Wednesday, November 09, 2005

“Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds” by Brian Burrell
Broadway Books. $24.95. 368 pages.

Maybe it’s a question of mindlessness over gray matter, but from ancient times to the Renaissance some wrong-headed theories about the human brain abounded, leading to some cavalier and gruesomely inventive practices. Giving more primacy to the heart (and giving a different and more literal meaning to the term “brain drain”), Egyptian embalmers would scramble the brains, draw them out through the nostrils with a hooked needle, and discard them. And early anatomists concluded that the intricate folds of the brain existed only for the manufacture of phlegm, which the brain squeezed out through the sinuses, and for producing tears, which it squeezed out through the eyes.

As primitive science was giving way to the Age of Enlightenment, even the renowned philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, in his Rube Goldberg-esque conception of the human body and nervous system, faltered as an anatomist. He thinks, therefore he is, maybe, but more mundanely he is also someone mired in the limits of 17th century scientific ways and technical means--putting Descartes before the horse sense and logic called for.

However, as chronicled in Brian Burrell’s captivating, richly insightful and accessible history of the study of the human brain, “Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds,” the case for Cartesian dualism--the theory that mind has a separate existence from the brain--makes for a good jumping off point for further investigation (and, thankfully, for ensuing fun that has nothing to do with upper-case Meaning or Cartesian this or that). An ambitious discussion proceeds, therefore, concerning what, if any, physical distinctions lie in the fissures, ridges and lobes of the brains of the brilliant, the aberrant, and insane--addressing such gripping questions as what makes one person a genius, another a “born” criminal. Is it all in the head?

It’s an all-embracing exploration of philosophy, fun, and fact--one that includes not only the ideas of a quixotic truth-seekers who took the crucial first step of explaining in mechanical terms not just the body, but the brain itself. The story also, in a revisionist twist, considers phrenology, the discredited practice of determining character and intelligence by feeling bumps on the skull, as ultimately a benefit to science in laying down “the fundamental premise of modern neuroscience--the concept of cortical localization.” In addition, “Postcards” delves into the scholarly autopsy societies, who were intent on collecting the brains and skulls of the dead by means fair and foully Frankenstein-ian. And moreover, it dares to ask--and answer--if brain size matters.

Along the way some darker issues arise when various researchers cross a line between science and obsession, and wayward misinterpretations of brain studies are used to justify eugenics and racism. And, for good or bad, there emerges a who’s who procession of artists and intellectuals as they have come to their wit’s end--their brains measured, weighed and dissected: how Lord Byron’s massive brain figures in his stature as the “poster boy for romantic genius” (Byron’s circumstances also provides a good opportunity to look into the lore of grave robbing and the science of brain preservation); the butterfingered bungling of Walt Whitman’s noggin; the posthumous nit-picking of Vladimir Lenin’s brain, the picked nits of which were opportunistically hoarded by the examining doctor to gain funding for other work. Finally, the rollicking saga of Albert Einstein’s brain, at one time tossed into the trunk of a Buick Skylark for a cross-country road trip, not only would have made a good buddy movie (“Dude, where’s my Cortex?”), but also provided the most unexpected and remarkable findings.

As new technologies have changed the course of neuroscience, the judicious Burrell considers that the course may be more a slippery slope negotiated via one-step-forward, two-step-back momentum. Especially with the great irony that scientific materialism, the very movement that freed science from the restraints of religion, has “erected in its place a religion of its own, a religion in which intellectual giants like Einstein . . . took the place of saints, a religion in which autopsies took the place of last rites, in which brains became sacred relics, in which brain studies served up hagiography.”

Whether overstated or astute, it still remains to be seen if what goes around comes around with such cultural force. But considering that ultimately there is no significant anatomic basis for judging the superiority of one brain over another, there will be no paradigmatic leaps and bounds to be found in this macabre but mesmerizing history lesson, regardless of the scientific projections. Only in the sense that, as Burrell puts it, “any healthy brain has a potential that is essentially infinite” might the “Improbable Search” turn up far-reaching possibilities.


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