July 6, 2012 6:30 pm

Think outside the brain box

Phrenology and neuroscience both reflect our tendency to overvalue that mass of grey matter in our skulls
Illustration of the brain©Bridgeman Art Library

A 19th-century phrenological print illustrating the brain

In the early 19th century, there arose a new science of the brain, which for a few decades seemed likely to solve some of the biggest problems of existence. It was based on the (apparently) soundest of materialist principles: for who could deny Franz Josef Gall’s first doctrinal axiom that “the brain is the organ of the mind”? From there, surely, it was not too great a step to have hopes of “ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the Configuration of their Heads” (as Gall put it in the subtitle of his magnum opus)?

This new science was named phrenology, and learned phrenological societies sprang up all over Europe and America. In Britain the leading one was the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh, which attracted many of the leading intellectual lights of the day. By the 1840s there were more than 28 phrenological societies in London, with more than 1,000 members. Among the writers and intellectuals attracted to this new science were the novelists Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, and, rather later, the doctor and author Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Phrenology achieved perhaps its high point of celebrity when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited the Scottish phrenologist George Combe to read the heads of their children, and appointed a phrenologist as tutor to Prince Alfred.

Nowadays phrenology’s name is mud. Its scientific claims have been comprehensively trashed. But much worse, it lent its dubious methods to those arguing for the supremacy of Europeans over other races, and to other abuses with appalling consequences: phrenology was used by Belgian colonial authorities in the 1930s to “prove” the superiority of the tall Tutsis over the wirier Hutus. The hatred stoked by that unscientific nonsense led indirectly to the genocide of 1994.

Why am I recalling the strange history of phrenology? Is it in some sense a cautionary tale? The deceptively mild-mannered Oxford philosopher and Wittgenstein scholar Peter Hacker certainly thinks so, and was telling me so as we shared a taxi from Hereford train station to the excellent HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival in Hay-on-Wye. We had got on to the subject of the excessive and dubious claims of neuroscience, and its current prominence in popular culture.

This has long been a bee in my bonnet, something buzzing around that I haven’t had the confidence to let out and examine properly (and possibly give a firm swat to, though I wouldn’t want to cause harm to a bee). Much of this buzzing emanates from the worlds of publishing and the media. David Eagleman’s Sum, for example was given a spurious aura of authority by the announcement that its author was a neuroscientist, or possibly an ex-neuroscientist; Sum, a series of elegant little essays on the afterlife, had nothing whatever to do with neuroscience.

The BBC is a particular offender; I cannot turn on the radio without hearing some excited pundit exclaiming about “our brains” doing this and that and how neuroscience is transforming our view of ourselves. Hacker’s riposte is elegant: “in the current neuroscientist’s view it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations.”

A brain cannot think any more than a brain can commit a crime or play a piano concerto or paint a picture. Perhaps this is rather obvious in the last two cases at least: however much brainwork may be required to play a piano concerto or paint a picture, the playing or painting is done by the hands and is a matter of touch.

Of course there are differences between phrenology and neuroscience; neuroscience is certainly advancing our knowledge of some, even if only a tiny fraction, of the ways in which the brain “works”. This, as even the combative neuroscientist and debunker of neuroscience Raymond Tallis acknowledges, is of particular value in helping to understand the impacts of brain damage. But phrenology and neuroscience may be remarkably similar when they make the unwarranted assumption that understanding how the brain works, or seeing how bits of it light up, will help us understand what makes us tick, or even who we are.

Both seem to me to reflect the overvaluing of the brain by a species that prides itself on the great size and development of that organ. Having made a sort of mechanical brain in the form of the computer, we now talk about ourselves as if we were computers (using the imagery of hard-wiring, and so on). Maybe we would do better to remember the wise words of Descartes, who said (in the Discourse on Method) that the soul is not merely in the body like a pilot in his ship, but is “joined more closely to the body”. The whole body, that is, not just that mass of grey matter encased in our skulls.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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