Facing a Bumpy History

The much-maligned theory of phrenology gets a tip of the hat from modern neuroscience

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Gall's "so called organs," the Britannica declared, "were for the most part identified on slender grounds . . . made by an induction from very limited data." In some cases, the exponents of phrenology "have discovered coincidences of a surprising nature." But more often than not, such coincidences did not occur, and, the Britannica complained, when they did not, the phrenologists were apt to simply rationalize away the inconsistencies.

By the 20th century, phrenology had lost any shred of scientific authority, except among a few diehards. But the Britannica had included in its lengthy attack a perceptive prediction: "Based, like many other artificial philosophies, on an admixture of assumption and truth, certain parts will survive and become incorporated into scientific psychology, while the rest will in due course come to be relegated to the limbo of effete heresies."

And so it proved. Though phrenology fell into deserved disrepute, modern scientists note that in some ways it was remarkably prescient. As early as 1929, in his History of Experimental Psychology, Harvard psychologist Edwin G. Boring wrote that "it is almost correct to say that scientific psychology was born of phrenology, out of wedlock with science."

It had, after all, an understanding that physiological characteristics of the brain influence behavior and — conversely — that behavior can alter our very physiology. (Of course, today scientists look at changes in neurochemistry and synaptic connections rather than "brain organs," but the principle is the same.) Phrenologists also reckoned that the mind is not unitary but composed of independent faculties. Their ideas — in other guises — have since given birth to the field of cognitive psychology, which breaks down mental functions (such as reading) into separate faculties (letter recognition, sentence comprehension and so forth).

Perhaps most interesting is the idea that different mental functions are localized in the brain. One of the first scientists to provide evidence of this localization of function was a contemporary of the Fowlers. In 1861, Paul Broca, a French surgeon and anthropologist, showed that damage to a particular region of the brain — only about four square centimeters in size — can make a person unable to speak coherently, without affecting his or her comprehension of others' speech.

"The phrenologists were definitely on the right track in that regard," says Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis. "The problem is where they took it."

According to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, the phrenologists were, in many ways, "quite astounding" for their time. "However, they did not understand that even the areas we have identified — quite different from their 'organs' — are interdependent parts of larger 'brain systems.'" Damasio, who studies the effects of lesions in the brain, believes he has located an area in the prefrontal cortex that is part of a system crucial to controlling inappropriate behavior and considering the emotional repercussions of one's actions. One of the most dramatic cases he has studied provides a suggestive link between 19th-century phrenology and modern neuroscience.

It involves a New England railroad worker named Phineas Gage who, in 1848, suffered an amazing accident: an iron bar, more than an inch in diameter, was thrust by an explosion through his brain, entering his head under his cheekbone and exiting at the top of his skull. That he lived was astounding; even more remarkable, his reasoning and language were left entirely intact. What changed, however, was his temperament. Previously a responsible, gentle man, Gage was now argumentative, irresponsible and prone to cursing so vilely that women were warned not to remain in his presence.

Using Gage's actual skull as a guide, Damasio and his wife, Hanna, a fellow neuroscientist, recently created a 3-D computer image of Gage's injury. The bar's trajectory, they found, had damaged the same region of the brain as had been injured in patients of theirs who exhibited similar behavior.

Back in 1848, the diagnosis was only somewhat different. Along with all the doctors and journalists who came to observe him, Gage was visited by Nelson Sizer, a phrenology expert and associate of the Fowlers.


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