and madness were two sides of the same degenerate coin. In 1897, at the height of his fame, Lombroso travelled to Leo Tolstoy‘s village in Russia to gather living proof of the theory ‚Äî but the undisputed genius disappointed him by lacking the physical characteristics that Lombroso associated with madness. In turn, Tolstoy dismissed his visitor as “ingenuous and limited”, and later described Lombroso’s theories as a “misery of thought, of concept and of sensibility” (see Nature 409, 983; 2001). The great French novelist √âmile Zola levelled that Lombroso gathered proof selectively: “like all men with preconceived theses.”

The irrepressible Lombroso also had plenty of opponents back home in Turin ‚Äî most notably the neuroanatomist Carlo Giacomini, head of the University of Turin’s anatomy museum. In the 1880s, Giacomini had developed a ‘dry’ method for preserving brains based on mummification, which he put to lavish use. At least 950 of the resulting specimens are displayed in the Museum of Human Anatomy of the University of Turin, which reopened last year after renovation, having been closed for more than a century. Giacomini was a thorough, systematic scientist interested in individual variability in the gross anatomy of the brain. His analysis of the crevices, or sulci, of human brains suggested that there is sufficient variability among normal people to negate Lombroso’s theory that the size and shape of a brain dictate character. Typically, Lombroso ignored the data.

And, if I’m not mistaken, this page has a picture of Lombroso’s face, preserved in a jar. Can’t be sure though, as it’s in Italian, however, it does have loads of fascinating photos of the archive.

The article also notes that the another nearby museum has the collection of Luigi Rolando, a proto-neuropsychologist who attempted to related nervous system structure both to its biological function and partly to mind and behaviour.

One of the major landmarks in the brain is the central sulcus, which has the alternate name of ‘the Rolandic fissure’ or the ‘fissure of Rolando’ in his honour. Rather peculiarly, the Nature article uses a jarring mix of old and new and names it the ‘Rolando sulcus’ which seems to be virtually non-existent in the literature.

The only reference to this term in PubMed is from an obviously awkwardly translated French study which appeared earlier this year.

Anyway, a fascinating article and they look like some wonderful museums to visit if ever you’re in the beautiful Italian town of Turin.

Link to article.
Link to DOI entry.
Link to page in Italian with loads of photos.
Link to website for Cesare Lombroso Criminal Anthropology Museum.
Link to website of Luigi Rolando Human Anatomy Museum.

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